Why is Netanyahu sacrificing Likud veterans in coalition negotiations?

INSIDE POLITICS: Benjamin Netanyahu is building his coalition to pay for the loyalty of his bloc, but at his party’s expense.

 LIKUD CHAIRMAN Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates together with party MKs on election night. How many of them will be overlooked for ministries?  (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
LIKUD CHAIRMAN Benjamin Netanyahu celebrates together with party MKs on election night. How many of them will be overlooked for ministries?
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

It’s hard not to feel some pity for the average Likud member these days, or at least a sense of malicious joy. The ruling party has been celebrating Benjamin Netanyahu’s emphatic victory in the election for over a month, but party members, from bottom to top, have no idea what is actually going on.

Presumptive prime minister Netanyahu has been personally handling the last details of coalition talks, confiding only with an intimate circle of confidants, and entrusting the actual negotiations to former Knesset speaker Yariv Levin, his loyal political operator. The other 30 Likud MKs are in the dark, waiting on the sidelines as Netanyahu horse-trades with future coalition partners over ministries and portfolios.

Netanyahu has refrained from convening his Likud Knesset faction since the Knesset was sworn in, and his chief of staff, Tzahi Braverman, has been ignoring phone calls and evading requests for personal meetings. Only after coalition agreements have been signed, sealed and delivered, and Netanyahu’s government is a done deal, will the Likudniks be summoned to his office to be told their destined portfolio in the cabinet.

It’s a familiar ritual. Netanyahu keeps his fellow party members out of the loop until the last minute and then marches them into his office for a humiliating speed-date-style marathon of meetings, in which he hands out the leftovers.

Senior Likud members, ostensibly the party’s top echelons, are left to rely on media reports, hearsay and gossip to keep up with the latest news about their own future jobs and positions. And while their fates are in Netanyahu’s hands, the customary conduct is to lay low, keep quiet and avoid any statement or behavior that could endanger their hopes and ambitions for prestigious titles. Only a brave few dare voice their reservations out loud.

Israel Katz chats with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Israel Katz chats with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a cabinet meeting (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Netanyahu failed to outmaneuver Bezalel Smotrich

Throughout the election campaign, Netanyahu promised to keep the top three cabinet portfolios – finance, foreign affairs and defense – in Likud hands. After a month of arduous coalition bargaining, he secured two out of three. He failed to outplay and outmaneuver Bezalel Smotrich and succumbed to his demand to become finance minister, despite his original plans to leave the economic policy to be determined by the ruling party. In theory, Smotrich’s time in the Finance Ministry will be divided and shared with Shas’s Arye Deri.

For the first half of the term, Smotrich will be finance minister and Deri will head both the Interior and Health ministries. In 2025, they will switch – Deri is set to become finance minister, and Smotrich will move to the Interior Ministry, and will also receive the Education or Transportation ministry, forcing the early evacuation of a Likud minister from his or her post.

This complicated rotation deal may never come to fruition, given the inherent instability of recent years. However, it drew the limits of Likud aspirations: Minus the Finance Ministry, the Likudniks were left with one less prestigious post to quarrel about. Other ministries have been divided and degraded, transferring powers and authorities according to the demands of Netanyahu’s allies. It was the price he had to pay for the loyalty of his bloc, at his party’s expense.

DESPITE THE disappointment from giving up the Finance Ministry, Netanyahu still has a respectable reservoir of jobs and titles to distribute to his party members. In addition to the foreign and defense portfolios, the Likud stock also has the Justice, Education, Economy, Energy, Communications and Tourism ministries, and many others. His long established coalition-building philosophy puts no limits on the number of appointments needed to build his governments, ignoring public scrutiny about the expense and wastage for the sake of government stability. Netanyahu and his partners agreed in advance on a generous “distribution key” which grants the Likud at least 16 seats around the cabinet table, in addition to deputy minister posts and the top Knesset positions: the speaker, the coalition whip, and some committee heads.

Therefore, Netanyahu’s problem is neither the number of the portfolios he has to offer, nor the quality. His main challenge is seniority and the various definitions the term has inside the Likud.

Who are the 'senior' Likudniks?

There are many types of “senior” Likudniks – the top rank in the party’s primaries; those who control the party’s mechanisms; and, above all, Netanyahu’s ultra-loyalists, who often prevail in the competition for crucial positions. Alas, there are not enough senior portfolios for all of these seniors to be content.

Handing out the ministries entails a calculation of the potential political risks and putting together job descriptions that will satisfy the seniors’ egos.

That’s how Israel Katz, ranked 12th in the last party primaries, is considered a plausible candidate for the Foreign Ministry, bypassing much more popular Likudniks dreaming of the job. Katz controls some of the Likud institutions, and also leads a mini faction of loyalists, which includes David Bitan and Dudi Amsalem, both known to be loud and outspoken. Netanyahu prefers to appease him first and dismantle any potential cells of revolt.

By postponing and pushing the Likud distribution ceremony to the end, Netanyahu minimizes the risk of last-minute dramas arising from the frustration and disappointment of his comrades. At the end of the day, they might criticize him anonymously and disgruntledly behind closed doors, but the Likudniks won’t dare to compromise or jeopardize the mere existence of the government, and will have to be happy with whatever portfolio he gives out and accept the fact of their current political life.

As long as Netanyahu is not only a politician but also a defendant seeking to abort his trial, he is bound to the bloc that enables his political survival, and has no choice but to cave in to all of his partners’ conditions and exigencies.

The Likudniks, as well, have no choice but to accept the rules he sets for the game. Just like him, they have no alternative.