Analysis: The coalition: Less popular, more stable

Yitzhak Herzog's acceptance on Thursday of the Social Affairs portfolio, despite the roundabout topsy-turvy way it came about, further bolsters the coalition.

Perhaps the most striking contradiction concerning this government's fortunes is that the less popular it gets - and there have been few administrations if any, in Israel's history to have sunken so low in the polls - the more stable it becomes. Yitzhak Herzog's acceptance on Thursday of the Social Affairs portfolio, despite the roundabout topsy-turvy way it came about, further bolsters the coalition and potentially prolongs its survival. Now that Labor has finally gotten its hands on the ministry that it at least publicly coveted for so long, it will find it a lot more difficult to justify breaking up with Kadima. There were expectations that in a desperate attempt to save his leadership, Amir Peretz would be tempted to provoke a coalition crisis just before the May 28 Labor primaries. Such a step could only play out against him. And neither will the next Labor chairman, whoever he is, be inclined to leave a cabinet where it now controls a number of significant portfolios so disproportionate to its size in the Knesset. Herzog, despite his obvious reluctance to leave the Tourism Ministry where he was having so much fun only 10 months after getting the job, will be extremely reluctant to let a third ministry slip his grasp after less than a year. (In 2005 he was also housing and construction minister for less than a year.) Neither will the other Labor ministers. Up until now the same couldn't be said for another coalition partner of Kadima's. Israel Beiteinu joined the government at a bargain basement price: one seat in the cabinet for Avigdor Lieberman and a seat without a bona fide ministry at that. This might have seen like a short-term advantage for Ehud Olmert but it also meant that there was little to keep the party in the coalition at a time of crisis. Now that the party is about to receive Herzog's Tourism Ministry and the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, it will have a much greater stake in staying. For Israel Beiteinu, this isn't just a matter of political fortunes. Having another minister around the cabinet table and chairing the most important committee in political terms - the Finance Committee prepares the state budget and can bring the government to a standstill - will change the party's stature immeasurably. No longer can we treat it as a one-man party, Lieberman and 11 non-entities. Additional figures will be tested on the national scene. In the next election, the party is expected to suffer a loss of its right-wing supporters for joining the center-left coalition, so it needs to prove now that it can at least be of use in the government. This week's developments finally ended the on-and off 10-month old coalition talks between Kadima and United Torah Judaism. This might not have much effect on the coalition arithmetic, as UTJ's six MKs don't make any difference right now. However, if an issue of state and religion causes trouble for the government - and with new Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, a former member of the now extinct Shinui ultra-secular party, that's a distinct possibility - Shas could suddenly turn into a big problem. Currently the party is Olmert's staunchest ally, but that could all change if the Shas leaders come under fire within their community for laxity on religious values. The UTJ politicians have been very skillful in the past in putting the pressure on their Shas colleagues. But in all, this seems to have been a good week for the coalition. Plummeting popularity rates notwithstanding, it is right now one of the most stable coalitions in memory. The impending Winograd Commission's interim report and investigations into Olmert's affairs are storm clouds still looming on the horizon, but since Winograd isn't expected to draw personal recommendations and the investigations will probably go on for many months, we might actually have a few months of political calm in store.