Coalition conundrums: Will Israel finally get a stable government?

Having learned his lesson from his last, short-lived, government, Benjamin Netanyahu is taking six steps to bring about political peace and quiet.

Rivlin grants Netanyahu 2 week extension to form coalition (photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL SPOKESPERSON OFFICE)
Rivlin grants Netanyahu 2 week extension to form coalition
Since 2003, whenever governments in Israel are formed, the coalition negotiations have taken place at Ramat Gan’s Kfar Hamaccabiah Hotel.
Delegations from the parties make statements to the press with great fanfare upon entering the negotiating room, and again when they depart.
Journalists would wait there for hours, hoping for headlines.
Sometimes, the real news was actually happening elsewhere. For instance in 2003, though coalition teams from the National Religious Party and Shinui came to Kfar Hamaccabiah, their leaders actually negotiated a deal at the home of Ehud Olmert, who had just left his job as Jerusalem mayor to return to national politics.
This time, there was no facade of facilitating the work of the press, and no apparent attempt to trick the media. Journalists were for the most part just ignored.
The talks took place at the Knesset, just down the hall from the reporters’ offices. But there was not much point in coming to the building.
When deals were reached, the reporters who waited around all day for the signing ceremonies were not even invited in. The event was recorded by the party spokespeople and sent out later.
The coalition negotiating teams did not say much to the media before or after negotiations.
The parties have defied precedent by not sending the coalition agreements to the press, and the elements that were leaked have been relatively dry.
The Likud negotiating team of MKs Yariv Levin and Ze’ev Elkin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyer David Shimron can be described as a geek squad, in the best sense of the term.
They are smart, hard-working, efficient, committed and unapologetically boring; Elkin even boasted about working on the coalition talks for as much as 22 hours a day.
They are not good at making headlines, which could be vexing to the press. But they could be successful in achieving what the public wants – which is stability.
The last government supplied plenty of headlines.
The infighting began before the government was even formed; there were alliances, betrayals and plenty of revenge.
But there was no stability, and consequently, the coalition broke down less than 21 months after it was formed.
Netanyahu’s team and the coalition partners are trying to learn from past mistakes and return the stability of the prime minister’s previous term, which lasted four years from 2009 to 2013.
They have taken several steps to achieve that vaunted stability.
The aforementioned mix of ignoring and boring the press is step toward stability No. 1. As a case in point, Channel 2’s star reporter Amit Segal tweeted the following in Hebrew as coalition deals were reached with Kulanu and United Torah Judaism Wednesday, “Drama at the Knesset: An agreement reached orally in November 2014 [with UTJ] was officially signed at the end of April 2015.”
He also tweeted, “Drama at the Knesset 2: A man who declared in December 2014 that he would be finance minister and a man who promised him the Finance Ministry in March 2015 agree as May 2015 approaches on an appointment as finance minister.”
And finally, “Stay with us for even more drama: The foreign minister will surprisingly be appointed foreign minister and two parties that said they would sign with Likud signed with Likud. So many heart attacks in one round of negotiations.”
That cynicism is a sign of the Likud’s success.
Political journalists thrive on the very instability that the coalition talks are intended to avert.
The negotiators serve the public – not them – so if Segal is bored, they just might be doing something right.
The second step toward stability is to keep the finance minister happy. Finance minister is a very important job, especially in a government with no diplomatic aspirations and plenty of work to do on the socioeconomic front, so autonomy is appreciated by those who hold the post.
The best recent example was the government that was formed in the aforementioned coalition negotiations of 2003. Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon not only appointed Netanyahu finance minister, he promised him complete freedom to implement whatever policies he wished.
Netanyahu was so satisfied and so busy implementing his policies that he did everything possible to avoid leaving the government, even as it was passing the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip that he claimed to oppose. He did eventually quit, but too late to prevent the evacuation.
Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon had every reason to smile when he signed the deal – besides the fact that he smiles all the time anyway.
He sought the posts, the tools and the freedom to implement all his proposed reforms, and he got what he wanted.
Another element required for stability is a lack of prime ministerial aspirations among coalition partners. The first thing that doomed the last government was a statement by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid the day after the election that he expected to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister.
From then on, Netanyahu did not trust him, nor did he offer him much help to ensure his success.
When Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman and Bayit Yehudi head Naftali Bennett displayed their own delusions of grandeur, it created even more instability.
This time, Bennett and Liberman are entering the government badly bruised by an election in which Netanyahu showed them who is boss. Kahlon could be prime minister someday, but only if he is a great success as finance minister, and he may have to return to the Likud.
History has proven that it is also easier to achieve stability when haredi parties are part of the government.
Netanyahu knows that, and that is why he was willing to pay their asking price despite screaming headlines accusing him of giving up the store.
Netanyahu is as secular as it gets.
But he worships on the altar of political quiet, and that is what UTJ and Shas will give him.
Having alternative coalitions at hand also helps. It is not clear whether Netanyahu has that, but he did insist on including a clause in the coalition agreement that could assist in the creation of a national unity government with the Zionist Union later on.
That could be enough to achieve the deterrence necessary to keep people like Bennett and Liberman in line.
The final step toward stability is electoral reform. Netanyahu’s associates reiterated this week that the prime minister intended to enact reforms that will strengthen the largest parties, and ease the political extortion and horse-trading that mar coalition talks.
All six of those steps could help bring about a government that will not last its entire term - which ends in November 2019 - but could endure far longer than many are expecting.
But Netanyahu needs to be careful not to go too far. In the past, he has harmed himself by letting his power go to his head and become his own worst enemy.
Reports of him considering keeping the communications portfolio for himself and taking steps to limit an already weakened media could backfire.
A bored media is a recipe for stability, an angry press could cause chaos. Netanyahu will have to tread that thin line successfully to build a government that can last.