by Marsha B. Cohen
Despite everything you’ve heard and read, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was not re-elected prime minister in Israel’s parliamentary election on March 17.
The statement issued by the White House was actually quite correct and appropriate in congratulating Netanyahu (belatedly, according to Obama’s usual detractors) on “his party’s success in winning a plurality of Knesset seats.” Although Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s Likud party won 30 seats in the Knesset, an Israeli political party must control at least a simple majority–no fewer than 61 of the total 120 Knesset seats–in order to form a government.
No party in Israel’s history has ever gotten close to that. Even the 30 seats amassed by the Netanyahu-led Likud party in its “stunning victory” in last Tuesday’s election are just shy of the halfway mark. So what happens now?
According to Israel’s Basic Law, which functions like a constitution, after hearing the recommendations of all political parties that won seats in the Knesset, regardless of size, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, can designate Netanyahu or any one of the 120 members of the Knesset to attempt to form a coalition of political parties that together control at least 61 Knesset seats. Although the president’s choice most often has been the leader of the party that won the most seats in the election, it isn’t always so, nor does it have to be. In 2009, for instance, the Kadima party, headed by Tzipi Livni, received one more Knesset seat than the Netanyahu-led Likud. When then-President Shimon Peres concluded that Livni would not be able to form a viable coalition, he called on runner-up Netanyahu to do so.
On Sunday—even before receiving the officially certified vote count—President Rivlin began meeting with the leaders of the 10 parties that won seats in the Knesset. Based on those recommendations and his own assessment, Rivlin will ask the Knesset member who seems most likely to build and sustain a coalition of parties with diverse interests and a minimum of 61 votes to begin doing so. That person will become prime minister only if and when s/he succeeds.
As of Sunday evening, Netanyahu had the endorsements of his Likud party (30 seats), the ultra-nationalist Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) party (8 seats), and two ultra-religious parties—the Sephardic Torah Guardians or Shas (7 seats) and United Torah Judaism (6 seats)—for a total of 51 recommendations that he form a new coalition. By Monday afternoon, Netanyahu had picked up the support of the ultra-right Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is Our Home) party (6 seats) and the ten seats of Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu (All of Us) party, giving him 67 recommendations. There’s seems to be little doubt that it will be Netanyahu who Rivlin will designate to form the next government by midweek. That won’t, however, make Bibi Israel’s re-elected prime minister. Netanyahu will have 28 days in which to form a coalition. If he cannot put together a viable coalition in that period, Rivlin will have the option of giving him an additional 14 days before asking someone else to try to do it. Only if and when he succeeds will Netanyahu actually become prime minister for another term.
What Could Block Bibi?
Every potential coalition partner has its price. In exchange for its support, each of the parties that joins the coalition expects Netanyahu to reciprocate with preferred cabinet ministries, positions on Knesset committees that determine policy and control huge amounts of government funds, and other political plums favoring its base and furthering its own political and ideological agenda. Once formed, a coalition can collapse at any time if the withdrawal of the leader of any constituent party leaves the government with fewer than 61 seats.
Naftali Bennett, who saw a third of the 11-12 seats that pre-election polling expected his ultra-nationalist party would receive go to Netanyahu when he coopted Bennett’s message, wants to become defense minister in Netanyahu’s new cabinet. Furthermore, Bennett announced that he will join the coalition only if Netanyahu explicitly rules out any possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state. After he stole Bennett’s momentum and message in the hours before the Israeli election by vehemently declaring that no Palestinian state would be established while he is prime minister, Netanyahu told Andrea Mitchell in a post-election interview, “I want a sustainable peaceful two-state solution” when circumstances allow it.
Current Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is also vying for the position of defense minister. Lieberman’s version of a “two state solution” calls for turning over jurisdiction of Arab cities and towns in “Green Line Israel” to a Palestinian government in exchange for Israeli annexation of the settlements of the West Bank. He recently recommended chopping off the heads of Arabs accused of disloyalty to the Jewish state. Although his party is down to only half a dozen Knesset seats, Lieberman wants one of the top posts in the cabinet as the price for joining Netanyahu’s coalition. Some see his demand for the Defense Ministry as a ploy to hold on to the Foreign Ministry in the new government. But prominent members of Likud are also coveting the post. Were Lieberman to become defense minister, Bennett might be appointed foreign minister.
Aryeh Deri, the leader of an ultra-orthodox Shas party directing its message to disaffected Mizrahi (Jews who trace their roots to Middle Eastern countries), wants to be the minister of the interior. In 1999 Deri was convicted of accepting $155,000 in bribes while in charge of the Interior Ministry for five years during a previous government, and he served 22 months in prison. Nevertheless, he resumed leadership of the Shas party in 2012, and may become minister of the interior again in the new coalition.
Challenge from the Center?
Moshe Kahlon, a pragmatic centrist, is widely regarded as the man who would have been “king maker” had the election been closer between Netanyahu and his center-left rival Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union.Nevertheless, his party’s 10 seats are essential to Netanyahu forming a government. Kahlon stated on Sunday night that although he would endorse Netanyahu to Rivlin as coalition builder on Monday, he and his party might choose not to join the new coalition unless his demands are met. Netanyahu has offered him the cabinet post of minister of finance in exchange for his support, but Kahlon is reportedly playing hardball. With an agenda that prioritizes bringing down soaring housing prices and the cost of living for Israelis, Kahlon is asking for the chairmanship of the influential Knesset Finance Committee for his party, so as to be able to exert greater influence over housing and construction policies. Furthermore, Kahlon wants Netanyahu to commit to a timetable that would implement specific reforms of the banking sector.
Rivlin hopes that Yair Lapid, the head of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, with 11 seats, and even the center-left Zionist Union, will eventually choose to join Netanyahu’s new coalition. He would like to see Netanyahu’s ultra-hawkish government have a fig-leaf of “national unity” and be able to project an illusion of moderation, without which Rivlin fears Israel will pay a high price in its foreign relations. Although it might benefit Israel’s image abroad, the participation of center and left parties would create a political nightmare for Netanyahu, who would have to at least pretend to moderate his stances in exchange for their support. It would infuriate Bibi’s uberhawkish coalition partners. Fortunately for Netanyahu, Lapid declined to endorse Bibi and declared that he will join Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union, in opposition. Both will be free to openly criticize the government and object to its policies with impunity.
Announcing that Netanyahu had received the necessary number of endorsements, Rivlin himself cautioned that someone tasked with forming a government might not succeed, since there is no guarantee that everyone who had nominated him will join his coalition. Furthermore, any coalition, once formed, must be approved by the Knesset. So Netanyahu has quite a few obstacles to overcome. Until he does so, he won’t have been “re-elected prime minister.”
Photo: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin