Netanyahu's coalition conundrums and the pitfalls that lie ahead

Netanyahu began to feel the weight of having only a 61-seat coalition when he was forced to give in on a procedural motion on the natural gas deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud faction meeting (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a Likud faction meeting
A dozen years ago, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister, he coined a memorable parable about a fat man riding on the back of a thin man.
The fat man was the bloated public sector, which he put on a diet when he controlled the Treasury. The thin man was the small private sector, which he wanted to strengthen by cutting taxes.
Fast-forward to 2015, and a fat man is piggybacking on a thin man again.
This time, the fat man is a government with plenty of ambition, ideas, and good intentions. But it is riding on the thinnest man possible: a narrow coalition of 61 MKs.
It is a coalition that can fall apart at any time, due to one man alone. It has already suffered from the caprices of individual MKs.
First it was Likud MK Oren Hazan, whose allegations of prostitute pimping and hard drugs in Bulgaria and threats against Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein in Jerusalem put the government at the mercy of a man who could be subjected to extended police probing at any time.
Then it was Kulanu MK Michael Oren, who infuriated coalition lawmakers, including in his own party, with his lengthy US book tour. He paired off with Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh, but his absence gave a lot of headaches to Netanyahu, who otherwise apparently had no problem with Oren’s book that bashed US President Barack Obama.
This week it was three ministers who decided that conflicts of interest prevented them from supporting a procedural motion that would have enabled the passage of a controversial natural gas deal with tycoons they are close with or invested in.
Knesset Legal Adviser Eyal Yinon said the conflicts of interest applied only to the deal itself and not the procedural motion ahead of it, but the ministers kept to their conscience and refused to budge.
In an embarrassing admission of the limits of his power, Netanyahu was forced to give in, publish the deal’s details, and table the vote for up to three weeks.
But it could have been worse for Netanyahu. At least he didn’t bring the motion to a vote and lose.
That scenario could have happened had coalition chairman Tzachi Hanegbi fallen for a parliamentary trick initiated by the head of the Knesset Economics Committee – and until last month the head of the Zionist Union faction – MK Eitan Cabel.
Netanyahu scheduled the vote on the motion for 2 a.m., hoping he could persuade one of the three ministers that night to back down ahead of the vote. There was also a possibility the opposition could be caught napping, and the coalition could pass it quickly.
In the evening, word got out that MKs from the Joint (Arab) List had left the Knesset to greet their colleague, MK Basel Ghattas, in the southern port city of Ashdod, where he landed on board an unsuccessful Gazabound flotilla. That could have created an opportune time to initiate the vote.
But Hanegbi found out that the Arab MKs never went to Ashdod. He figured out that they instead went to Caffit, the café in Jerusalem’s Botanical Gardens, a five-minute drive from the Knesset.
Had the Likud tried to take advantage of the Arab MKs’ absence, they would have come back immediately, and Netanyahu would have faced a humiliating failure in the vote. But Hanegbi had spies at Caffit, who reported to him about the MKs’ presence, and he did not fall for Cabel’s trick.
When Joint List MK Haneen Zoabi was asked about her enchanted evening at the Botanical Gardens, she responded with a sly smile and said she really had been on the way to Ashdod.
This procedural motion ahead of the gas deal will eventually pass. This is not what will bring down Netanyahu’s government.
Neither will the deal itself.
Yisrael Beytenu has committed to supporting the deal, just not the procedural motion. Its leader, Avigdor Liberman, wanted to prove a point that he cannot be relied upon by Netanyahu to be a “political trampoline” that gives him a boost.
So what tests ahead will really challenge Netanyahu’s narrow coalition? There are many fat tests – and each could potentially make the thin man collapse under their weight.
State budget
Key date
: October 31, 2015 The trouble he has had passing a technical matter on the gas deal persuaded Netanyahu if he had any doubts that he must keep to his plan to pass what will for all intents and purposes be a three-year state budget for 2015-2017. This will face massive criticism from opposition MKs that may have no problem with the budget itself.
Housing reforms
Key date
: October, ahead of the budget vote Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon would have received the Treasury no matter who won the March 17 election.
All polls have shown the public wanted him to get the job, and they support giving him a chance to end the housing crisis. So will the opposition support his housing reforms? That depends. Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich said she might, but if a Labor leadership race is declared, that could change.
Palestinian terror
Key date
: Unpredictable Netanyahu cleared room on his schedule Wednesday for an unplanned meeting with Bayit Yehudi leaders Naftali Bennett and Uri Ariel after the latter threatened to leave the coalition if more action is not taken to end the recent wave of violence. But when Hanegbi was asked whether such threats should be taken seriously, he rolled his eyes and said his journalistic interlocutors should know better.
Palestinian state prospects
Key date
: September 2015 and September 2016 The Palestinians will be trying their luck with the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council yet again in September. Will an Obama angry at Netanyahu for his high-profile protests of the Iran deal take revenge by supporting a watered-down version of a French proposal on a Palestinian state? Perhaps.
Preventing such a maneuver could cause Netanyahu to make concessions his right-wing coalition partners will not like. And if that doesn’t happen at the 2015 General Assembly, Obama will still be president in September 2016.
Law and order
Key date
: By the end of the year Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is working on reforms that Kulanu may not like. It is still unclear how far she will try to go. In the past she has proven an ability to work together with parties of differing views and compromise. Prospects of criminal investigations are an omnipresent threat to any coalition. So far, it’s only Hazan, but Likud and Bayit Yehudi officials could still get entangled in the Yisrael Beytenu probe.
Religion and state
Key date
: Sunday Shas will bring its Alternative Kashrut Bill to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation Sunday. The controversial bill would give the Chief Rabbinate a monopoly over kosher certification, bypassing a ruling by Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein that alternative certification can be provided if the word “kosher” is not used. Shas leader Arye Deri has warned that this would be “the first coalition crisis of Netanyahu’s new government” if the bill did not pass, but Kulanu says it would be a “gross violation of the status quo” on matters of religion and state. This is likely to be the first of many battles on those issues between Shas and ambitious Kulanu MK Rachel Azaria.
Despite the weight of the fat man being on his shoulders, “This is the life in a coalition of 61,” Hanegbi said, summarizing the challenges that lie ahead. “But we have not lost a single vote so far.”