Knesset Wars

The Lapid-Bennett Alliance Is Breaking Down

Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett were once allies in the Israeli government. Now their respective parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, are at war in the Knesset.

Remember when Yair Lapid was an unstoppable political juggernaut, and Naftali Bennett was his BFF? Remember when their respective parties, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi, did surprisingly well at the polls, and quick as a wink they formed their own little mini-coalition? Remember? About three weeks after Israel’s January elections, Lapid and Bennett told everyone concerned that “the two parties will either enter the government together or retire to the opposition.” The fact that voters on all sides felt betrayed by the alliance mattered little; Lapid and Bennett forged ahead.Well, there’s trouble in paradise.

So, okay, the trouble’s been there for a while. Lapid’s tenure as Finance Minister hasn’t exactly been a rousing success, and by October, he and his party had lost the affections of about half their constituency. There’s a powerful internal dissonance between Yesh Atid’s stated support for a two-state solution (however ill-informed and poorly implemented that support may be) and Habayit Hayehudi’s unrelenting effort to expand West Bank settlement and unbending attitude toward the West Bank itself: “The land is ours,” Bennett told an audience at Bar Ilan University, before he’d even formed his brotherhood of convenience with Lapid. Or, as he said a few months later to a gathering of settlers:

This is our home. We are the tenants here, not occupiers. The story of establishing a Palestinian state within our country, that story is over…. The central problem is the failure of the Israeli leadership to simply state that the land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel.

But whatever: Lapid doesn’t admit weakness publicly, and he was never all that interested in talking about two-states anyway. What’s really getting in the way are issues that are fairly central to Yesh Atid’s actual political philosophy and central rallying cry: Universal military service (which is to say: getting the ultra-Orthodox into uniform) and breaking the chief rabbinate’s stranglehold on the private lives of Israeli Jews.

There’s the parties’ fundamental disagreement over marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples. Regarding the issue, a senior Habayit Hayehudi party figure told Haaretz this week that “with all our openness, we are still not Yesh Atid.” Or, in the words of another, “there’s no chance we’ll allow civil unions for gay couples.”

Furthermore, even though Yesh Atid thought it had Habayit Hayehudi’s support for a bill granting tax exemptions to same-sex parents equal to those enjoyed by their straight counterparts—no dice: “The Knesset vote… was postponed Wednesday after the religiously oriented Habayit Hayehudi party reneged on its agreement to support the proposal.”

Then there’s the matter of a universal (where “universal” = all Jewish Israeli men) military service. In contrast to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leaders, Naftali Bennett’s version of religious coercion is full-bore nationalistic, and by definition militaristic. He and his party want to see haredi men share “the burden,” as the Hebrew goes, but at the same time, Israel’s national-religious community doesn’t generally feel the same antipathy toward the haredi community that one often hears in non-religious circles, and which Lapid himself has expressed and campaigned on. The parties agree that new legislation is needed to compel military service among the ultra-Orthodox, and the Knesset is working on a bill, but whereas Yesh Atid would like to criminalize non-compliance, threatening those who refuse with jail time (in keeping with the laws that cover all other draftees), Habayit Hayehudi has nixed the idea.

Naftali Bennett in the Jerusalem Post:

It is simply something that extremists, who aren’t interested in any kind of process, can make use of, and furthermore it has no practical significance…. I don’t really understand this great desire to see criminal sanctions [imposed]…. Someone who is truly [studying Torah] day and night should continue to learn.

It all adds up to what Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid termed on Twitter the other day “a world war in the Knesset between Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid”—though what it might mean for the government is really anyone’s guess.

As much as neither party likes to talk about a possible two-state solution, Netanyahu’s need to hold his coalition together hangs much more on whatever he plans to do in negotiations with the Palestinians than it does on the financial needs of gay dads. The question of military service is a touchier issue—but is it touchy enough to break up the band? Who knows.

One thing is certain though: All the Israeli voters and political pundits who looked askance at the Lapid-Bennett partnership were right—and everyone who thought the two brash upstarts would fundamentally change Israeli politics was apparently very wrong.