Israel's Change Coalition is a Template to Fight Populism
The government isn't perfect, but it shows that those who disagree can still come together to rescue liberal democracy.
Israel’s last election, held almost exactly a year ago, in March 2021, was its fourth in two years. Like the three before, it was above all a referendum on Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, a position he had held since 2009. The result of that election was the dramatic end of his tenure, and the formation of a historically diverse coalition government: the so-called “Change Coalition.” Although a response to the particularities of Netanyahu’s Israel, this may well come to be seen as a blueprint for defeating populist incumbents, a model for opposition parties in other countries to follow.
The Change Coalition comprises eight different parties from all sides of the political spectrum. Meretz, Israel’s most unabashedly left-wing party, agreed to govern side by side with Yamina, whose name literally means “Go right.” Under the agreement, Yamina's Naftali Bennett, a former minister under Netanyahu, became prime minister in 2021. That role will rotate to the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, Yair Lapid, in 2023. No voter considered this a perfect government: It contains parties that leftists abhor as the perpetrators of a corrupting military occupation, and parties that rightists despise as naïve appeasers of terrorism.
But for all of us who understand the magnitude of what was at stake in this last election, it is the lesser evil by a considerable margin. Netanyahu’s Likud party, once proudly liberal, has moved in a decidedly illiberal direction, attacking liberal fundamentals such as freedom of expression and minority rights. Netanyahu himself had abandoned the decades-long boycott of explicitly racist parties by mainstream political leaders, engineering the entry into the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) of Otzma Yehudit, a Jewish supremacist party.
Had he succeeded in forming the hard-right coalition he sought, he would have passed an “override law,” allowing a bare majority of MKs (members of the Knesset) to vote to block the Supreme Court’s power of judicial review—effectively removing the only real check and balance on the abuse of executive power in the Israeli system. In the words of Amir Fuchs, a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, “We survived an attempt to change the regime; to crush the judicial system, the checks and balances, and the rule of law.”
One of the first to sound the alarm about this illiberal trend was Dan Meridor, a veteran center-right politician who began his career as the cabinet secretary of former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and who was subsequently a senior minister in multiple governments, including deputy prime minister to Netanyahu, from 2009 until 2013. Meridor has been consistently decrying the drift of Likud, his old party, away from liberal nationalism towards a distinctly illiberal and populist nationalism.
Meeting with me in his modest home in a leafy Jerusalem suburb, Meridor told me how he had watched the rule of law and respect for human rights being scorned by the Netanyahu governments of recent years, and he concurred that, had the last election gone differently, Israeli democracy would have deteriorated further. “Netanyahu used to be a defender of the judiciary,” Meridor noted, “but since he became the subject of a police investigation and then criminal indictment and corruption charges, he has done things which every morally responsible person should have protested. Attacking the legal system. Attacking the press.”
I also spoke to Yorai Lahav-Hertzano, a Member of Knesset for Yesh Atid, the centrist party representing much of Israel’s culturally liberal but hawkish middle-class, which has been the most consistent political adversary of Likud in recent years. Though, at just 33 years old, he may lack Meridor’s historical perspective, when we spoke Lavah-Hertzano seemed to appreciate the historic nature of this political moment in Israel—both the catastrophe averted, and the potential of what may lie ahead:
“Netanyahu’s continued rule and the steps he planned were intended to destroy the rule of law and established norms in the state of Israel, simply to rescue Netanyahu from his court case. This new government, the Change Coalition, embodies the notion that multiculturalism in Israeli society is a strength, and not a weakness or a political punching bag. The representation of Arab society at the national decision-making table is a correct step forward, and reflects the spirit of our Declaration of Independence.”
The presence in the coalition of Ra’am, an Islamic Arab party, is groundbreaking indeed. The line taken by all Arab parties until this year had been that, while they would attempt to serve their constituency’s interests as legislators, they would never join a government that they saw as occupying their land and oppressing their people—whether the occupation and oppression in question referred only to the West Bank and Gaza, or all of historic Palestine including today’s Israel, depended on the Knesset member. Ra’am’s leader, Mansour Abbas, made a conscious decision to abandon this de facto boycott of a “Zionist government” by Arab parties.
Meridor concurs with Lahav-Hertzano that this government’s extreme diversity is a benefit:
“The previous regime was built on the differences in society. This is how they gained power: by always being against ‘the other.’ With this new government, the fact that you see working together Jews and Arabs, left and right, religious and secular, is a very important step in the right direction—and in the opposite direction to where we were headed.”
Both men—the veteran politician who served in two Netanyahu-led governments, and the up-and-coming MK, who was in elementary school when Netanyahu first became prime minister in 1996—understand exactly why he needed replacing. More interestingly, both men see the Change Coalition’s unusual make-up as not just necessary, but positive.
Might this “Israeli model” be transferable to other countries, and specifically, to other political oppositions looking to depose populist leaders? Both Turkey and Hungary, knowingly or not, are already following Israel’s lead, with diverse parties uniting in an effort to defeat their leaders. They would do well to learn a couple of principal lessons from the architects of the Change Coalition.
Firstly: Choose “what works” over “what’s fair.” Israel’s prime minister in this post-Netanyahu world is not the leader of the largest party in the coalition. Not even close. Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina Party has just seven seats in the Knesset out of 120. By all the normal laws of Israeli electoral math, Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid, should now be prime minister.
Instead, Lapid agreed to a rotation with Bennett, whereby the Yamina leader would serve first as prime minister, and would be replaced by Yair Lapid halfway through the government’s term. Bennett’s position at the head of the government counts as a reward to right-wing voters who abandoned Netanyahu, putting the country before tribal loyalty.
Secondly: Embrace pragmatism, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So far, the key to the coalition’s success has been to follow a simple formula (in theory); in Lahav-Hertzano’s words: “to promote the things we agree about and to talk through the things we disagree about.” With the narrowest majority of just 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, there is little option but to govern by consensus. All the coalition parties need to be on board for a government bill to pass into law.
In Turkey and Hungary, of course, the challenge is considerably greater. Erdoğan and Orbán have been far more successful than Netanyahu ever was in dismantling the checks and balances on executive power. Parties who disagree on much can nevertheless unite over the patriotic mission of rescuing liberal democracy. Like Israel’s Change Coalition, they can place ideology to one side and pursue ruthless pragmatism and a no-frills agenda of good governance in the national interest.
In Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum writes that “there is no road map to a better society, no didactic ideology, no rule book. All we can do is choose our allies and our friends.” The Change Coalition is certainly a new phenomenon, in that sense: An unprecedented mix of parties and politicians, including the most fervent supporters, and the most unwavering opponents, of a Palestinian state. It’s no Israeli voter’s idea of a perfect government, and neither is it the long-term answer to key questions facing the country.
But it might just be the perfect government right now. In its diversity, it offers a model for a society that needs to reverse years of division and the focus on a few key agenda items may provide just the urgency required to “get things done.” This makes the Change Coalition a viable and exportable model for reversing the tide of illiberal populism.
Paul Gross, author of a blog for The Times of Israel, worked in public affairs at the Israeli Embassy to the United Kingdom before emigrating to Israel in 2007, where he writes and lectures on history and politics.