Some things are not built to last, like Netanyahu's coalition

The drawn-out negotiation process of the coalition agreements drew criticism and spoke to the depth of distrust between the partners.

 PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting earlier this month (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting earlier this month
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

On January 11 a reporter asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu how he intended to fund all of his coalition promises, which amount to billions of shekels. The prime minister gave what he called a diplomatic answer and, without saying so directly, admitted that the agreements would need to be adapted so that they fit into the budgetary framework. In other words, they will not be respected in full.

The months since the November 1 election have shown that the seemingly homogeneous 64-MK-strong coalition may not end up being as stable as people initially thought.

The drawn-out negotiation process of the coalition agreements drew criticism and spoke to the depth of distrust over whether the agreements would indeed be respected.

Disagreements in the coalition

Indeed, it is already clear that many parts of the agreements will not be respected.

One example is that Religious Zionist Party chairman and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a minister within the Defense Ministry, has yet to receive control over civilian issues regarding Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

 ITAMAR BEN-GVIR (left) and Bezalel Smotrich chat in the Knesset plenum. The real value of allowing people to speak is to understand their position and thereby sharpen your own arguments if you disagree with them, says the writer.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) ITAMAR BEN-GVIR (left) and Bezalel Smotrich chat in the Knesset plenum. The real value of allowing people to speak is to understand their position and thereby sharpen your own arguments if you disagree with them, says the writer. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant brazenly said this week that he had “not been privy to the coalition negotiations” and therefore is not keen on giving Smotrich any power over the IDF’s units in the West Bank that deal with civilians. “The army must have one commander only,” Gallant reportedly said in a fiery late-night meeting this week with Netanyahu and Smotrich. Netanyahu himself is now involved in finding a solution.

Onward to religion and state. Within a month, at least four controversies arose. In some, Netanyahu needed to get involved publicly in order to put out the fires and essentially promise that he would violate the coalition agreements on these matters.

The first was RZP’s law to enable businesses and service providers to refuse to provide service due to “religious belief” – including a doctor refusing to give treatment to an LGBT person. Netanyahu, first in a written statement and then in a video, promised that everyone would be treated equally – in other words, that the clause would not be respected.

Next came United Torah Judaism chairman Yitzhak Goldknopf’s demand that Transportation Minister Miri Regev order a halt to construction and upkeep work on Israel’s railways on Shabbat. A somewhat unclear compromise was reportedly reached that the status quo would continue – work that is lifesaving is permissible on Shabbat and will continue, and the ministry will attempt to reduce other work as much as possible, without it coming at the expense of train travelers during the week.

Third was Culture and Sport Minister Mickey Zohar’s flip-flop this week. Zohar declared that his ministry would cease funding the previous minister’s “Israeli Sabbath” initiative, which enabled free entrance to a large number of cultural institutions on Shabbat. Netanyahu, in a dry statement, simply overrode Zohar, and stated that the project would continue.

Finally, there came a law initiative this week by UTJ MK Moshe Gafni to enable segregated swimming hours at natural springs and rivers in national parks. Here, too, Netanyahu put out a dry statement, presumably in order to attract the least possible intention, saying that the status quo would continue in national parks.

Yet another problem is the walking powder keg named National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who visited the Temple Mount and promised to do so again. In order to (temporarily) put out this fire, Netanyahu needed to travel to Jordan to promise King Abdullah that here, too, the status quo would continue, and there would be no change as to control over the site. Ben-Gvir was not happy.

The coalition as a whole is also facing immense public pressure regarding its planned judicial reforms, and these, too, seem headed toward a clash. Netanyahu sounds like he is open to compromise; other than giving general support to the notion of “rebalancing the branches of power,” the prime minister has not expressed specific support for any of the reform’s parts. This, however, is not the tune that Justice Minister Yariv Levin and Knesset Constitution Committee chairman Simcha Rothman (RZP) are playing. The two insinuated that they may be open to cosmetic changes but are largely determined to push through the reform as is.

Are these fissures common to a coalition’s baby steps, or unusual signs of instability right out of the gate? And if they are signs of instability, could these fissures eventually jeopardize the government?

According to a source from the Likud, the answer is a clear no.

The reason is simple, the source explained. Politics is always a matter of negotiation and leverage, and none of the coalition parties has a better alternative than the current government. Therefore, any threats to ditch the coalition do not carry weight. In the case of another election, any party that ditches the coalition would, in the best-case scenario, end up with a similar coalition.

Netanyahu agreed to many coalition requests in order to get the deals signed, but he never intended to respect parts of them, the source said. Smotrich will not receive authority over military units; Netanyahu will not risk conflict with the Palestinians and Jordan by changing the status quo on the Temple Mount; and regarding religion and state, Netanyahu will on one hand tread carefully in order not to cross the haredi parties’ redlines, but on the other will not take steps that would seriously irk some of the Likud’s own nonreligious electorate.

Even the judicial reform is not as big a deal as it seems, the source argued. Netanyahu at the end will force Levin and Rothman to accept a compromise, and there is not much they can do to stop him, he said.

Netanyahu is the same old Netanyahu, sensitive to public opinion and to the media and a master at finding solutions that appear like victories for his coalition partners, so that they can pander to their bases, but do not actually change much on the ground, the source concluded.

Tal Shalev, political analyst and senior political correspondent at Walla News, begged to differ.

“We cannot know what will happen or predict the future. But from the first month we see that each party is pulling in a different direction.

“The general phenomenon, similar to the previous government, is that it is ruled by its extreme elements. Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Gafni are setting the tone, not the Likud, which is the main party,” Shalev added.

“In my eyes, the correct thesis is that since the coalition is so utterly controlled by its extremes, there is immense pressure from its extreme elements that will eventually lead to its collapse,” she said.

This is different from all of Netanyahu’s previous governments. In the past, the prime minister always had parties to his Left that balanced out those to the Right of the Likud. Now, however, Netanyahu himself needs to serve as the counterweight against the far-right elements, and he does not seem to be succeeding. It is unclear which party or issue will eventually cause a collapse, but the government’s first month provided a recipe for it, which Netanyahu must overcome, Shalev said.

However, this could still be a way off, she added. The government has a budget to pass and will focus a lot of energy on that, and it is also true that despite their threats, the Likud’s coalition partners will not be quick to jump ship, since there are currently no better solutions, Shalev concluded.

MOSHE KLUGHAFT, international strategic adviser and former adviser to prime ministers Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, provided another perspective.

“This is a unique coalition, since the tensions in the Knesset are not the same as the tensions in the streets... and the topics that can harm the coalition in the Knesset are not the ones being talked about in the press,” Klughaft began.

The judicial reform is accepted by all of the coalition’s members, to the very last.

Therefore, contrary to previous governments in which specific MKs were pressured on ideological grounds until they caved – Idit Silman in the Bennett-Lapid government, or Asaf Zamir and Miki Haimovitz in the Netanyahu-Gantz government – the chance to break MKs in the current coalition based on ideological opposition to the judicial reform is almost nonexistent, Klughaft argued.

Therefore, the mass protests and the opposition’s sharp criticism of the judicial reforms are actually not what will weaken the coalition, he explained.

Rather, the real threat to the coalition resides in issues of religion and state, he argued.

While the haredi parties and Smotrich are close on ideological grounds, there are tensions between them over control of the state’s religious services, including the Chief Rabbinate and other institutions. However, these are nothing compared to ideological tensions between the haredi and religious-Zionist parties and Likud MKs who care for liberal values, such as Amichai Chikli, Nir Barkat and Ofir Akunis, Klughaft argued.

These and others already spoke out against their coalition partners on some issues.

“If the opposition attacks these fault lines, it could increase pressure in the coalition – and the nature of fault lines is that they broaden,” Klughaft said.

These pressures could increase during the passing of the budget, since then decisions will be made regarding funding and legislation of some of the controversial law proposals.

But it is worth remembering that these currently are merely pressures, not cracks, and other tensions, such as those surrounding Smotrich’s authorities in the Defense Ministry, will not last, Klughaft opined.

“I think that Smotrich is very satisfied with his role as finance minister and will behave responsibly and not collapse the government,” he said.

A compromise will likely be struck between Gallant, Smotrich and Netanyahu that will differentiate between the “present” and the “past.” Issues relating to the present, including new outposts or illegal construction, will be dealt with by Gallant, while outposts that were built in the past, including some that are currently going through court processes, will be dealt with by Smotrich. Gallant will thus make all decisions regarding defense and security, while Smotrich will take over the civilian affairs, Klughaft said.

The wild card in the government is actually Ben-Gvir, he said.

“Ben-Gvir could be the Liberman of this government,” he said.

Liberman was a serial quitter from governments and had a modus operandi. When he would conclude that he could not reach a certain goal, whether by his fault or not, Liberman would come up with an ultimatum, such as destroying terror in Gaza, and when the prime minister refused, he would quit.

“I think that Ben-Gvir on one hand wants to be in his position long enough in order to accrue some experience, but on the other hand he may eventually launch an ultimatum, quit the government, and arrive at the next election from the opposition,” Klughaft said.

Why would he do that?

“I think that since Ben-Gvir plans to run alone [in the next election] as the most right-wing party, he views his political role as more suited to entering a campaign from the opposition, because then he will be able to promise things that were not achieved during the government’s tenure” and position himself as the true right-wing alternative, Klughaft concluded.