Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably thought, back in December, that he was organizing the perfect Passover for himself – in which he could celebrate going from the slavery to freedom, or from running a combative coalition that was no longer able to get anything done to heading a manageable government of his “natural partners,” the Right and the haredim.
The election went better than Netanyahu could have expected. Over and over, including on Thursday, the prime minister and members of his party called for a government with their natural partners. They seemed to believe a Passover miracle was closer than ever: A new government before the “holiday of freedom.”
What the Likud seems to have forgotten is that it took 40 years in the wilderness before the Israelites reached the Promised Land – or in this case, 40 days until Netanyahu’s deadline to form a government.
Case in point: A leader of one of the parties expected to be in the coalition texted one of his senior advisers Wednesday night and told him he can go on vacation for Passover, because nothing will come of the early negotiations.
When coalition talks officially began Thursday morning, they looked like one of those brain teasers requiring you to fill in a seating chart for a dinner party – say, a Seder – at which each guest is picky about where and next to whom he or she will sit.
Of course, the key difference between forming a coalition and doing a brain teaser is that politics involves the art of compromise. Everyone is talking the talk now, releasing spin after spin into the air, but eventually some of them will have to give in. What remains to be seen is who will back down from their demands.
First of all, Netanyahu has to deal with pressure within his own party to not give away too many ministries and to leave some – preferably more than last time – to satisfy his MKs and his base, and make them feel they got what they deserved as a result of their clear victory. Beyond that, if the Likud doesn’t have a strong presence in the cabinet, it will be hard for it to push forward any of its own policies, as it saw in the outgoing government.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon wants the Finance Ministry, which Netanyahu promised him both before and after the election; and the “tools” to be effective, like the Knesset Finance Committee and the Construction Ministry.
But Netanyahu promised the Finance Committee to United Torah Judaism’s Moshe Gafni, along with the deputy health minister position to UTJ’s Ya’acov Litzman.
Kahlon called this “giving out the work tools necessary [to lower the cost of living and housing] politically, without any social logic,” and pointed out on Facebook Wednesday that no one officially negotiated with Kulanu.
After complaining about the lack of negotiations, Kulanu decided not to give the Likud the opportunity to do so – and boycotted the first day of talks Thursday, in response to the promise to Gafni.
Kahlon also wrote: “Before reading headlines, listen to what I say [with] my voice or to those authorized to [speak for me]. The rest is spin.”
He’s right, of course. To a great extent, whatever politicians say to the press before the government is formed – whether in their name or anonymously – is a negotiating tactic, and hardly worth the paper it’s written on.
However, Kahlon is not taking his own advice vis-à-vis Netanyahu, apparently pretending not to notice that the prime minister didn’t publicly say with his own voice which position Gafni, or anyone other than Kahlon, will get.
None of the parties seems to mind that Shas chairman Arye Deri is apparently on the fast track to returning to the Interior Ministry, though he was charged with accepting $150,000 in bribes last time he was there; or that the Movement for Quality Government in Israel has a petition with over 32,000 signatures stating Deri shouldn’t be a minister.
UTJ and Shas insist that one of them has to be responsible for the Religious Services Ministry, but Bayit Yehudi wants to hold on to it. The Likud floated an offer to take it as a compromise, but no one is biting, and Netanyahu’s negotiators see this as a likely sticking point.
Bayit Yehudi, however, has a different major point of contention: Party chairman Naftali Bennett wants a senior ministry. According to Bayit Yehudi, the party “donated organs” to the Likud, shrinking to two-thirds of its seats in the outgoing Knesset, so the Likud could grow to 30 seats.
As such, Bayit Yehudi feels Bennett deserves to be either defense or foreign minister, and the party deserves three ministries for its eight seats.
Plus, not only did Netanyahu repeatedly say ahead of the election that Bayit Yehudi would be a partner in his coalition, in his speech at the massive right-wing campaign rally in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square, he called the party a senior partner in any coalition regardless of how many seats they get.
Netanyahu repeated that message on Election Day, calling Bennett a senior partner in the nationalist government he plans to form.
Despite those promises, the Likud isn’t rushing to give Bennett what he wants. Instead, it seems to be pushing for Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman to continue as foreign minister, despite his campaign promise that he will be defense minister – about which he has been suspiciously silent in the past few days – and despite the fact that Yisrael Beytenu won two fewer Knesset seats than Bayit Yehudi.
At least no one is arguing about the likelihood that Sofa Landver of Yisrael Beytenu will stay on as immigration and absorption minister.
The longer Bennett waits by the phone for a solid offer from Netanyahu, the more it raises suspicions, and not just within Bayit Yehudi, that the prime minister may move away from his natural partners and try to form a unity government. Bennett wrote as much on Facebook Thursday morning, saying he will go to the opposition and that the Zionist Union will be in the coalition; and that just as Netanyahu flip-flopped on Palestinian statehood, he will change his mind on having a right-wing government.
Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog wrote on Facebook Thursday, in response to Bennett, that his party will be part of a fighting opposition to a right-wing government that will “destroy Israel’s interests,” but conspicuously wrote nothing of a unity government or whether he is negotiating with the Likud.
With Netanyahu apparently making promise after promise to every likely coalition partner but Bayit Yehudi, it seems the Likud is playing at one of two things: Either hanging Bennett out to dry until he gives up on his demands, or trying to leave open an option to bring the Zionist Union into the government.
The second option is something that the presidents of Israel and the US would prefer, but at least according to Netanyahu’s public statements, is not his ideal coalition. After all, he called this election to go back to his natural partners.
As Passover approaches, Netanyahu is far from solving the logic puzzle of where everyone will sit around his cabinet table. While he and his family celebrate freedom from Egyptian slavery, he will still be in the wilderness, trekking toward the promised land of the new, more stable government he was hoping for.