by Marsha B. Cohen
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has less than 48 hours remaining to put together a coalition government. If Netanyahu fails to come up with a slate of partners by Wednesday at 8 pm, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will be required by Israel’s Basic Law to task another member of Knesset with doing so. If successful, that coalition builder would replace Bibi as Israel’s Prime Minister.
Both before and after Israel’s March 17 parliamentary election, Netanyahu was confident that creating a workable amalgam of governing parties would be easy, clean, and quick. It hasn’t worked out that way. Although Netanyahu’s Likud party itself received enough votes to control a quarter of the 120 seats in the Knesset, the far-right “natural allies” on whom Bibi was counting for a seamless transition to Israel’s 30th government have proven to be the most recalcitrant in joining the new government.
As of Sunday night, Netanyahu had only signed coalition agreements with two parties—the Likud spinoff Kulanu (10 seats) and the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Bibi is still 15 seats short of the very slimmest of majorities in the new Knesset.
Moshe Kahlon, the founder and leader of Kulanu (All of Us) and the “kingmaker” who recommended to Rivlin that Netanyahu be given the first crack at forming a coalition, was the first to sign a deal with Bibi. Kahlon will become finance minister in the new government. Kulanu is also receiving the ministries of Housing and Construction and of Environmental Protection, as well as the Israel Land Authority and the chairmanship of the Knesset Labor, Welfare, and Health Committee.
Before signing the coalition deal, Kahlon reportedly received Netanyahu’s assurance that the integrity of the judicial system would be shielded from political interference. Bibi promised that the new government would not implement controversial measures proposed by Likud and Habayit Hayehudi that would dramatically alter and weaken the Israeli Supreme Court by, for instance, subjecting its decisions to legislative override.
The second deal signer, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party (UTJ), has received a deputy position in the Health Ministry, as well as control the powerful Knesset Finance Committee (which Kahlon initially demanded as a condition of joining the coalition). A UTJ member will become Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, and another will hold the post of Minister of Science and Technology. The deal with UTJ yields to many of the non-Zionist ultra-Orthodox party’s demands concerning government policy. The UTJ, for instance, wants to freeze reforms to Israel’s conversion laws that would make it easier for Israelis who are not considered Jewish under religious law, but who are regarded by the state as ethnically Jewish and qualified for citizenship if they have just one Jewish grandparent, to convert without complying with the rigid and arcane requirements imposed by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. Additionally the UTJ deal will also thwart previous efforts to cut government child subsidies to large families, who are mainly ultra-Orthodox, and will rescind criminal penalties for ultra-Orthodox Jews who refuse to enlist in the IDF or National Service.
“Insane and Extortionist” Demands
But negotiations with three parties—Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our Home), and the ultra-Orthodox Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians)—aren’t going so well. With the deadline looming, Netanyahu is now on the cusp of conceding to demands for cabinet positions that a senior member of his own Likud party has blasted as “insane and extortionist.” Members of Netanyahu’s own Likud are not at all pleased that, after an election that established Likud as the largest and most powerful political party in Israel, Netanyahu is doling out the most highly prized positions in the new cabinet to small parties with seven seats or less. The biggest winner of the battle for votes, Likud is now the biggest loser of the spoils of war.
Likud’s overwhelming triumph in the election was achieved in part by diverting the votes from these smaller parties Bibi now needs for a coalition. As many as three Knesset seats from Habayit Hayehudi were siphoned off in the hours just before the election when Netanyahu co-opted its racist agenda, leaving the hawkish pro-settler, anti-Arab party with eight Knesset seats instead of anticipated 11. The party’s chairwoman, Ayelet Shaked, immediately demanded that the party receive cabinet portfolios based on the number of votes the polls predicted it would receive rather than the number it actually got. Habayit Hayehudi will receive at least three cabinet posts in the new government.
Party leader Naftali Bennett initially coveted the post of foreign minister. Instead Netanyahu has offered him the Ministry of Education, which controls the budget allocations not only of primary and secondary education but religious institutions (yeshivot). Habayit Yehudi insists that billions of shekels be transferred to the Education Ministry. As minister of Education, Bennett will be able to direct those funds to schools and colleges in “Judea and Samaria,” aka the West Bank settlements, as well as to religious nationalist institutions. Bennett reportedly is demanding $648 million for the Education Ministry before signing an agreement. As of Sunday night, Netanyahu was offering half that sum.
According to the latest update on the coalition negotiations, Habayit Hayehudi’s party’s Uri Ariel will receive the post of minister of Agriculture (another plum for the pro-settler agenda). Bennett will also retain the post he now holds as minister of Diaspora Affairs. Shaked has been reportedly offered the Ministry of Sport and Culture, into which Sherut Leumi, a national service alternative to serving in the Israel Defense Forces, may be added. Habayit Hayehudi also insists that Netanyahu promise not to freeze construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Shas leader Arye Deri’s controls seven seats Bibi needs to get to the 61-seat magic number to conclude the coalition negotiations. According to the Jerusalem Post, Deri has confirmed that he’s been offered the Ministry of the Economy, which Bennett held in the last (and current caretaker) government, which was expected to go to a senior member of Likud. Deri would also become the minister of Religious Services, to which the religious nationalist Habayit Hayehudi objects, wanting the post for itself. In addition to a third cabinet portfolio for himself, Deri lobbied for a zero value added tax on price-controlled food staples, which he says Netanyahu agreed to over the weekend.
In a surprise move on Monday, Yisrael Beitenu’s leader Avigdor Lieberman, who was slated to retain the Foreign Ministry despite his party’s all-time electoral low of six seats, announced that he will not join the coalition. Instead, he will retain his commitment to his party’s principles such as getting rid of Hamas rule in Gaza and permitting unlimited construction in all parts of Jerusalem. Lieberman and his party also want to redraw the Israeli boundaries to exclude some Arab towns and villages—within the “green line” borders that held from 1949 to 1967—whose residents are Israeli citizens. Most crucial for Lieberman, however, was the deal Netanyahu entered into with UTJ, which will reverse all of the religious reforms he had pushed for in the previous government.
Although Netanyahu can squeak by without Lieberman’s seats, the new coalition will hang by a hair, with a mere 61-59 majority. There will be zero margin for error if any member of the coalition chooses to vote his or her conscience against proposed legislation (as Kahlon insists he retains the right to do). It will be impossible to impose discipline on such a fragile government.
This has led to speculation that Netanyahu may now attempt to form a “national unity government” with one of his more centrist political rivals, which President Rivlin has favored all along. However, other parties in the nascent cabinet, especially some members of Likud, declared both before and after the election that they would refuse to serve in a “national unity” coalition. The compromises Netanyahu will have to make in order to lure the Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog or Tzipi Livni or Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (“There is a future) into the government at the 11th hour, would be regarded as nothing less than outright betrayal by right wingers. Many center-left voters would be equally appalled if the party for which they voted were to throw Netanyahu a lifeline in order to rescue him from his own arrogance and folly—unless the price extracted was very high indeed.
An unscientific poll on the Haaretz website on Monday morning indicates that Israelis are about equally divided (as they are on almost everything) about the odds that Netanyahu will be able to buy himself a last-minute coalition to present to Rivlin by Wednesday. If he does, it remains unclear how high the price tag will be, how long will it last, and who will ultimately foot the bill politically and financially.
Photo: Avigdor Lieberman