Putting together the puzzle: Netanyahu and the art of coalition formation

Netanyahu and horse-trading, or the art of coalition formation.

WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: REUTERS)
WILL THEY laugh again in a few weeks? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When President Reuven Rivlin officially tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with forming a government last week, Netanyahu said he wanted to get started as soon as possible on building a coalition with the same partners he had for the past four years.
Of course, there was an unavoidable obstacle in the way of that goal: Passover. Only the nonreligious parties were willing to start this week – meaning Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu – so not much progress was made.
If you’ve ever done a logic puzzle involving building a seating chart, you can understand what Netanyahu is going through right now. This one can only sit in this seat, but won’t sit next to that one or the other, etc., and now Netanyahu has to find room for them all around one cabinet table.
Except that in those puzzles, the rules are solid and can’t be broken, while in coalition negotiations the bombastic demands we’ve been hearing for the past week-plus are really opening gambits. Only the parties making modest requests will get everything they want, while the others will have to prioritize.
The news about coalition talks over the next three weeks will be based almost entirely on insiders strategically leaking things to journalists, in an attempt to squeeze Netanyahu through the media. One could sleep until May 15 – the first deadline to form a coalition, if Netanyahu doesn’t request an extension – and not really miss much, because there is always a big gap between the talk and the final outcome.
But for those who are interested in seeing how Netanyahu solves this logic puzzle, here are some things to look out for:
• Rule of law. A leaked list of Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) MK Bezalel Smotrich’s demands made waves this week, especially those demands having to do with the judiciary. Smotrich wants to be justice minister, and for the coalition to pass laws enabling the Knesset to repass laws struck down by the Supreme Court and to grant MKs automatic immunity from prosecution. That would include Netanyahu, whom Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit recommended be indicted on three counts of fraud and breach of trust and one count of bribery, pending a final hearing, as well as Shas leader Arye Deri and Likud MK David Bitan, who face their own investigations on corruption counts.
Smotrich has a formidable challenger for the Justice portfolio – Likud minister and Netanyahu ally Yariv Levin. Netanyahu reportedly favors Levin not only because they’re close, but because it would put the Likud in control of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which is chaired by the justice minister. But there would likely be very little opposition to the policies Smotrich wants to enact, certainly not from Levin. And by appointing Smotrich, Netanyahu could publicly wash his hands of the immunity bill, saying that it’s a conflict of interest and thus passively let it happen.
Opposition to these demands relating to the judiciary could come from Kulanu, since it had blocked such moves several times in the past four years. A source close to party leader Moshe Kahlon denied that he made an oft-quoted statement during the election campaign that he will no longer stand up against what he perceived as the weakening of the rule of law.
But the same source also denied Kahlon ever made a just-as-often cited statement that he would quit the coalition if Netanyahu is indicted. And the source said that when it comes to these matters, Kulanu doesn’t need veto power in a coalition agreement, because the numbers in the coalition speak for themselves – it will be nearly impossible to get a majority in a vote without them. In other words, Kahlon isn’t really saying where he stands on this for now.
• Settlements. Another Smotrich demand is extending Israeli sovereignty over all Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, canceling the IDF’s Civil Administration over them, and reestablishing communities in northern Samaria that Israel evacuated in 2005. We don’t know what’s in US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, except for strong hints from his advisers that it doesn’t include a two-state solution. But it’s still hard to believe that Netanyahu would tie his own hands and agree to a coalition agreement that includes this clause right before the Trump plan is expected to be presented.
However, URP also seeks to increase settlement in the West Bank, as well as industry and jobs in the region, and there would be no opposition to that from any other coalition partners, most likely including Netanyahu.
• Religion and state. This may be the most difficult part of the puzzle for Netanyahu to solve. Yisrael Beytenu and haredi parties Shas and UTJ all feel empowered after this election. Yisrael Beytenu retained its parliamentary numbers, when it was written off by many as unlikely to last past the election, and the haredim’s combined forces equal 16 seats, with strong support for many of its demands from URP’s five mandates. And Yisrael Beytenu and the haredi parties have polar-opposite demands in the area of religion and state.
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman wants to be defense minister again and wants his proposal for haredi conscription to the IDF to remain unaltered; “not one comma” changed is his frequent refrain. Shas and UTJ – but especially UTJ – want anyone who seeks to study Torah full-time to be able to do so and not serve in the army, and URP supports this demand.
UTJ is also demanding that no public works – like construction of the Yehudit Bridge over the Ayalon expressway in central Tel Aviv – be done on Saturdays. The party also wants greater stipends for yeshiva students, and a plan to build housing for haredim.
Shas wants the Religious Services and Interior ministries, and is highly unlikely to allow for civil marriage or the liberalization of Orthodox conversion to Judaism, as Yisrael Beytenu seeks.
• The coalition key. Most coalitions have something known as the “key,” which is the proportion of portfolios to seats each party has. In Netanyahu’s preelection deal with Bayit Yehudi before it formed the Union of Right-Wing Parties, he promised the bloc two ministries. The party received five seats, which led some to believe the key will be one ministry for every 2.5 seats in the coalition. That would make it a 26-minister cabinet, which is large but not unheard of. However, URP is demanding more than two ministries; it wants one or maybe two smaller ministries, like Diaspora or Jerusalem Affairs, and it’s hard to imagine a key of four ministries for six seats would be possible.
Other parties also want more than one for every 2.5 seats, like UTJ, which reportedly asked for the equivalent of four portfolios. UTJ does not accept ministries for ideological reasons, but wants three deputy minister positions without any minister above them in Health, Welfare and Construction, as well as the powerful Knesset Finance Committee, plus deputy education minister, but with an education minister from a different party. Kulanu wants two ministries, with Kahlon remaining at the Finance Ministry. Between UTJ and Kulanu, that key would be a portfolio for every 2 seats, or 32-33 ministries.
Then there’s the possibility that there will be no real key at all. In the last government, the proportion was inconsistent from party to party. It may be that Netanyahu’s partners have different priorities and will give up on ministries for policy points.
• Where are all the women? Much has been made about this Knesset having fewer women than the last one. This is true, except that it does not have fewer women than were originally elected to the last Knesset; more women came along when men resigned for various reasons. But with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s New Right Party not making it over the electoral threshold, there are fewer women in the coalition who are viable candidates to be ministers. At this point, it seems that there will only be three: Miri Regev, Tzipi Hotovely and Gila Gamliel of the Likud. And there may end up being none in the security cabinet, though there has been talk of Regev becoming public security minister.
• Kulanu/Likud merger: Netanyahu worked to convince both Yisrael Beytenu and Kulanu to merge with the Likud, but talks to that effect have continued only with Kulanu. Yisrael Beytenu may have only one more seat than Kulanu’s four, but it feels like a victor, while Kulanu, which dropped from 10 in the last Knesset, feels defeated. Kahlon and Netanyahu will meet on Thursday for the first time since March, and negotiations will really start from there, but the former’s camp is not denying that a merger is on the table or that the finance minister is feeling somewhat deflated.
As for a report this week that Netanyahu plans to offer Kahlon the Foreign Ministry, a source close to him did not deny it, and even touted the long list of foreign counterparts with whom Kahlon has met over the past four years, emphasizing US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and economic talks with the Palestinian Authority.
• Likud infighting. Everyone in spots 3-19 on the Likud list plus MK David Bitan expects to be a minister, and most of them would be good choices in terms of their seriousness and experience. (Netanyahu is in the first spot, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, who wants to stay in his current job, is in second.) The chances that the Likud will actually have 18 portfolios for the prime minister to give out are slim to none. Netanyahu can move at least one of them out of the way by promising him or her the role of ambassador to the UN, replacing Danny Danon. But he will face serious fighting within his party that will end with disgruntled and possibly rebellious MKs. This happened four years ago, and most of the Likud ended up falling in line, though it took some time. And now the disappointed MKs will likely have less power than they did at the beginning of the last Knesset, when the coalition was only 61 seats.
Then again, there could be surprises. The only thing we know for sure at this point is that for the next three weeks – or five, if there’s an extension – Netanyahu and the Likud negotiating team will be poring over an extremely complicated logic puzzle.