The sight of thousands of secular, liberal, cosmopolitan Israelis descending on Rabin Square in Tel Aviv last week to celebrate the appointment of a religious, conservative nationalist as their new prime minister perfectly captures the peculiar state of Israeli politics today. One can only imagine the horror that would have swept over those demonstrators had Naftali Bennett been elected under any other circumstances. But such is the political mood in Israel as the new government takes the helm: Settlers mourn the election of the former head of the Yesha Council—the umbrella organization of Jewish settlements in the West Bank—as prime minister, while leftists rejoice as staunch opponents of peace and civil equality return to their erstwhile posts in top government ministries.
A single common cause inspires the eight-party coalition government—the most ideologically diverse in Israeli history—that was sworn in on June 13: to free Israel not only from the personal sway of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—popularly known in Israel by his nickname, Bibi—but also from the toll that his efforts to cling to power have taken on the country’s political norms, public institutions and social fabric.
Although the new government includes several right-wing politicians, including prominent former members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, many Israeli conservatives view it as a leftist conspiracy. One reason for this paranoia is that over the past few years, large swaths of the Israeli right have shed all ideological commitments, turning themselves into pure vehicles for Netanyahu’s will to power. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say that these “Bibists,” as they are colloquially called, believe that Israel was a desert backwater before Netanyahu miraculously turned it into a thriving modern superpower. It’s no wonder that they regard his removal from office as an act of madness and a threat to Israel’s existence. From their perspective, Bennett, Gideon Saar and other former Netanyahu allies in the new coalition are not guilty of treason because of what they might do in office, but simply because they deprive the nation of its greatest leader.