After last month’s election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would form the next government as soon as possible. The implication was that he wouldn’t even need to ask President Reuven Rivlin for a two-week extension – he’d get it done in a month, because getting the coalition partners of the past four years back in his government would be easy enough.
The parties would get more or less what they had before, the coalition agreements could be mostly copied from the ones signed in 2015, and then the government would be on its way. And the Knesset – instead of waiting a month after its inauguration – could get to work in earnest: to assign members to its committees and start passing laws.
Then, at the end of April, Netanyahu warned in a Likud faction meeting that the process was more difficult than he had anticipated, and he may need some more time.
Now it looks like a near certainty that when the first deadline approaches on Wednesday, Netanyahu will have to get Rivlin’s approval to drag things out until May 29, the absolute final deadline.
What Netanyahu may not have anticipated when he opened coalition talks is that two of the four weeks until his first deadline would be dead time, with apparently no real negotiations taking place. First there was Passover, during which none of the religious parties – three of his five potential coalition partners – wanted to talk.
And half of this week was always going to be out of the question for serious talks, because no politician would want to be seen focusing on his or her potential portfolio when the country is mourning its fallen soldiers on Remembrance Day or celebrating Independence Day. The cynical side of things could wait a couple of days – or at least the part that’s out in the open. But the break from coalition talks ended up encompassing almost the entire week, because of the latest Hamas and Islamic Jihad assault on civilians of the South.
Of course, that’s kind of a backward way of describing the situation. The delay in the possible formation of a government was far from the greatest tragedy of those hellish 36 hours. But if we’re looking purely at the political side of things, it complicated matters.
This week’s public agenda – rightly – had to shift away from pure politics to one of national security, of how to respond to the onslaught on over a million Israelis who had to run to bomb shelters again and again, as Gaza-based terrorists launched nearly 700 rockets at Israeli civilian centers.
Officially, when it came to coalition talks, all that did was delay a scheduled meeting between the Likud and Union of Right-Wing Parties negotiating teams by a day.
Unofficially, the wave of rockets showed some of the tensions simmering below the surface of the likely coalition.
IT WAS a reminder of the last time Hamas and Islamic Jihad set a record for most rockets shot at Israel in one day, about 450 in November, leading to then-defense minister Avigdor Liberman’s resignation. He has maintained that he called, in the security cabinet, for a much more robust response to the attacks, but that Netanyahu went with a more restrained plan.
The Yisrael Beytenu leader is often mocked for having promised to have Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh assassinated within 48 hours of his (Liberman’s) becoming defense minister. Imagine the derision if he joins the government now, after Netanyahu repeated the very policy over which Liberman resigned six months ago.
And yet, a political insider said that the situation was unlikely to impact Liberman’s decision, because the bigger issue for Yisrael Beytenu is still the matter of religion and state.
Backing that up, Liberman has kept quiet. He didn’t criticize Netanyahu or the IDF’s response publicly once.
That can’t be said for MK Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the National Union, one of the parties making up the URP. He was very openly critical of how the latest round of rockets ended, speaking up in media interviews on Monday.
And in Netanyahu’s own Likud Party, two likely ministers – Yuval Steinitz and Gideon Sa’ar – grumbled publicly.
Netanyahu has long seen Sa’ar as someone who is attempting to usurp his place at the top of the Likud, and the response from sources close to him came in kind, with Sa’ar vowing to continue voicing any criticism he may have.
Steinitz, however, is thought to be a close Netanyahu ally, and his call to invade Gaza when most Likud MKs kept quiet could have consequences when the time comes to give out portfolios to Likudniks.
In any case, Netanyahu has to negotiate with the other parties at this point, not his own. The Likud MKs expecting to be made ministers will come later.
The same big issues that plagued the negotiations from the start stand in the way of a snap agreement: First, there are the disagreements between Yisrael Beytenu and haredi parties Shas and UTJ over matters of religion and state. Likud sources say they have a compromise that could work, but neither side has indicated that there’s any progress.
Second is Smotrich’s insistence on becoming justice minister, whereas Netanyahu’s preferred candidate is Yariv Levin of the Likud. This is purely a matter of who gets a portfolio, since their positions when it comes to judicial activism are almost identical.
So now, we are likely to have to wait until the end of the month to find out how it all ends.•