Israel's Netanyahu has multiple battles ahead to regain control

INSIDE POLITICS: Benjamin Netanyahu had a tough time forming an Israeli coalition. He still has multiple political challenges ahead.

 BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has formed a government but it will not be one that is easy to manage.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU has formed a government but it will not be one that is easy to manage.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On Wednesday night, just a few minutes before midnight, Benjamin Netanyahu recited the traditional Sheheheyanu blessing. 

After formally informing President Isaac Herzog that he succeeded in forming his sixth government, he rejoiced in his chambers, alongside his wife, Sara, ally Itamar Ben-Gvir and a few of his coalition’s wheelers and dealers, who all joined in prayer, expressing their gratitude to the Lord for bringing them to this point in time.

It took a long 51 days and many sleepless nights since Netanyahu’s November 1 landslide victory (by standards from the last few years) to reach this moment, during which he was exhausted and extorted by his political bloc of loyalists, who claimed their shares and dividends in his 64-seat achievement. 

Netanyahu struggles through Israeli coalition negotiations

The coalition negotiations, which were supposed to be a piece of cake, turned into a rocky road. In sharp contrast to Netanyahu’s impressive electoral victory, he was revealed at his weakest, unconditionally surrendering to his extremist and fundamentalist partners and their unbridled appetite for power, budgets, titles and authorities.

The bloc’s endless greed made Netanyahu dizzy, dragging him all the way to the very last minute of his six-week mandate to form a government. Even on Wednesday evening, as the Likud pushed to sign and seal the coalition agreements before the protocol of calling the president, most of its allies resisted and insisted on another all-nighter of details and discussions. 

Itamar Ben-Gvir head of the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) Party attends preparations for the new Knesset on April 5.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Itamar Ben-Gvir head of the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) Party attends preparations for the new Knesset on April 5. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Ben-Gvir squeezed into another political stronghold and was granted his last demand, a veto mechanism over the government’s legislative agenda; meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox factions negotiated some last-minute wording changes, each of them seeking to outdo the others’ final list of achievements. 

And since they all share an extremely low level of trust in their interlocutor, they insisted on having everything written down. In ink, on paper.

Luckily for Netanyahu, the law dictates official deadlines; without them, his partners would probably continue bargaining forever. 

By January 2, the last possible date for the new government to be sworn in, they will have to settle all of their demands. Netanyahu is aiming to hold the ceremony by late next week, eager to put the negotiations in the rear-view mirror and become prime minister again, and once again, truly say the Sheheheyanu blessing.

Well, actually, not so fast. Before Netanyahu reaches the Prime Minister’s Office safe and sound, he has two more urgent items still on his agenda. First, the coalition needs to conclude the authorization of the package of personalized bills, which were written at the coalition partners’ request. 

Arye Deri, Bezalel Smotrich and Ben-Gvir all preconditioned their agreements on preliminary legislation that will clear the path for their ministerial appointments.

Deri, who was convicted of tax offenses last year, demanded a bill that would override his criminal convictions and enable him to receive two large ministries.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir also came along for the ride, and both demanded to legalize special authorities and extra powers they were granted in advance. Smotrich, the incoming finance minister, is also set to be a minister in the Defense Ministry, with responsibility for the Civil Administration in the West Bank. Ben-Gvir, the incoming national security minister, received special powers over the police and their chain of command. 

These politicians’ special status was incorporated into laws bearing their names, and they need to be finalized before the ceremonial swearing in. 

At least some of the bills are likely in the future to be challenged in the Supreme Court, given the strong legal warnings and objections that have been given to these speedy constitutional changes. But Netanyahu’s partners refused to let him claim his victory without them.

Netanyahu needs to give Israeli government posts to Likud members

Last, and yes, least, Netanyahu will finally attend to his own followers, assigning the remaining ministries and portfolios to Likud members. Netanyahu has already tapped his ultimate confidant, Yariv Levin, as justice minister, and designated Yoav Gallant to the Defense Ministry, but besides them, the rest of the party members have been patiently waiting on the sidelines for the coalition parties to finish taking their loot.

Now it’s their turn to trade and bargain, and use threats or flattery to improve their status and prestige in the new government. Netanyahu has a respectable number of titles and positions to share, but there are too many egos to feed, and his main goal is to minimize the disappointment and avoid tension and friction with the party’s main strongmen and stakeholders.

Just like his partners in the coalition negotiations, none of the Likudniks has a viable alternative or any reason to jeopardize the long-anticipated government with an unpopular rebellion for a title or job. Nevertheless, Netanyahu will try to neutralize the potential power players first, and is likely to pay exorbitant prices to buy their silence. 

Thus, Israel Katz, who ranked No. 12 in the last primaries, is currently leading the race for the prestigious Foreign Ministry, which is also desired by Amir Ohana, one of Netanyahu’s most prominent loyalists.

But Katz has control over some of the internal Likud mechanisms, and is in an alliance with David Bitan and Dudi Amsalem, which Netanyahu seeks to dismantle. Amsalem has publicly presented Netanyahu with high demands, stating and threatening to accept only one of two high-profile titles: Knesset speaker or justice minister, which was provisioned for Levin. 

Danny Danon also made the demand for the speaker position, which Netanyahu will never give him, due to his past and present record of constant troublemaking. 

If he is offered a government portfolio, it will be only to force him to resign from the Knesset and stop him from making any more provocations.

At the same time, Netanyahu also needs to tend to his closest circle, which has been blustering and roaring ever since the elections. Netanyahu’s entourage, which is supposed to keep his surroundings quiet for big decisions, has only been making noise. His senior advisers are at loggerheads with two of the Likud’s female lawmakers - Tali Gottlieb and Galit Distal Atbaryan – and also among themselves there has been constant fighting, mudslinging and leaking of reports. 

In an apparent attempt to reimpose discipline, Netanyahu sent all of his confidants to polygraph tests in recent weeks, and is considering a personnel reshuffle before his final comeback to the Prime Minister’s Office.

Thus, it is hard to disconnect the internal chaos and mess in Netanyahu’s chambers from the clutter that complicated the coalition negotiations, as one of Netanyahu’s confidants diagnosed: “Since November 1, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and needs to be urgently fixed.” 

“Since November 1, something is rotten in the state of Denmark, and needs to be urgently fixed.”

Benjamin Netanyahu confidant

Netanyahu’s first task, after swearing in his government, will be to regain control and fix his battered image. It remains to be seen if his radical partners let him, or if the growing pains of the past seven weeks were just a foreshadowing of the chaos ahead.•