Netanyahu's government is teetering on a cliff’s edge: Can it survive?

A party-by-party look at who wants an election and who wants to keep the coalition together.

Benjamin Netanyahu (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
With Avigdor Liberman’s resignation from the Defense Ministry and taking his Yisrael Beytenu party with him, the coalition will be left with 61 members, a one-seat majority.
This coalition survived its first year without Liberman and with only 61 votes – but just barely. Every week from mid-2015 to June 2016 it seemed like the coalition was teetering on a cliff’s edge.
Can it stand on that precipice again and still survive? It all depends on whether the partners feel they have a shared interest in keeping it together. And even if they decide that an election in 100 days is not in their interest, they’ll have to be on their very best behavior. It’s unclear that can happen, when the coalition has to rely on the likes of Oren Hazan and other rebellious Likud backbenchers to get anything done.
Plus, there has been election talk for months. Even before Liberman resigned, the Knesset was operating in a sort of limbo, in which MKs weren’t sure whether there would be time to get anything done, and the parties were preparing for a campaign. Hardly anyone actually thought the next election would really be held in November 2019.
Each remaining coalition partner has its own considerations as to whether it should try to hold out a bit longer or not.
Likud: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to not want an election. The first indication of that was a statement released by a senior source in the Likud even before Liberman resigned, while rumors flew about his plans, that the government will survive without him, and that Netanyahu will retain the defense ministry.
If Netanyahu can convince his coalition partners to stay together, he will be able to take Liberman down a notch. He will have undermined Liberman’s trick and dulled the luster on the accusations that Netanyahu is weak and indecisive.
And it could get even better for Netanyahu, though it is quite cynical to say so. A source involved in the ceasefire talks said that it is shaky, and chances of another flare-up with Hamas are high. If Israel responds strongly and decisively without Liberman around, the impact of his resignation would be weakened even further. That being said, Netanyahu tends to be conservative and doesn’t rush into conflict out of political expedience.
At the same time, the clock is ticking on the various investigations into Netanyahu’s alleged corruption offenses. Despite the constant insistence that “there will be nothing, because there is nothing,” Netanyahu doesn’t know if and when Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit will be dropping that bomb.
Bayit Yehudi: Education Minister Naftali Bennett has never hidden his aspiration to be defense minister. Before the previous election, he insisted that Netanyahu had promised him the position, but that never came to fruition. Instead, he was stuck with a portfolio that his party wanted him to have, which was not his forte. Bennett acted like loved his portfolio of the Education Ministry, but his constant statements on security matters and squabbling with Liberman proved that his eyes remain firmly on the prize.
That is why, right after Liberman’s resignation press conference, senior sources in Bayit Yehudi said either Bennett is defense minister, or else they’re out of the coalition.
But they could very well be bluffing.
Bennett knows that Netanyahu still has a lot of support on the Right, including from Bayit Yehudi’s voters. He also knows that some in the Right are still traumatized from the collapse of Yitzhak Shamir’s government in 1993, caused by infighting within the Right, after which Yitzhak Rabin won the election and signed the Oslo Accords (to make a long story short). His voters may not forgive him for bringing down a right wing government.
Netanyahu famously cannot stand Bennett, since they had a falling-out a decade ago, when Bennett was his chief of staff. That could be enough to keep Bennett out of the Defense Ministry. Or Netanyahu could see giving Bennett the position as a way to keep him on his best behavior, since he is less of a loose cannon than Liberman.
Another alternative is to give Bennett a different portfolio, such as the Foreign Ministry. This way, Bennett is boosted to a senior position, and Netanyahu can stay in charge of defense during a volatile time.
Kulanu: Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon could really go either way with this. There is a growing deficit, and he may want to jump ship before he has to start raising taxes or cutting government services, both of which would hurt him in an election. On the other hand, Kulanu is not polling particularly well, and Kahlon could consider waiting it out to see if he can improve his situation.
Kahlon has been the coalition’s check against right-wing legislation, often insisting on adding moderating factors. He will have even more power in that role now that the coalition is so narrow. But it’s unclear whether that would help him electorally, so it may not be a motivating factor. Plus, at least one of those bills – making it easier for terrorists to be sentenced to death – was sponsored by Yisrael Beytenu and therefore may now be off the table.
Shas: Shas’s situation is pretty simple. The party has been polling poorly for a very long time, but now it is riding high after victories in the municipal elections. Just this week, Interior Minister Arye Deri’s man in Jerusalem, Moshe Lion, was elected mayor. That could indicate resurgent political power and motivate Deri to want to strike while the iron is hot.
Plus, an early election would mean Shas could avoid the passage of a bill to increase haredi conscription to the IDF. The Supreme Court’s deadline for a new law is fast approaching, in two weeks. The party has said it won’t vote against the latest version of the bill, but the haredi media is likely to campaign hard against it, which could leave Shas hurt by its constituents. Why take that risk? United Torah Judaism: Last, but not least. Similar to Shas, UTJ will be pounded by the haredi press if an enlistment bill passes, even if the party-controlled media makes an effort to defend it. Currently the party is split between the hassidic Agudat Yisrael, which still plans to vote against the bill, and the so-called Lithuanian faction Degel Hatorah, which plans to abstain, theoretically allowing it to pass. There is no reason for UTJ not to want to delay the vote as much as possible.
At the same time – and this goes for Shas, as well – this has been an extremely haredi-friendly government, perhaps the friendliest ever to haredim. There are no guarantees that they will be in the next coalition, so supporting an election is a risk for them as well. And UTJ tends to be risk-averse.
At this point, we are no wiser as to whether there will be early elections or not. The chances seem high, but Netanyahu may still have some tricks – or some convincing arguments – up his sleeve, to make it worth the coalition partners’ while to stay.