Politics: Coalition construction conundrums

Netanyahu and Lapid began fighting for the next election before the coalition started being formed.

Lapid Netanyahu at Knesset swear in 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Lapid Netanyahu at Knesset swear in 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Ask any contractor in Israel, and they will tell you that due to bureaucracy, the long process of building anything, anywhere in this country, is a massive headache.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who tried unsuccessfully to reform the building industry in his first term, is now experiencing firsthand how complicated it is to construct his next coalition.
The deadline for Netanyahu to build the coalition is next Friday. When – as expected – he does not succeed by then, he will go to President Shimon Peres, give him a progress report, and then receive an extension of no more than two weeks, concluding March 15.
Theoretically there are reasons that building a coalition this time should have been easier than it normally is. There was only one serious candidate for prime minister in the January 22 election, he was the reigning leader, he had formed two coalitions before, and his party won 12 more seats than any other.
Another factor that should have helped was the announced visit of US President Barack Obama, expected to begin just four days after the deadline to form the government. Obama’s upcoming visit added urgency and seriousness to the coalition-building process and legitimized Center-Left parties’ collaboration with Netanyahu.
During the election, it looked like the party that would be toughest to crack would be The Tzipi Livni Party, which ironically became the first to join the coalition this Tuesday. MK Amir Peretz jumped ship from Labor to Livni, ostensibly because he believed she was less likely to join a Netanyahu-led government than Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich.
In an interview at The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference in Herzliya on December 12, it took four questions for Livni to admit feebly that she was not ruling out becoming a minister under Netanyahu.
“I didn’t say I would not be there [in a Netanyahu-led government],” she said. “I promised the voters one thing: that I would never betray their trust, that I would make my decision based on mine and their values and mine and their vision for Israel. So never say never.”
The interview ran under the provocative headline “Livni as Netanyahu’s foreign minister?” – a notion that seemed far-fetched at the time. But now not only has Netanyahu broken a campaign promise and put Livni in charge of negotiations with the Palestinians, it is looking like while prospective foreign minister Avigdor Liberman deals with his indictment, much of the work of selling Israel to the world will be done out of Livni’s Justice Ministry.
When asked point-blank whether there was a chance she would be Netanyahu’s foreign minister, she said, “I truly hope the Israelis don’t buy what the government is selling: the idea of isolation as anti-Semitism and the delegitimization, Islamization and all these fears and threats that surround us.”
So why was it so easy for Netanyahu to reel in Livni? First of all, she lost the election. A Livni with just six MKs is apparently more submissive than a Livni with 27. Secondly Netanyahu showed her respect by making her his first partner, unlike last time, when he turned to Kadima after making deals with his natural political partners on the Right.
But the most serious reason Livni was so keen on joining Netanyahu is that he is truly sincere about promoting the only issue she cares about: advancing the diplomatic process with the Palestinians.
SO IF Livni was so easy, why is every other party playing hard to get? And why is building a coalition proving so complicated? There are several factors at hand, which together have proven a poisonous cocktail.
The conventional wisdom is that building a coalition became harder for Netanyahu when Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid uttered three innocent-sounding words that changed the entire dynamic in the Israeli political scene: “I guess so.”
Lapid said those words on January 28 when asked on Channel 2’s news magazine Uvda whether he believed he would win the next election. The headline the following day was “Lapid vows to be prime minister after the next election.”
Netanyahu suddenly had competition.
His suspicious personality made him much more careful. From that moment on, he made sure to not be too generous in coalition talks with Yesh Atid, because giving Lapid a boost could mean digging his own political grave.
But the task of building a coalition had actually already become harder than expected nine days earlier, when Netanyahu gave an interview to Channel 10’s political correspondent Nadav Perry.
Netanyahu, whose two terms in office have totaled seven years, recently passed Yitzhak Shamir as the second-longest-serving prime minister, after David Ben- Gurion. Perry asked him whether he intended to try and serve another six years to outlast the country’s first prime minister.
“I intend to be here for many more years,” Netanyahu said, revealing for the first time that he intended to run for a fourth term.
Until then, the prevailing assumption had been that this would be his last term in the Prime Minister’s Office. That meant that much like second-term presidents in the United States, he could afford to take action that would be unpopular, with only his legacy to worry about and not another election.
Had that been true, he could not only have taken steps in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians, but also have left the haredi parties out of the government and joined Yesh Atid in equalizing the burden of IDF service and making Jewish life in the country more moderate.
Once Netanyahu announced he was running again, it was clear he would need to maintain his alliance with the haredi parties, which would allow him to go to the president after an election knowing he had the votes of his traditional partners in hand when the president decided who should form a government. Due to their statements in the interviews, Netanyahu and Lapid had already begun fighting for the next election before the government started being formed.
THE JOB of building a coalition also became harder when Likud Beytenu won 31 seats, far below the 45 their American strategist Arthur Finkelstein predicted when Netanyahu and Liberman joined forces. From then on, Netanyahu was no longer the King of Israel that Time Magazine had declared him.
When Netanyahu showed repeated signs that he would leave Bayit Yehudi out of the coalition due to personal problems with party chairman Naftali Bennett – based on events that took place when the latter worked for him six years ago – Bayit Yehudi reached understandings with Yesh Atid that both parties would either join the coalition or stay out.
Together, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi have the same number of mandates as the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu. That leverage, combined with Labor’s refusal to join the government, prevents Netanyahu from building a coalition with more than 57 seats.
Lapid and Bennett are both newcomers to the Knesset and have not yet learned the art of political compromise. That would make reaching a deal with them harder even if they had not joined forces.
All those combined factors will make building a coalition in the three weeks Netanyahu has left a huge challenge. But the prime minister can be thankful to the people who made the rules of how the country’s political system works, because at least they set a deadline.
Belgium, which has no such deadline, took a record 353 days to form a government in June 2011.
So building a government – and a house – here is hard. But at least it is consoling to know that it is even harder to do it in Flemish.