In a scarcely noticed series of political maneuvers, Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud party lost its primacy as the largest party in the Knesset last Wednesday. It’s now equal in size to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party at 19 seats each. Moreover, don’t be surprised if the prime minister finds himself dropping to 18 in the fall. I don’t know how, but I’ll bet Avigdor Liberman does.
The shift came when Liberman, foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, appointed Likud lawmaker Carmel Shama-Hacohen to become Israel’s ambassador to the Paris headquarters of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) as well as UNESCO and the Council of Europe.
Shama-Hacohen was confirmed by the cabinet and sworn in as ambassador by newly elected state president Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, August 5. The following day, August 6, the last day of the Knesset’s summer session, he was replaced in the Knesset by the next candidate on the 2013 Likud-Beiteinu joint Knesset slate, Yisrael Beiteinu veteran Alex Miller, a longtime Liberman ally.
Netanyahu’s Likud and Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu had joined forces in a joint list for the January 2013 election and formed a joint caucus in the Knesset that was sworn in the next month. Of the 31 Knesset seats they won in the balloting, 20 were held by Likud candidates and 11 by Yisrael Beiteinu.
The two parties retained separate organizations, however. Liberman ended the partnership this past July, claiming that he could not support Netanyahu’s too-moderate response to Hamas rocket fire. He kept his party in the governing coalition, however, and retained his post as foreign minister.
Reducing Likud to parity with Yesh Atid could create serious strains in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Under the 2013 coalition agreement, Likud-Beiteinu got 13 of the 23 ministerships in the cabinet, though it had 31 of 68 seats in the coalition, on the principle that the governing party must control a majority of the government’s ruling institutions. Following last month’s Netanyahu-Liberman split, Likud had 8 ministers and Yisrael Beiteinu had 5. Of the three junior partners, Yesh Atid had 19 Knesset seats and 5 ministers; Jewish Home had 12 seats and 3 ministers; and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah had 6 seats and 2 ministers.
The Shama shuffle means that Likud now has 8 ministers for its 19 seats while Yesh Atid has 5 for its 19. Yisrael Beiteinu has 5 ministers for its 12 seats while Jewish Home has 3 for its 12.
The all-important security cabinet is even more lopsided: Likud-Beiteinu had 5 of the 8 seats while the other 3 parties had 1 each. Now Likud has 3 to Yesh Atid’s 1 and Yisrael Beiteinu has 2 seats to Jewish Home’s 1.
Whether any of this becomes a problem for Bibi will depend on whether Yair Lapid or Naftali Bennett decide to make it one. Theoretically they could demand a reshuffling of ministers’ seats. That could very well cause Liberman to bolt and bring down the government. What are the odds? Lapid, a political rookie, has managed to get outmaneuvered in virtually every confrontation he’s faced since joining the government, and there’s no reason to think he’ll manage any better this time. As for Bennett, he can’t do any damage unless he’s riding with Lapid, and relations between the two, once sparking, have become poisonous in recent months.
Liberman reportedly first discussed the ambassadorship with Shama-Hacohen in January, after Shama-Hacohen lost a bid for mayor of his hometown of Ramat Gan. Shama-Hacohen was a former Knesset member but lost his seat in 2013 after being placed at No. 32 on the Likud-Beiteinu list. He entered the Knesset this past June, after Likud lawmaker Reuven Rivlin was elected president, succeeding Shimon Peres.
Ynet reported today that another Yisrael Beiteinu lawmaker, agriculture minister Yair Shamir (son of the later prime minister), will resign his Knesset seat when the house reconvenes for its fall session in October, though he will retain his cabinet seat. This will open the way for another Yisrael Beiteinu member to join the Knesset. That would be Leon Litinetski, a onetime Labor Party lawmaker who quit Labor and joined Yisrael Beiteinu in October 2012. An electric company union chief who headed the Labor Party Immigrants Organization and once served 7 months in Knesset, Litinetski claimed when resigning that his fellow ex-Soviet immigrants had lost confidence in Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch, though party sources pointed to his low slot on the party’s candidate slate as the likely motivation.
Replacing Shamir with Litinetski doesn’t give any obvious advantage to Yisrael Beiteinu, which will remain at 12 Knesset seats to Likud’s 19. With Avigdor Liberman, though, it’s always safe to bet that he knows something you don’t. It wasn’t for nothing that Martin Indyk, speaking in Aspen in July, called Liberman “the smartest politician in Israel.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).