Netanyahu’s Successful Failure
Netanyahu paid a high price to put together an unstable coalition with a bare-minimum majority
With less than two hours to go before the deadline to form a government expired, Benjamin Netanyahu was able to seal the last coalition deal he needed to become Prime Minister once again.
After a harrowing two days of intense negotiations with the lone holdout party, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, Netanyahu was able to wrangle him into his coalition, giving him a razor-thin 61-seat majority in the Knesset. A bare-minimum majority, but a majority nonetheless. King Bibi, as Time Magazine once christened him, could safely sit on his throne a bit longer.
Yet the face of the man shaking Naftali Bennett’s hand and later sitting next to him at the late-night announcement of their agreement was not the face of a victor. It was not the usual self-assured Netanyahu that the world knows so well. No, this was the face of a man who had been absolutely worked. He had formed his government, and he had paid every price asked of him to do it.
It was the dual expression of relief and realization. Netanyahu was, of course, relieved that he had managed to form a government. If he hadn’t, it would have been perhaps the greatest political embarrassment in Israeli history. The leader of the largest party in the Knesset, after what seemed like a decisive electoral victory, would fail to build a coalition after 42 days. President Reuven Rivlin would have no choice but to give opposition leader Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Camp the opportunity to form a government. Although it would be unlikely that Herzog would have actually been able to put together his own coalition, the idea that he just might pull it off was mortifying to the right wing of Israeli politics.
If Herzog failed, it would have meant new elections within 90 days. Two elections for the Knesset within just six months. The entire political game would be reset. Netanyahu had convinced many voters from the right to break with their normal party loyalties, for example to Jewish Home and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu, and join Likud to ensure Netanyahu would get the first opportunity to form a coalition. Chances are that he would not be able to make that argument again and poach voters from his right flank. He would be the guy who got what he wanted, the Knesset’s largest party, and still couldn’t form a government. Netanyahu’s legitimacy as the leader of the right would be shattered. His ability to stave off a challenge to his leadership of the Likud party would be in doubt.
He staved off those possibilities, though. Netanyahu has his government. Relief.
Relief mixed with the realization; the man who will be leading his fourth government and knows how much he has given up to get it. When Avigdor Lieberman withdrew from negotiations on May 5th and took Yisrael Beitenu into the opposition, he took away what little flexibility Netanyahu still had. Instead of having some ability to resist Bennett’s demands, Netanyahu now found himself forced to give in to every whim of his old protégé or else lose his chance to lead the next government.
When Bennett demanded the Justice Ministry for the number two on the Jewish Home list, Ayalet Shaked, Netanyahu had to give in. When he tried to fight back by limiting Shaked’s power as Justice Minister, Bennett simply countered by saying it was all or nothing. Bennett even supposedly put his phone on “airplane mode” at one point. The message was clear: give Jewish Home what they want or blow the chances for a right-wing government.
Both Bennett and Shaked worked for Netanyahu’s office during their early days in politics; now they were holding the keys to the Prime Minister’s office. Netanyahu caved.
It is hard not to be surprised at how much Netanyahu gave up to all of the parties that are to make up his government. Moshe Kahlon, leader of the Kulanu party, had made it clear throughout the election that he wanted the Finance Ministry in any government he would join. He not only got that from Netanyahu, but effectively all of the agencies he would need to enact wide-ranging land reform. To get the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Juidaism (UTJ) on board, he promised to roll-back legislation passed in his previous government that UTJ saw as attacks on them, such as the draft law that saw increasing numbers of Ultra-Orthodox serving in the military.
As part of the reforms demanded by Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid to join Netanyahu’s government in 2013, the number of ministers in the cabinet was capped at 18. It looks likely, though, that he will have that overturned in the next few months, opening up the ability to appoint more ministers. The high number of portfolios in past governments were effectively bribe money to keep the more recalcitrant coalition members in line. It was also a serious burden; the plethora of unnecessary ministries propped up a bloated bureaucracy.
Netanyahu needs more ministries, though, due to the simple fact that he gave away so many to the other parties and left a few, paltry offerings for members of his own party. Just because he is going to be prime minister again does not mean that members of the Likud are ecstatic. They saw what Netanyahu did and how he negotiated, in a way that they see as demeaning for a party that won 30 seats.
Jewish Home won eight seats in the Knesset; they received three high-level ministries, as well as the right to name the deputy defense minister. Shas won seven seats and was rewarded with three high level ministries, and so on. Netanyahu will most likely try to stack the all-important security cabinet with Likud members in an effort to placate them, but he is ruling over a party that is slowly, but surely seeking an alternative to his leadership.
61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. A 61-seat government against a 59-seat opposition. Netanyahu’s reward for his magnanimity was the thinnest possible majority. His generosity has earned him a coalition where 100% of the members must be kept happy 100% of the time. This is not part of the recipe for good governance.
He gave the Justice Ministry to Ayalet Shaked who, like Bennett and Netanyahu himself, are in support of judicial reform that would limit the authority of the Supreme Court and change the nomination process, but any of their efforts would run into the opposition of Kulanu. As part of his coalition deal, Kahlon won the ability to effectively veto any proposed legislation related to the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu made promises to UTJ related to the draft law, but this will probably run into enough opposition within the government that he wouldn’t be able to pass any amendments. Kahlon envisions himself being the leader of a great socio-economic reform program, especially in regards to housing, yet even this may not pass if enough is not given to the Ultra-Orthodox or if Bennett makes demands that some of the legislation benefit West Bank settlements.
The Prime Minister has spoken in the past of shepherding through electoral reforms to improve government stability. With the coalition he has built, though, chances are his flock would scatter and enough would be scooped up by the opposition to block him.
It is assumed that Netanyahu will continue trying to bring on more coalition partners, in particular Herzog and the Zionist Camp. Lieberman left the Foreign Ministry up for grabs when he entered the opposition, and it is an open secret that Netanyahu is keeping it open for a possible partnership with Herzog. The likelihood of Herzog joining this government is quite slim. It is too right-wing for his liking, and there is a solid chance that it will collapse prematurely. Why join this government and prop up Netanyahu? Why not just wait for his grand right-wing coalition to implode?
Among other possibilities, Netanyahu will also try to woo individual members of the opposition into breaking away from their parties and joining him. He is probably hoping for someone to do as Ehud Barak did in 2011, when he split from the Labor party (which he led) and helped to keep Netanyahu’s coalition together.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, his coalition is more likely to shrink than it is to grow.
Netanyahu also faces the same problems with his international image as before. Those who were concerned by his apparent disavowal of the two-state solution with the Palestinians in the days prior to the election will most likely not be pleased with the inclusion of the avowedly anti-two state solution Jewish Home into the coalition. Jewish Home member Uri Ariel, who is slated to become Agriculture Minister, is the king of the settlement movement in politics, and will now have control over the mechanisms of government that support the settlement enterprise. Netanyahu is likely to run into stiff opposition from within his own government if he tries to make any diplomatic moves with the Palestinians, with the added problem of the fact that his government can be easily brought down.
When he called for elections at the end of 2014, Netanyahu promised Israelis a “better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern.” Instead, what he delivered was a narrow, right-wing government that looks unlikely to be able to pass any meaningful legislation and is even less likely to last a full term.
Garrett Khoury, a graduate of The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs and an MA Candidate at Tel Aviv University, is the Director of Research and Content for The Eastern Project. Garrett has previously worked with The Israel Project in Jerusalem and The American Task Force on the Western Sahara in Washington, DC. Contact at: email@example.com