Politics: How long will it last?

A look at the new coalition's potential pitfalls and how Binyamin Netanyahu intends to survive them.

binyamin netanyahu 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg News)
binyamin netanyahu 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Soon-to-be former Kadima ministers began reacquainting themselves this week with the Knesset cafeteria, where they will be spending much of their time in the foreseeable future. Ministers who until recently were too busy to waste away hours on small talk over food of questionable quality came to the tables where political reporters hang out and asked them how long Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu could succeed in maintaining the government that he intends to present to the Knesset on Tuesday. The ministers apparently didn't trust the promise they received from Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who told them that Netanyahu's government would last no longer than a year. The soon-to-be opposition leader guaranteed them that it would fall over the 2010 state budget next March. A heavy load will rest on the shoulders of MK Ze'ev Elkin, who is expected to be appointed coalition chairman next week. Elkin is uniquely suited for that role in Netanyahu's coalition, because he is religious, an immigrant and a former Kadima MK, who knows how to exploit divides in what will be the main opposition party. Netanyahu achieved his goal of bringing Labor into his government, but many challenges still lie ahead for him in maintaining a coalition with five major fault lines on economic, diplomatic/political, religious and legal issues. The following is a guide to the potential pitfalls Netanyahu's coalition will face over the next couple of years, and steps he will take to avoid falling into them: Economic Key Date: March 31, 2011 Livni was right to conclude that the economic divides in Netanyahu's coalition are deeper than the diplomatic ones, despite everything that has been written this week about the ideological chasm between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and incoming foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman. But she was wrong about the significance of the 2010 state budget, for the simple reason that Netanyahu does not intend to pass a budget that year. He decided that for economic stability, Israel would start passing budgets only every two years. Netanyahu and Lieberman's capitalist ideology indeed does not mesh with the neo-Socialism of Labor's economic strongman, Ofer Eini, and Shas's populism. But Netanyahu was smart enough to begin a dialogue with Labor and Shas on economic issues before his government was built, to get a head start on resolving complex problems. Diplomatic Key Date: January 2010 Lieberman and Barak certainly make strange bedfellows in the inner cabinet together, not too long after Lieberman called Barak "the worst defense minister in Israel's history." But Lieberman's spokeswoman said he made the statement when pressing for military action to end missile-fire on the South, and he changed his mind following Operation Cast Lead. Netanyahu's associates downplay the diplomatic divides in his coalition, because without a Palestinian partner on the horizon, Likud, Israel Beiteinu and Labor don't differ much on what concessions can currently be made. Regarding the Gaza Strip, Netanyahu and Lieberman support toppling Hamas, and Barak is in favor of additional temporary-cease fires, but in general, Netanyahu's views are dovish for Likud and Barak's hawkish for Labor. But that could all change when the Palestinians hold their election, as expected, in January 2010. If a moderate Palestinian leader is elected, Labor will pressure for a deal that goes way beyond Netanyahu's vision of economic peace. Then again, if Hamas takes over the Palestinian Authority, the new security threat would undoubtedly contribute to political stability. Politics Key Date: April 10, 2010 Netanyahu is looking forward to working with Barak, but it is unclear how long he'll last. Barak's enemies have already started efforts to advance the Labor leadership race, which, according to the party's bylaws, must be held no later than 14 months after a party leader loses a general election. Already in April 2010, Barak could be replaced as Labor leader by Ophir Paz-Pines, the fiercest critic of the party's joining Netanyahu's government. But even with Barak, it is uncertain how long Netanyahu's honeymoon with Labor will last. "Netanyahu will quickly learn what Olmert did," Barak critic Ben Caspit wrote in Ma'ariv. "In three or four months, the bickering will get so bad that Bibi will prefer [Hadash MK] Dov Khenin as his defense minister and [Islamic Movement leader] Sheikh Ra'ad Salah as his deputy, but by then, it will be too late." Religion and State Key Date: October 2010 Likud's negotiators found themselves having to solve age-old conflicts over conversion and civil unions for couples seeking to be legally recognized without an Orthodox ceremony. The convenient solution was to form a committee and set a far-away deadline. Elkin mediated between Israel Beiteinu and Shas, who decided that a committee with representatives from every faction in the coalition would be formed within three months, and it would have to find a solution for non-Jews who want their unions with Jews recognized within 15 months after that, or else Israel Beiteinu would be given freedom to vote its conscience on the issue. United Torah Judaism rejected the deal and refused to join the committee. The government's survival could depend on haredi rabbis making compromises, which is never a good risk to take. Legal Key Date: Unknown If the legal establishment decides to bring down Netanyahu's government, it won't have to probe hard, as it did with Olmert. Lieberman's file is almost ready. If he gets indicted, his party's future is in doubt. Lieberman reportedly promised Netanyahu that, even in such a scenario, Israel Beiteinu would remain in the coalition. The Likud subtly incorporated into the coalition agreement that if Lieberman had to leave the Foreign Ministry, the portfolio wouldn't necessarily remain with his party. "This is a large coalition with a lot of potential for tension," a Likud negotiator said, summing up the problems. "There will be many rebels and disappointed people. We'll need to work hard and be flexible to keep it together, but we think we can succeed."