It is assumed that toward the end of next week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will manage to form a new government. If he fails to do so, Israel will find itself in a constitutional situation that it has never experienced before, which can be resolved only if the president finds an alternative candidate who can form a government, or alternatively by means of new elections.
Under these circumstances, Netanyahu, who appears to be genuinely worried, is likely to do almost anything to form Israel’s 35th government, not so much because he is worried about Israel’s political, economic and social sturdiness, and its constitutional stability – all of which have seen better days – but because his political survival and personal freedom depend on it.
Why is Netanyahu having difficulty forming his fifth government, even though six parliamentary groups, representing 65 Knesset members (out of 120) recommended to the president that he form the government? The first reason is that the Likud’s “natural partners” are not necessarily each other’s natural partners, and their “ultimate” demands clash with each other. An example of this is the clash between the demands of the haredi parties and those of Yisrael Beytenu regarding the mobilization of haredi men to the IDF and the observance of Shabbat.
The second reason is they know that since Netanyahu views this government as his insurance policy against being indicted in the foreseeable future, he will be willing to pay a very high price – both in political and economic terms – to get them to join the coalition. This is enhanced by their knowledge that there is an undercurrent of discontent within the Likud itself with regard to letting Netanyahu extract himself from his legal predicaments by means of retroactive legislation that will affect the MK immunity law and the powers of the Supreme Court to restrain controversial Knesset decisions – and that consequently their support on these issues is invaluable to him.
BUT THE magician Netanyahu is expected to form a government by the end of next week, though what shape this government will take and what its basic guidelines will be are things that not only the opposition are awaiting with growing concern.
The first problem with the new government is the fact that it will include more than 30 ministers and deputy ministers, even though the ideal number of ministers has been repeatedly declared to be 18. The first cause for this inflation is that one of the bribes Netanyahu offered Bayit Yehudi and the National Union to agree to run in a single list with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit Party, was that they would receive two important ministries. By laying down the ratio of 5:2 between Knesset seats and ministerial posts, Netanyahu ensured at least 14 ministerial posts for his own party and another 12 for his coalition partners, not including deputy ministers.
The fact that one of the two ministries promised to the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URP) is reserved for MK Bezalel Smotrich – who in the previous Knesset was considered a minor curiosity, expressing extremely illiberal, anti-democratic positions, and hallucinatory messianic dreams in a soft-spoken manner – is another worrying prospect. No matter which ministerial post Smotrich receives – the Justice Ministry, which he craves, or the Internal Security Ministry, which Netanyahu is apparently willing to grant him, together with a seat in the security cabinet – the thought of this man holding any position in the government is concerning to many.
Next is the fact that besides Netanyahu himself, another two potential ministers – Arye Deri from Shas, and Haim Katz from the Likud – face indictments, while a third, Ya’acov Litzman from United Torah Judaism, faces unsavory allegations of misconduct. The attorney-general is believed to have informed Netanyahu that there is a problem regarding the reappointment of Deri as interior minister.
THIS CONNECTS to the shadow cast on Israel’s democratic system and the rule of law by Netanyahu’s known support for an amendment of the MK immunity law, and the addition of an override clause to the Israeli law books that will prevent the High Court of Justice from canceling controversial laws passed by the Knesset or administrative decisions on whatever pretexts.
These two pieces of legislation, which Netanyahu supports in his struggle against going to trial as long as he serves as prime minister, are but a small part of the major changes in the Israeli legal system that the Likud’s candidate for justice minister – Yariv Levin – and Smotrich are believed to be discussing, and which the opposition views as part of a major threat to the Israeli democratic system.
Actually, Netanyahu does not need to change the immunity law for his purposes, since under the existing law the Knesset House Committee can initiate a Knesset decision that an MK, who the attorney-general seeks to indict, shall enjoy procedural immunity. What this means is that Netanyahu, potential full or deputy ministers Deri, Katz and Litzman – and MK David Bitan, who is suspected of receiving bribes in several cases – might well go scot-free without trial, as long as they remain MKs. The override clause – if passed – will prevent the High Court from ruling against Knesset decisions to apply their immunity, based merely on the coalition’s majority in the Knesset.
The question now is whether the coalition agreements will include the issues of the immunity law and the overrule clause, even though a Netanyahu spokesman announced the other day that an amendment of the immunity law will not be included.
Another cause for concern around the formation of the new government regards the financial demands of potential coalition members. Since Ehud Olmert’s government of 2006-2009, the issue of “coalition funds” has grown to monstrous and scandalous proportions. In fact, there seems to be no justification for the agreement to such funding (=bribery), especially since most of the potential coalition partners have no alternative to a government led by Netanyahu, while at least theoretically Netanyahu could opt for a sane government with Blue and White.
What is worrying is not only the fact that coalition funds are simply taken for granted, but also the actual sums that are apparently being demanded. It has been reported that Moshe Kahlon from Kulanu, who is apparently the only candidate to serve as Finance Minister at the moment (even though the number of Kulanu’s Knesset seats has gone down from 10 to 4), is actually seriously thinking of refusing to continue to serve in the post, because given the enormous budgetary deficit that he himself is about to hand over to the new government, there is no way the Finance Ministry will be able to allocated the required coalition funds without raising taxes, and/or drastically cutting government spending.
It is difficult to be optimistic about the new government and what it is likely to bring upon us, but I shall nevertheless wish it: “Break a leg!”
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