Analysis: Can Netanyahu's coalition survive the peace process?

The peace process is likely to be the main focus of Netanyahu government in its 2nd year - and the only serious threat to its existence.

Kerry Netanyahu Livni370 (photo credit: Courtesy - GPO)
Kerry Netanyahu Livni370
(photo credit: Courtesy - GPO)
Much has been made about how Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not want the government that was sworn in a year ago today and would have preferred a coalition with the haredi parties.
It is true that Netanyahu was forced to form the coalition he did because of a smart political maneuver by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett that kept out Shas and United Torah Judaism.
But what has been forgotten is that the coalition Netanyahu formed appeared to reflect the will of the people, based on the results of the election two months earlier. The people voted to give newcomer Yesh Atid a surprising 19 seats and to quadruple Bayit Yehudi’s mandates to 12.
The people voted to have a government that would focus on the main issues of the campaign: socioeconomic gaps, matters of religion and state, and electoral reform. And for the first year of the coalition, the people got what they wanted.
What the people apparently did not vote for was a government that would deal with the diplomatic process with the Palestinians. The issue was barely raised during the campaign, and parties that obsessed over it on the Left and Right were punished, namely Hatnua – which won only six seats – on the Left, and the Strong Israel party on the Right, which did not pass the electoral threshold.
When Netanyahu formed a coalition that was far from cohesive on diplomatic issues, he was reflecting the skepticism of the people that the Palestinian front would be important in the years ahead, especially after US President Barack Obama failed to advance the peace process in his first term.
US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to change that dynamic by bringing the Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. If he finds a way to keep them at the table, the peace process will be the main focus of Netanyahu’s government in its second year – and the only serious threat to its existence.
The deep divisions in the coalition between Bayit Yehudi on the Right and Hatuna on the Left will come to the forefront, and Netanyahu could be forced to make decisions that could threaten his future inside the Likud.
So can Netanyahu’s government survive the diplomatic process? Good arguments can be made for both affirmative and negative answers.
Here are five reasons why the government will last:
1. The government is still relatively new.
Ministers do not hurry to give up cabinet seats. Bennett wants to use the three portfolios he holds to improve the lives of Israelis and prove that he can get important things done, not just speak well. Hatnua leader Tzipi Livni believes she needs to keep the Justice portfolio out of right-wing hands to protect the legal establishment.
2. There is no alternative coalition in the current Knesset.
The bond that Labor leader Isaac Herzog supposedly made
with Shas and UTJ probably would not pass the test of an offer from Netanyahu for the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties to join the next government and repeal the conscription bill. But what the bond did do is end any hope of either Labor or the haredim joining the current coalition. That makes keeping his current partners happy a higher priority for Netanyahu.
3. There is still no alternative to Netanyahu.
Herzog proved his leadership by bringing the 52 opposition MKs to an alternative Knesset session boycotting the plenum. But it would have been much more impressive had he found a way to unite the four parties on the Center-Left that split the vote in the last election. Lapid also can’t do that.
Until someone can do that (an acquitted Ehud Olmert perhaps?), Netanyahu will stay strong.
4. The Palestinian leaders will repeat history.
Historical precedent would indicate that the most likely outcome of any diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians is that the Palestinian leaders will fail to make the sacrifices necessary to reach an agreement. If Israel is clearly not to blame for the peace process not succeeding, why would Livni leave the coalition?
5. The referendum excuse.
A referendum is a tool of a political coward who is afraid to make decisions himself and does not want to risk losing his job in an election. If the people choose to support or oppose an American- brokered deal between Israel and the Palestinians, their representatives in the government have an excuse to stay. After all, the people will have had their say.
Here are five reasons why the government will fall apart in the coming year:
1. Gaps too wide.
The current coalition simply was not built to handle a serious process with the Palestinians. The gaps between Bayit Yehudi’s Orit Struck on the Right and Hatnua’s Amram Mitzna on the Left cannot be bridged. Eventually, someone will find out what Livni has already given up in the negotiations, and the government will fall overnight.
This could lead to an election in which the Palestinian issue will be a focus, and chances are the Knesset elected would be more right-wing.
2. Animosity already revealed.
A government built on an alliance between Lapid and Bennett cannot last much longer than that bond. If they are no longer friends and they now bicker on almost everything, the entire basis of the coalition will crumble. And what they have bickered on so far are issues in which they are not far apart.
Their differences on the peace process are insurmountable.
3. Licking wounds inside Likud.
A Likud spokeswoman revealed Monday that the next party convention has been delayed from next Sunday to a week later. That decision is significant because it means Netanyahu will face Likud hawks after a proposed Palestinian prisoner release is set to take place. If it does, the prime minister will be reminded that the hawks no longer see him as their leader, and he will feel very unwelcome. That could make Likud ministers and MKs act more independently and rebel.
4. Livni and her principles.
Livni has made clear over and over again that she has returned to politics and entered Netanyahu’s government for only one reason: reaching an agreement with the Palestinians. If that is not possible, she might not only quit the government, she might also quit politics again. It really won’t matter who is at fault for the diplomatic process not making progress. She has proven before that she will not stick around for the good of the MKs in her party. Once she goes, why would Lapid stay?
5. Obama is the judge.
Bill Clinton blamed the Palestinians for the failure of the Camp David summit. George W. Bush cooperated with the ousting of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat while boosting Israeli leaders Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.
But unfortunately for Netanyahu, neither Clinton nor Bush is president. Obama decides who is at fault if the diplomatic process fails, and he has given signs that he will blame Netanyahu, no matter who is really to blame. That verdict would force the justice minister to go. The crumbling of the coalition could follow.