Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is racing against the clock to assemble a new governing coalition before his statutory deadline runs out on Wednesday and he’s forced to return his mandate to Israel’s figurehead president. By all reports, it’s going to be a cliffhanger.
Of the five smaller parties he wants to recruit, two have signed coalition agreements with Netanyahu’s Likud. The other three are at loggerheads with Netanyahu, with each other and with the two parties that are already signed up.
The three holdout parties — Naftali Bennett’s settler-backed Jewish Home, Aryeh Deri’s Sephardic ultra-Orthodox Shas and Avigdor Lieberman’s rightist-cum-Russian immigrant Yisrael Beiteinu — have several things in common: They all suffered dramatic losses in the latest election. They all blame Netanyahu for their losses. And they’ve all been fighting to retain the jobs and clout they held in the last Knesset, despite their reduced stature. Netanyahu wants to cut them down to size, partly to leave some goodies for his own Likud followers. But he needs them; without them he doesn’t have a government.
One of the three holdouts, Lieberman, announced Monday that he was abandoning negotiations, quitting as foreign minister and heading for the opposition benches rather than join the new Netanyahu government.
If Lieberman sticks to the threat, the best Netanyahu can hope for by Wednesday is a narrow, shaky coalition controlling a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That would leave the prime minister at the mercy of any disgruntled lawmaker who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and decides to bring the government down.
But Netanyahu may have no other option. If he can’t present a new government to the Knesset by Wednesday, six weeks after receiving a mandate from the president — seven weeks after the March 17 parliamentary elections — then the president, Reuven Rivlin, is required by law to choose another lawmaker to try forming a government. That presumably would be Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog. If Herzog can’t close the deal within 28 days, Israel goes back to the ballot box.
Netanyahu’s biggest negotiating problem derives from the nature of his surprise victory in the March election. His Likud party won 30 Knesset seats, one-fourth of the body, to Herzog’s 24 seats, defying weeks of polls that had shown the two in a dead heat. But Netanyahu’s last-minute surge wasn’t so much a sudden embrace of his views. Rather, it resulted from a gimmick: an urgent, eleventh-hour appeal to supporters of the smaller right-wing parties, normally the Likud’s allies, to cross over and vote Likud. That, he argued, was the only way to guarantee him first place and prevent Herzog from forming a government of the left.
It worked, sort of. Netanyahu won a healthy lead, guaranteeing him first crack at negotiating a coalition. But he also won the resentment of the small-party leaders whose voters he poached, and whom he now needs to bring into his government. Of the five parties he’s trying to woo into his coalition, three emerged from the election dramatically reduced in size from the last Knesset. They’re the ones that are now giving him a hard time in coalition negotiations. The other two emerged unscathed. They’re the ones that have signed agreements without much trouble.
Of the two that have signed, one, United Torah Judaism, won the same six seats it usually receives from its loyal voter base of Ashkenazic ultra-Orthodox Jews. It demanded and received the spoils it traditionally gets when it enters a coalition, namely control of the Health Ministry and chair of the Knesset Finance Committee. It also got a nearly complete rollback of the reforms pushed through the last Knesset by Yair Lapid’s secularist Yesh Atid party, including drafting of ultra-Orthodox men, easing the rabbinic marital bureaucracy and cutting lifelong welfare subsidies for yeshiva students. The rollback is expected to cost taxpayers some 4.5 billion shekels.
The other signer, the Kulanu party of the populist, center-right Likud defector Moshe Kahlon, didn’t exist until this election and so had nothing to lose. It won an impressive 10 seats. Kahlon ran on a promise to lower the cost of living for the middle class. To do it, he insisted on receiving control of the Finance Ministry and a brace of smaller agencies that ensure his orders are carried out. Netanyahu gave him most of what he wanted.
The other three parties emerged from the election as shells of their former selves. There were a variety of reasons, mostly unconnected to Netanyahu’s last-minute appeal. But they’re blaming Netanyahu anyway, peppering him with impossible demands. Notably, they’ve been demanding government spoils commensurate with the clout they used to hold as middle-size parties, not the rump factions they’ve become.
The least of the prime minister’s problems comes from Shas, the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party. It dropped from 11 seats in the last Knesset to 7 in the new one. Its voters are believed to have gone in two directions. Some went to Kahlon, who is widely viewed as a champion of the Sephardic working class, Shas’s traditional calling card. Most, though, went to a new party formed by Shas’s former No. 2 leader, Eli Yishai.
Yishai took over the reins of Shas in 2000, when party founder Aryeh Deri went to prison for bribery, and yanked the party sharply rightward. While the two share a devotion to Haredi Judaism, Deri is a strong dove on foreign affairs and economically a social-democrat. Yishai is a hardline hawk and firm free-marketeer. When Deri returned just before the 2013 elections, an explosion became inevitable.
This past winter Yishai bolted and joined with a tiny group of former Meir Kahane loyalists. They won enough votes for three Knesset seats, shy of the four-seat minimum for entry but enough to gut Deri’s revamped Shas.
Yishai also did some damage to Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. Formerly known as the National Religious Party, it’s traditionally been a sectoral party representing the religious Zionist-modern Orthodox community and the settlers. Bennett, a millionaire hi-tech entrepreneur, has tried since taking over in 2012 to broaden its base and make it a general-interest party of the right, challenging the Likud for national leadership.
In the last Knesset Bennett held 12 seats, up from 7 the party’s several components held in the one before it. This year’s pre-election polls showed him coming in third with 16 seats. Instead, thanks partly to the defection of some settlers to Yishai, but mostly to the voters’ last-minute rush to the Likud, Bennett ended up with 8 seats. Relations with Netanyahu, never warm to begin with — Bennett was Netanyahu’s personal chief of staff from 2006 to 2008 and left on bad terms — have now turned poisonous.
The third holdout, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, dropped from 13 seats in the last Knesset to 6 in the new one. Most of the losses are believed to be the party’s own doing. One factor was a corruption scandal that came to light in December 2014, in the heat of the election campaign, resulting in the arrest or resignation of numerous top party leaders. The other was Lieberman’s decision in 2013 to moderate his famously incendiary rhetoric on Arabs, peace and civil liberties, which had crippled him as foreign minister, and create a more centrist image. It resuscitated his diplomacy but gutted his party’s base. His right-wingers haven’t forgiven him.
Bennett came into the election expecting to be named defense minister, the government’s second most powerful post, and not coincidentally the official in charge of the West Bank, which remains under military rule. He had been informally promised the job during the campaign, when he and Netanyahu agreed not to attack each other. Since the election, though, he’s been told that the promised post was contingent on his controlling a sizable bloc of the Knesset to justify the plum post. Having been reduced to a rump, Likud officials say, he can hardly expect the second most powerful job in the country. Given that his losses were mostly Netanyahu’s doing, Bennett and his lieutenants are furious.
Bennett then tried to bargain for the Foreign Ministry. But Netanyahu had promised to leave it in Lieberman’s hands, even though Lieberman won even fewer seats than Bennett. Netanyahu offered Bennett the Education Ministry along with Agriculture for one of his lieutenants, a key position for aiding settlements.
After several weeks of butting heads, Bennett accepted those two ministries. But he wants more. Notably, he wanted the Religious Affairs Ministry. That brought him into conflict with Shas, which has been promised Religious Affairs. Likud negotiators are suggesting that Bennett place an ally as deputy religious affairs minister, but Deri doesn’t want to share the office — certainly not with a modern Orthodox party that would resist Shas’s plans to move rightward on marriage, conversion, adoption, rabbinical courts and other issues.
As for Lieberman, his eleventh-hour revolt is a curious mixture of right-wing and liberal motives, along with some old-fashioned pork. Among his coalition demands were enacting a death penalty for convicted terrorists, something the rest of the coalition has balked at. More serious, he objected to the planned rollback of last year’s reforms in marriage, conversion and the military draft. As spokesman for the estimated 300,000 Russian immigrants who aren’t Jewish by Orthodox standards, can’t get married in Israel and have a hard time meeting the hardline ultra-Orthodox rules of conversion, the reforms were at least as important to him as to Lapid.
And, though he hardly mentioned it, he was infuriated that Netanyahu turned down his demand to have one of his allies, rising star Orly Levy-Abekassis, a former model and daughter of onetime foreign minister David Levy, chair the Knesset’s welfare and labor committee. Lieberman said his decision to join the opposition was about “principle, not jobs.” But, to paraphrase the American political truism, when they tell you it’s not about jobs — it’s about jobs.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).