Since the November 1 elections, political gossip and chatter in Israel have focused on one million-dollar question: When will the new government be formed and sworn in?
Thursday, after two months of draining coalition talks, Benjamin Netanyahu provided the answer and proclaimed victory. As he presented his sixth government to the Knesset, the main question immediately changed. Now the question is how long it will last.
The original postelection forecast was optimistic. Netanyahu’s bloc of far-right and ultra-Orthodox loyalists survived five grueling election campaigns and 18 months in the wilderness of the opposition, until it achieved its goal. With a majority of 64 seats, Netanyahu and his allies were supposed to easily establish a cohesive radical right-wing government that would complete its term and last for four years, just as Netanyahu promised his voters during the election campaign.
But a lot of bad blood has been accumulating among members of Netanyahu’s bloc, casting doubt over the initially optimistic prediction. The clashes and tensions between Netanyahu and his would-be partners during the coalition talks caused many pundits to recalculate.
In theory, the new government is in place to serve out a full term, most notably because of its ideological coherence. But the tiresome weeks of endless negotiations exposed its first fault: the barely existent level of trust between Netanyahu and his allies, which compelled them to present him with an unprecedented list of demands ahead of the government’s formation. And Netanyahu, it must be said, caved in to almost all of their conditions.
Netanyahu’s allies know him well. Bezalel Smotrich was recorded this year calling Netanyahu a liar, and his allies know what his reputation is regarding living up to his commitments. That’s why they insisted on getting everything down on paper. The coalition deals that were revealed this week include hundreds of clauses with budgets, legislation, appointments and governmental authorities that are to be transferred to Netanyahu’s allies, as well as a litany of radical reforms regarding the judicial system, the police, the IDF, the West Bank settlements, immigration and even the Law of Return. If only half of the suggested upheavals are carried out, Israel will dramatically change.
Netanyahu signed off on every whim and caprice his extremist partners brought up, setting his government on an immediate collision course with the top security, police and legal officials, who are all sounding the alarm about the proposed changes.
Once the government is formed, the returning prime minister’s confidants whisper, he will stall, delay and postpone many of the commitments he just gave.
“On the day of the inauguration, the equation will reverse: [Itamar] Ben-Gvir and Smotrich will think 10 times before they bring down the government... and say goodbye to the best deal of their lives,” one of them said this week.
However, the arduous negotiations could turn out to be the easy part. Maintaining a coalition with power-savvy extremist allies will probably be a more complicated challenge. Netanyahu’s partners are eager to prove themselves, and will try to hold him accountable to his words, while he has to lower the flames of fear and protest surrounding his new government, from outside and within.
Outgoing IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi met with Netanyahu this week and warned him about the implications of Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s reforms regarding the army and the West Bank. The International community, from the White House to the Jordanian royal palace, is already on the alert, examining every move by the new fundamentalist government, and the Diaspora worldwide is fuming at plans to change the Law of Return and cancel the recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.
Every day, at least one public petition is released to the press. Judges, lawyers and professors are rallying against the planned reconstruction of the Supreme Court and the judicial system, LGBT and women’s rights groups are alarmed about the authorities given to religious zealots. Even the senior business and hi-tech sectors, which usually stay away from politics, protested coalition statements and emerging policy.
Netanyahu is likely to invoke the external pressure for his internal needs, and use the various voices of protest to tame down his partners’ ambitions. However, despite his mastermind reputation for manipulating and outmaneuvering his partners or rivals, the current partnership is more difficult to handle. Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are not pragmatic opportunistic politicians but hard-core ideological zealots. And, as the coalition talks revealed, he is completely dependent on them, and they know it.
The first item on the new government’s agenda is the legal reforms, which have been prioritized on paper ahead of any other legislation, besides the budget. Justice Minister Yariv Levin has a far-reaching, reactionary vision in mind, shared by the Likud’s partners, eager to alter the checks and balances, each for their own reason. But Netanyahu himself needs only one reform: to split up the attorney-general’s job and appoint a new state prosecutor who will support and promote alterations to his trial. Once he gets what he wants, common political knowledge says, the coalition will start counting its days.
If Smotrich and especially Ben-Gvir insist on implementing their plans and continue with their style of nationalistic provocations, a security escalation could become imminent, and rattle the coalition from within.
A well-informed source close to Netanyahu “senses that [the government] won’t last for long,” and is especially wary of the tense month of Ramadan, starting at the beginning of April.
If push comes to shove, Netanyahu is expected to use the security situation as a backdrop for a generous offer to his former partner Benny Gantz to replace the far-right components in his government. Up until now, Gantz has adamantly rejected the option of rejoining forces with Netanyahu, but the premier’s associates believe that in a case of national crisis, his patriotic nature will pressure him back to duty.
However, that scenario depends on how long the current extremist composition will last, and how much of its dramatic plans it will succeed in implementing by then. If the extremists succeed too much and alter the nature of Israeli democratic institutions, Netanyahu might be left without any potential savior.