Old habits die hard. Benjamin Netanyahu, who has a well-known practice and tendency to dawdle and delay political decisions, sought to overcome his traditional pattern and, immediately after his November 1 election victory, set an ambitious goal: to form his sixth government within two weeks.
That optimistic deadline has long passed, as Netanyahu’s negotiations with his partners whirled into a labyrinth of endless demands and conditions. The four-week mandate he received to form the government will expire Sunday night at midnight, and Netanyahu is set to ask President Isaac Herzog for the 14-day extension he can request, according to the law. Once again, Netanyahu returned to his old ways, entering the 11th hour.
The Likud initial negotiation strategy aimed to speed up the partners to sign a skinny coalition deal which divides the ministries and portfolios, and postpone the plans, reforms and budgets for later, after the government is sworn in. Thus, Netanyahu’s attempt to abandon his procrastinating nature was actually counterproductive: it only raised his partners’ suspicions and pushed them to demand to negotiate the details, and not be taken for granted.
One might naively expect the homogeneous right-wing ultra-Orthodox bloc to hasten its way back to power and not to stall over jobs and titles. However, as close as those parties are ideologically, they are divided by competing factions and egos, vying with each other for their respective shares. And after almost four years of ultimate loyalty to Netanyahu, they all demanded fair recompense.
From there on, the coalition-building process started to linger, giving Netanyahu’s allies time to develop their appetites and make more and more demands for not only portfolios and ministries, but also far-reaching reforms, large budgets and dramatic transfers of governmental authorities.
Settler annexationist Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister-designate, demanded – and received – responsibilities over the West Bank Civil Administration.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the ultranationalist future national security minister, is slated to receive additional power over the police, weakening the police commissioner, as well as authority over the West Bank’s Border Police.
To Avi Maoz, the fundamentalist anti-LGBT one-man Noam faction, Netanyahu agreed to give authority over a significant unit in the Education Ministry responsible for external programming in the schools nationwide.
The ultra-Orthodox parties set unprecedented demands for yeshiva stipends and allowances, and so on and so forth.
With no other viable political alternative to bargain with, Netanyahu couldn’t say no to his power-craving allies.
Only this week did the Likud conclude the first stage, reaching portfolio distribution agreements with all of the parties in the future coalition, while deliberations over the ideological plans and commitments are still stuck in several disagreements.
The incoming government also has a stockpile of legislation to pass before it is sworn in, fulfilling Netanyahu’s allies’ conditions to be granted their special authorities in advance. Most notably, Shas chief Arye Deri, who is set to head both the Interior and Health ministries, needs to pass a special law first to enable his appointment and override his conviction in tax offenses. Deri also wants the bill to include an unprecedented override clause, to preempt any possible legal challenges from the Supreme Court.
Only on Monday, the future coalition is set to elect a new Knesset speaker, and will be able to start the complicated legislation process. Even with the 14-day extension, Netanyahu is on his traditional path to the last minute.
Herzog is likely to grant Netanyahu the extension without much hesitance, despite pressure from the incoming opposition to deny the request to prolong the mandate. Outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli both pronounced the request a ploy and deception this week, arguing that Netanyahu has already formed his government de facto, and is using the extension to pass problematic personal bills, which is not the purpose of the law. The president does indeed have discretion over the extension, but given Netanyahu’s clear-cut 64-seat majority and with no other candidate in the Knesset with even a slight chance of forming a government, Herzog has no reason and little legitimacy to refuse, and also no interest in opening a front with Netanyahu which could embitter their joint term.
NETANYAHU’S DAWDLING is no strategic fraud or scam, but the result of badly handled negotiations from a bad dealing position. Netanyahu fully committed himself to his bloc of far-right ultrareligious loyalists, who have granted him political immunity from his alleged criminal misdemeanors and will support any form of cancellation or stoppage of his trial, and he didn’t even try to pretend he had any alternate cards to play. At any stumbling block posed by Smotrich or Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu could have easily initiated a public call to Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz, even as a clear spin, to signal to his partners they are replaceable and lower their price. Instead, he chose to sell out and succumb to almost all of their demands. And every day they have more demands.
“That’s what happens when a negotiation has one side that only gives, and another side that only wants to take,” one of Netanyahu’s confidants remarked sourly this week.
Meanwhile, the longer the negotiations linger, the public criticism and outcry grow over the new government members’ future posts and extremist visions. The legal apparatus is warning about far-reaching judicial reforms, the top security brass is sounding the alarm about the consequences of breaking up the Civil Administration, mayors are threatening to boycott Maoz’s education moves, teachers and principals are against the division of the Education Ministry, and former police officials are rallying to oppose Ben-Gvir’s superpowers.
Lapid has called on Yesh Atid supporters to protest this weekend, and his allies in the future opposition finally met this week to discuss a joint plan of civil action. Given Netanyahu’s wide parliamentary majority, the opposition will find it hard to stop any moves in the Knesset, and is moving its focus to the streets.
Displaying a cynically short memory of his own behavior toward the Bennett-Lapid government last year, Netanyahu accused Lapid and the Center-Left of sedition and mutiny, and not accepting election results. However, he may very well use the objections and dissent to his own advantage. Constrained by his own political bloc, Netanyahu has no soft centrist partner leaning on his side to balance his radical partners and tame their fundamentalist aspirations. The emerging liberal protests might be the only way to restrain them and calm them down.
Hence, the agonies of the coalition-building process could also be a sign for the future. Netanyahu submitted to his partners’ whims and caprices to form the government, but from the moment it is established, he will not necessarily implement all that he promised, another bad habit he is known to have.
From Netanyahu’s point of view, the coalition has one urgent goal – namely, to pass the judicial changes that will relieve his legal troubles.
After that, he might decide to abandon his bloc, return to his old ways, and attempt to replace one of his radical partners with a more moderate player by his side, such as Gantz.
However, by then, if Netanyahu and his allies implement even half of what they promise now, it could turn out to be too late.