Politics and Diplomacy: A brittle coalition

Does the PM really want a small shaky government or would he prefer a large stable administration ostensibly committed to a two-state solution?

Benjamin Netanyahu  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu
(photo credit: REUTERS)
UNEASY LIES the head that wears the crown: As leader of a brittle, right-wing coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will face relentless domestic and international pressure. And with a majority of only 61 in the 120-member Knesset, it will take just two defectors to bring his fourth administration, established in early May, tumbling down.
Not only is Netanyahu’s majority wafer thin, there are potentially explosive rivalries among his coalition partners, deep personal antipathies between him and other leading protagonists, and simmering threats from malcontents in his own Likud party.
For all these reasons, Netanyahu sees the current government as primarily a holding operation until such time as he is able to broaden its base by bringing in Yitzhak Herzog’s moderate center-left Zionist Union. To do so, however, he will have to make major policy changes which may prove beyond him. At the very least, he would have to be able to point to renewal of a viable two-state negotiating process with the Palestinians – a tall order given the current government’s hawkish tilt. A secret back channel may be the route he chooses.
significant for Israel’s immediate future than the government’s size, however, are the powers and budgets Netanyahu showered on his so-called “natural partners” to get them to join his coalition and hold a big enough stake to remain loyal.
The largest share of the spoils went to Naftali Bennett’s eight-member ultra-hawkish, mainly settler Bayit Yehudi, which, as the last party to join, was able to hold the prime minister over a barrel. Bennett himself got the Education Ministry plus Diaspora Affairs, with a promise of disproportionately increased budgets for national religious education. Moreover, education policy under the unapologetically nationalistic Bennett will have significant implications for the curricula taught in Israeli schools.
Ayelet Shaked, who has no legal training and makes no secret of the fact that she wants to cut the Supreme Court down to size, will be Justice Minister. She favors an override mechanism that would enable the Knesset to reenact laws struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional.
She also wants to change the composition of the panel that appoints Supreme Court and other justices. At present the panel has three judges, two lawyers, two government ministers and two Knesset members – giving the legal representatives a built-in majority of 5 to 4; Shaked wants to have three from the judiciary, three from the executive and three from the legislature, handing the politicians a built-in majority of 6 to 3.
Bayit Yehudi will also be in a position to control the processing of legislation in the new Knesset. Shaked as justice minister will head the key ministerial committee on legislation, which handles government-initiated laws, while the Knesset’s Law, Constitution and Justice Committee, which decides, inter alia, which proposed laws get precedence and which are deliberately stalled, will be chaired by her Bayit Yehudi colleague Nissan Shlomiansky.
Both Bennett, as party head, and Shaked, as justice minister, will be ex-officio members of the select security cabinet. And in a legally questionable move, each Bayit Yehudi Knesset member will get a state-funded allocation of NIS 20 million to disburse as he or she pleases.
The icing on the cake for Bayit Yehudi is the Agriculture Ministry with the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Department for Uri Ariel, who will be in a position to channel funds and promote building plans for the party’s West Bank settler constituency.
NETANYAHU has been almost as generous with his Haredi coalition partners. Arye Deri’s Shas with just seven seats will get the economy, Negev and Galilee development and religious affairs ministries with a deputy minister in the Treasury; United Torah Judaism, with six seats, the Health Ministry and the key Knesset Finance Committee, with a deputy minister of education. These posts are tailor-made to serve their sectorial interests.
Even more important than the ministries are the coalition agreements they were able to secure. For example, NIS 1 billion for yeshivas, billions more in restoration of child allowances and, most importantly, the defanging of legislation for equal military service passed by the outgoing government.
To circumvent the law, the defense minister will be empowered to exempt Haredim on grounds of limited IDF manpower needs. The upshot is that yeshiva students will not be called on to serve, as long as they continue to study and don’t work. That perpetuates the anomalous situation the law was designed to address, in which large numbers of Haredim don’t serve and don’t work, placing an inordinate burden on the economy and restricting economic growth.
First to benefit from Netanyahu’s coalitionary largesse was Kulanu’s Moshe Kahlon, who with just 10 seats secured the Finance Ministry, plus the Planning Administration (moved from the Interior Ministry to accommodate him), the Housing Ministry and the Ministry for Environmental Protection. Kahlon also secured the right to vote against legislation he sees as anti-democratic, for example the proposed Nation State Law, which elevates Israel’s Jewish character above its democracy, or attempts by Shaked to move against the Supreme Court.
KAHLON’S MAIN goal as finance minister is to resolve the housing crisis, primarily by creating a large reservoir of affordable apartments for young first- time buyers. He sees all three ministries held by his party as part of the “toolbox” he says he needs to do the job. With this in mind, he is already exerting heavy pressure on Netanyahu to broaden the coalition.
He warns that the minute one of his proposed reforms fails to pass in the Knesset, because of the government’s tenuous majority, he and his party will bolt.
Netanyahu’s problems are compounded by differences on key issues between coalition partners: For example, Kulanu and Bayit Yehudi on the nature of Israeli democracy; the Haredi parties and Bayit Yehudi on the appointment of religious court judges or dayanim and the control of religious affairs in general; and between Netanyahu and Bayit Yehudi (and much of his own Likud party) on possible peace moves. Moreover, Netanyahu and his wife Sara share a deep personal antipathy for Bennett and Shaked – who both once worked for Netanyahu – which does not bode well for the longevity of the current Likud-Bayit Yehudi partnership.
Netanyahu reached the humiliating pass of having to bow to most of Bennett’s demands, mainly because of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman’s eleventh hour about-face on joining his coalition. Liberman claims he finally lost confidence in Netanyahu over his handling of last summer’s war in Gaza. But he is also livid at the fact that Netanyahu approved a police investigation against Yisrael Beytenu officials during the election run-up, severely damaging the party’s electoral prospects.
Netanyahu went on to aggressively poach votes from Liberman, paring him down to just six seats. Liberman’s decision to leave Netanyahu high and dry and expose him to Bennett’s extortionate demands with less than 48 hours to the deadline for forming a government was sweet revenge. Liberman’s goal in opposition is to reinvent himself as the authentic voice of the Israeli right at both Netanyahu and Bennett’s expense.
Even had Liberman enabled Netanyahu to form a coalition of 67, the prime minister would still have looked to Herzog to broaden its base and shield it from international opprobrium. All the more so now that he has been left with a coalition of just 61.
Netanyahu’s first move will be to pass the budget for 2015-16; then from a position of relative strength try to make Herzog an offer he can’t refuse. According to Likud insiders, it would be based on a focused national agenda including moves to solve the housing crisis, change the electoral system, improve ties with the US and negotiate a deal with the Palestinians.
The idea would be to limit the new partnership to a period of, say, two years, after which new elections would be held under the new system. In the meantime, Netanyahu intends to hold the foreign ministry himself, ostensibly for Herzog if and when he decides to come in. The current coalition agreements also include a proviso (clause 5) that all partners must surrender portfolios if Netanyahu moves to broaden the government base. Some pundits speculate that if Herzog were to join, Bennett would be forced to leave, making all three Bayit Yehudi portfolios available.
For now Herzog is being sharply critical of Netanyahu’s narrow government. It has, he says, already hit the foreign policy iceberg, threatens the delicate fabric of Israeli democracy and seems certain to increase social inequality through massive spending on settlements and special Haredi interests. And, he insists, he won’t be party to such a calamitous administration and won’t serve as Netanyahu’s savior.
But Herzog, with careful, lawyer-like wording, steadfastly refuses to rule out a different government with Netanyahu, based on different guidelines, different partners and virtually equal sharing of power. Labor party insiders say that if such an offer comes, it would have to include an agreed mechanism for shared leadership.
Herzog faces the classic Labor party dilemma of the past decade and a half, heightened since Netanyahu’s return to power in 2009. Let the Likud leader stew in his own juice, to the short-term detriment of the state, while creating conditions for his ouster; or join him to have a share of power and influence on Israel’s immediate future, at the risk of being seriously weakened when the next election comes round.
Even if Netanyahu makes a serious offer, it won’t be easy for Herzog to accept. There are three major factors weighing against an affirmative answer. The more brittle the coalition, the more Netanyahu needs him, the less Herzog will be inclined to join a government that could quickly collapse, leading to an alternative administration he might head or elections he might win. Moreover, inside the Zionist Union there is a strong influential body of opinion against joining Netanyahu under any circumstances.
problem will be trusting Netanyahu, no matter what he promises. Every center-left or centrist leader who has worked under Netanyahu has emerged politically weakened, after failing to achieve his or her goals: Labor’s Ehud Barak, Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni of Hatnua. Barak and Livni had reason to feel shortchanged by Netanyahu on the peace process, Lapid on the economy and Mofaz on conscription for Haredim.
Nevertheless, the possibility of a Netanyahu- Herzog coalition a few months down the road cannot be ruled out. Quiet contacts between the two men through close confidants, Natan Eshel for Netanyahu and Shimon Batat for Herzog, are expected to continue.
The gains for Netanyahu are clear: government stability, international approval and the capacity to get things done. Herzog, unlike his predecessors, could, if he gets the right deal, use the foreign ministry, or even a brief rotational period as prime minister, to build his credentials as a national leader.
In the meantime, both sides will play the same parallel game: fighting to discredit each other, while keeping an option for future collaboration open. Both will try to poach Knesset Members on either side of the coalition divide, with Netanyahu targeting deputies from the Zionist Union and Yesh Atid to strengthen his Knesset majority, and Herzog targeting Kulanu in an effort to bring the government down, while in parallel, behind-the-scenes feelers for a joint government continue.
Ultimately, it depends on what Netanyahu really wants: a small shaky government that guarantees no Palestinian state on his watch, or a large stable administration, ostensibly at least committed to a two-state solution.
And if the latter, the onus will be on him to convince Herzog that this time he really means it.