Netanyahu’s Coalition of the Unwilling

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by Mitchell Plitnick

After Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising victory in Israel’s national elections in March, he took until the last possible minute to complete the process of forming the government for his fourth term as Israel’s prime minister. For all the time he invested, despite making it just under the wire, Netanyahu ended up with a fragile, ultra-right-wing coalition and more work ahead of him to bring in at least one more party.

The government Netanyahu presented to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was a bare majority of 61 seats out of the 120-seat Knesset. There are no fig leafs in this coalition, no Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak for Netanyahu to send to talk fruitlessly with the Palestinians. One might think this would make the coalition more stable, since it consists entirely of the right wing. In this, one would be wrong.

Netanyahu is, in fact, desperate to add another party to the coalition because there is so much tension in the current majority, most visibly between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi. Likud leaders, including Netanyahu, feel that Bennett essentially held the coalition hostage to his demands. They are quite right about that, but the gambit paid off handsomely for Bennett.

HaBayit HaYehudi holds a mere eight seats in the Knesset. Yet Bennett and his party will get four ministries, the deputy defense minister post, as well as the chairs of two key Knesset committees dealing with Israel’s legal system. That is what you get when you play hardball with Netanyahu, a man who likes to talk tough but who is a political creature first and foremost and quickly backs off from a high-stakes fight he is not sure he can win.

As things stand, this coalition might not last the year. That is why, after Avigdor Lieberman quit his post as foreign minister and took his greatly diminished party into the opposition, Netanyahu left the post open by keeping that portfolio for himself. In reality, Netanyahu has been the foreign minister all along, so it is not an added burden for him.

Leaving the position open gives him a tempting carrot with which to try to lure Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog into a unity government (see my piece here for why that would be a terrible idea for all concerned) or to tempt Lieberman back in. Without one of those parties, the government is too fragile to last very long. Even if Lieberman does rejoin, the mere six seats he would bring offer only token stability. Herzog is the man Netanyahu needs.

Bennett’s Gamble

On the day that Netanyahu was supposed to present his government, he was still eight seats short of a majority. Luckily for Bennett, that was the exact number of seats he controlled and he let Netanyahu know just how lucky he was.

Bennett played a game of chicken with Netanyahu, pushing for more and more power within the government and knowing that Bibi was going to have a hard time saying no to anything. Bennett won, and the spoils were vast. The far-right HaBayit HaYehudi party now controls the ministries of education, agriculture, justice, and diaspora affairs. The position of deputy defense minister will also be theirs.

It is even worse than it sounds. With the ministry of agriculture comes control over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, which funds the expansion of settlements. Uri Ariel, perhaps the most extreme pro-settler member of the Knesset, will have that portfolio.

It gets worse yet. Bennett gave the justice ministry to Ayelet Shaked. Shaked is a notorious racist who once proudly posted an article by a speechwriter named Uri Elitzur that named the entire Palestinian nation as enemies. Elitzur further agued that Palestinian mothers “must go” if their sons commit acts of violence because they raised a “snake” and would raise more “snakes.” In the context of calling every single Palestinian “the enemy,” this is clearly hate speech. Shaked tried to deny the contents of the post, saying it was mistranslated. Hebrew readers can judge for themselves here, where the post is archived. Although it is not quite a call for genocide, as some have suggested, it is clearly incitement and hate speech. This is the new minister of justice in Israel.

Lest there be any doubt about how much Shaked agrees with Elitzur, she said the following just before the full-scale war on Gaza last summer: “This is not a war against terror, and not a war against extremists, and not even a war against the Palestinian Authority. The reality is that this is a war between two people. Who is the enemy? The Palestinian people. Why? Ask them, they started it.”

Shaked is certain to work hard to undermine Israel’s fragile legal system. She will also be heading the powerful Ministerial Committee for Legislation and the Judicial Appointments Committee, giving her even more leverage to eliminate a legal system that she sees as a bastion of the left. Moreover, she is very likely to be minister of justice when the next attorney general is appointed.

Uri Ariel can be equally certain to press hard for as much settlement expansion—all over the West Bank and, especially, in East Jerusalem—as the available shekels and the defense minister, who will still be Moshe Ya’alon, will allow. I would rather not even think about what Bennett, the new minister of education, is going to do to the minds of Israeli students. Academia is also thought of as a bastion of the left in Israel, and the climate for free thought in Israeli institutions is certainly threatened now.

A Question of Longevity

The real question about all of this is how long it will last. An ultra-right government like this one is not going to get along well with the Obama administration or most of Europe, although the Republican-led Congress is likely to fall in love with it. Some may hope that this will be a case of things getting so bad that political pressure for improvement must come. Sadly, such is not the history of Israel or of this conflict.

Netanyahu will be spending the next few months trying to woo Isaac Herzog into the government, and this is what the whole game comes down to. If Herzog joins and creates a national unity government of 85 seats, this government will survive. The Labor Party, which makes up most of the Zionist Union, is unlikely to provide much of a counter to the right-wing majority. Much more likely is that, as has happened in the past, many of Labor’s Knesset members and other leaders will bolt the party rather than serve as a fig leaf for such a far-right government.

If Herzog does not join the government, this fourth Netanyahu government will not outlast Barack Obama’s presidency, and might not even come close. The right wing does not play well together, and it will take nothing more than a few well-timed votes of no-confidence to take down this government even if none of the parties bolts. Even that scenario, however, offers little hope. The last elections were hailed as a comeback for Labor, but the center and left still cannot form a coalition without the Joint List (a coalition of mostly Arab parties), and that remains anathema in Israeli politics. In fact, little changed in the left-right balance in the last elections, and that is showing no signs of turning around.

It has never been clearer that positive change in Israel is going to require some sort of meaningful action by the United States and/or Europe. If that does not come, and it does not seem to be on the horizon, disaster looms.

Photo: Naftali Bennett

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Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He is the former director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and was previously the director of education and policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published and respected policy analyst. Born in New York City, raised an Orthodox Jew and educated in Yeshiva, Mitchell grew up in an extremist environment that passionately supported the radical Israeli settler movement. His writing has appeared in the Jordan Times, Israel Insider, UN Observer, Middle East Report, Global Dialogue, San Francisco Chronicle, Die Blaetter Fuer Deutsche Und Internationale Politik, Outlook, and in a regular column for a time in Tikkun Magazine. He has been interviewed by various outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor and CNBC Asia. Plitnick graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in Middle Eastern Studies and wrote his thesis on Israeli and Jewish historiography and earned his Masters Degree from the University of Maryland, College Park's School of Public Policy.

One Comment

  1. The left does not have a majority even with the Arab party, so it’s not even an option. Besides, the Joint List clearly indicated it would not join such a government, so it’s double not an option. And uniting the socialist visions of Meretz with the liberal Yesh Atid would be rather daunting, so it would not work three times over. Perhaps if Herzog and/or Lapid would be open for joining a Netaniyahu-led government, things would look different. The current coalition is equally their responsibility, primarily Lapid’s, who caused the elections to begin with. Acknowledging defeat and taking responsibility is not their strongest side I guess.

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