Analysis: Despite Amona panic, don't expect an election

Just because tensions are high as the coalition negotiates a contentious issue – the settlement bill - doesn’t mean it’s about to fall apart.

December 5, 2016 02:55

An Israeli soldier chooses a ballot from behind a voting booth at an army base near the southern city of Ofakim March 15. (photo credit: REUTERS)

“This feels like the weeks before the last election was called,” a Likud minister confided to two reporters in the Knesset cafeteria last Wednesday while the coalition was in a state of chaos, with Kulanu stopping a vote on the settlement bill and Bayit Yehudi blocking, well, everything else.

And the minister was right – it felt a lot like the collapse of the previous government, which didn’t last much longer than a year, partly because the parties kept preventing each other from passing laws.

Yesh Atid also felt this and submitted a bill to disperse the Knesset, which would bring an election – much like opposition parties did the last time around. The bill is scheduled to go to a vote this Wednesday. But don’t start making plans for an extra day off from work just yet – one never really knows what will happen in Israeli politics, and it seems the last thing thiscoalition wants is an early election.

The most recent polling didn’t motivate anyone to rock the boat.

The only parties standing to gain anything, according to the weekend’s Channel 2 poll, are Bayit Yehudi and Yisrael Beytenu, and not by enough to take a chance on an election.

Polling aside, neither of the parties at the center of the clash over the settlement bill stands to benefit from refusing to compromise to the point of breaking up the coalition.

Bayit Yehudi, led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, wants two things: To find a reasonable solution for the Amona outpost – preferably, but not necessarily, one that wouldn’t require its 40 families to move – and retroactively authorize nearly 4,000 other homes in the region that are in the same situation.

These solutions do not have to come in the form of the settlement bill, but the way Bennett sees it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit are not giving him viable options. So he has to make a big show of supporting Amona and a settlement bill. But that’s not to say his support isn’t genuine.

More than a year ago, long before this became the political hot topic, Bennett insisted that the coalition agreement include a policy that retroactively legalized settlement homes that, according to the High Court, had been illegally built on private Palestinian land (even if no Palestinian had actually made a claim to it). It’s just that earlier this year, he learned the hard way that if he wasn’t dramatic, Likud ministers would outflank him from the right.

Politically, Bennett can’t have that. So, starting in October, he and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a fellow member of Bayit Yehudi, moved from quiet, behind-the-scenes talks to open warfare. But now, with the party’s central committee and prominent religious-Zionist rabbis breathing down his neck with open letters to the party’s voters, there’s no way he can soften his message.

At the same time, an election can’t save Amona.

Elections are held at the earliest 90 days after they’re called, and the outpost is slated for demolition on December 25. So staying the course and pressing Netanyahu and Mandelblit for a solution to both this specific problem and the more general issue of retroactive legalization just makes more sense for Bayit Yehudi.

Plus, every right-wing politician fears the precedent of the early 1990s, as trauma still lingers from the break-up of Yitzhak Shamir’s government, Yitzhak Rabin’s election and the Oslo Accords.

That’s an oversimplification of history, of course, but it’s one reason that Bennett would have to be pretty desperate to get up and leave a Likud-led government.

As if the Bayit Yehudi chairman needed a reminder, Likud macher Arik Ziv tweeted a chart calling him and leaders of the Amona battle “the heroes of Oslo B.”

Then, coalition chairman David Bitan (Likud) retweeted it.

Bennett is playing a long game in hopes of inheriting Netanyahu’s mantle as leader of the Right, and that leaves him walking a tightrope. At the moment, he’s still at the middle of the rope and has three weeks until he makes it to the other side or falls off. He has seen success by sticking to his guns until the very last minute, leading the other side to blink first so he won’t have to compromise so much. It’s no surprise he’s using it again.

On the other side of the debate is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who, together with his Kulanu party, is standing up for the judiciary, which he says is being harmed by an article in the settlement bill that would overturn court rulings requiring the demolition of settlement homes to allow the government to pay Palestinian landowners.

But Kahlon also has a budget to pass. With the settlement bill, a weekly Netanyahu-related scandal and other distractions, the 2017-2018 budget hasn’t been getting much media attention.

(The opposition’s sluggishness in fighting it isn’t helping.) But there still has to be a vote by the end of the year unless the government requests a three-month extension. Otherwise, there will be an election.

The budget is Kahlon’s precious baby and, he hopes, his saving grace. Kulanu can’t survive an election before Kahlon’s economic reforms make some kind of impact. “We saved the High Court” is not going to win the party votes.

The Likud can go either way in the current dispute over the settlement bill. Many of its ministers want to save Amona from demolition and want the settlement bill to pass. They have said so publicly, but at most, Netanyahu will face some pressure, not a mutiny.

This was made clear by a Likud lawmaker strongly identified with settlements and the party’s right flank who, when asked about the human tragedy of Amona residents having to leave their homes, said with a wave of her hand: “If they’re not going to compromise, what can you expect from us?”

A different minister recently said that what the coalition considers negotiations, the media calls a crisis. After all, even in the most homogeneous of coalitions – like the current one – disagreements pop up, and they have to be worked out.

As the latest “crisis” unfolds, it would be a good idea to keep that in mind.

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