Right now, after finishing seven weeks of infuriating, hairpin coalition negotiations, Benjamin Netanyahu must be wondering what would be a worse fate for the impossibly shaky and extremist government he’s assembled: that it collapses the moment some disgruntled back-bencher decides to walk out — or that it survives and leads Israel into as-yet unimagined recesses of international isolation, delegitimization and conflict.
With a bare 61-seat majority out of the Knesset’s 120 total seats, the new government is fragile enough to be toppled by a strong breeze. Even if it were an alliance of happy, compatible partners pulling together, it would take only a single defection or even a bad flu to dissolve its majority and bring it down. And this isn’t a very happy partnership. The modern Orthodox Jewish Home party is sharply at odds with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism over marriage, conversion and rabbinical court rules. Shas and Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu are at odds with Jewish Home and most of the Likud over relations with the Palestinians and the future of the territories.
Kahlon has staked his career on delivering sweeping economic reforms that Netanyahu promised him in writing just a week ago. Now, as he’s publicly conceded this week, they look like so many pipe dreams in the raucous, divided Knesset session that lies ahead.
Moreover, any inclination lawmakers might feel to temper their appetites in the interests of good governance will fly out the window now that Jewish Home has demonstrated how easily Netanyahu can be blackmailed. The prime minister’s life will be an endless stream of large and small demands from his allies. And with a one-seat margin, he can hardly afford to turn anyone down.
On the other hand, a government that manages to survive and function reasonably well could make Netanyahu’s life even more miserable. The concessions he made to the Jewish Home party during the last day of negotiating give the ultranationalist settler-backed party control over some of the most explosive issues in Israeli politics and diplomacy. The truth about Netanyahu, too seldom noted, is that for all his public shows of defiance on the world stage, he’s always been careful not to cross over a certain line and turn Israel into a serious international pariah. The Jewish Home under party leader Naftali Bennett and his lieutenants has no such compunctions. There’s a messianic impulse there that welcomes it.
Bennett himself is slated to become education minister, after trying and failing to wrest defense or foreign affairs. But his No. 2, veteran settler militant Uri Ariel, 62, is slotted into the Agriculture Ministry. That puts him in a key position to aid and expand Jewish settlements deep into the West Bank, beyond the suburban settlement blocs that Israel is generally expected to keep. Ariel has also been given control of the controversial, semi-autonomous Settlement Division of the World Zionist Organization.
Even more controversial is the designation of the party’s No. 3, secular-nationalist firebrand Ayelet Shaked, 39, as justice minister. Internationally she’s best known for her Facebook post during last summer’s Gaza war calling for the mass destruction of “the entire Palestinian people,” including “women and the elderly.” She later deleted the post. At home, though, she’s best known for her legislative campaigns against political dissent, human rights activists, minority rights and the independence of Israel’s vaunted Supreme Court. As justice minister she’ll be the chief policy maker and executive officer on all those issues. She’s also been given control of the committee that appoints judges.
Perhaps even more important, Shaked will head the secretive Ministerial Committee on Legislation, which decides which bills are allowed onto the Knesset floor, and when. The previous justice minister, Tzipi Livni, used the position during the last Knesset to bottle up some of the most inflammatory right-wing bills proposed by Shaked and her allies. Now the fox will be guarding the chicken-coop.
It should be noted that none of the Netanyahu-Bennett agreements have been put in writing yet, and that Ariel is putting up a fight, demanding that he receive the justice ministry. Hard to tell where that will end up.
One more Jewish Home success that hasn’t gotten much public attention, but should: the promised appointment of Moti Yogev, 59, a close ally of Bennett’s, ranked No. 7 on the party’s Knesset slate, as deputy defense minister under past-and-future defense minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud. Yogev retired from a military career in 2000, at age 44, with the rank of colonel, and went to work for the settlement movement, first as head of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, then as chairman of the development corporation for the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and finally as municipal head of a cluster of West Bank settlements where he lives. As deputy defense minister he’ll be in charge of the Israeli military’s civil administration for the West Bank, effectively overseeing the territories’ military government. Again: fox, meet chicken-coop.
Each of those positions offers virtually limitless opportunities to put Israel on a collision course with Washington and Europe. If this coalition does survive in its current form, the next four years could make the current Obama-Netanyahu relationship look like a honeymoon cruise.
If there’s a ray of hope for liberals, it’s in the persistent rumors this week that Netanyahu is planning to bring Labor Party leader Yitzhak Herzog and his Zionist Union bloc into the coalition at the earliest possible date. Herzog would supposedly receive the foreign ministry and a promise of rotation, allowing him to serve as prime minister for the last 12 to 18 months of the new term.
The left wing of Labor furiously opposes joining the Netanyahu government and letting itself be used as a fig leaf for the prime minister’s rightist policies. It favors staying outside as a fighting opposition, in order to offer the voters a real alternative when the next elections roll around.
Herzog’s allies counter that being inside and mitigating the worst of the right’s plans does more good than sitting on the sidelines and shouting. As for the left’s contention that as a fighting opposition Labor might win over today’s Israeli electorate, Herzog’s allies ask, echoing his polite, soft-spoken manner, what they’re smoking.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).