The next Israeli government, the fourth led by Benjamin Netanyahu, will consist of 61 members, the barest majority in Israel’s 120-member Knesset.
When Netanyahu won the election two months ago, the size of his victory suggested he would dominate a potential coalition. Yet the campaign promises that led to his victory also sowed the seeds of his subsequent dissipation in leverage. By boxing himself in during the campaign, he gave smaller parties disproportionate power to enact a policy agenda, while he refrained from associating himself with any particular agenda beyond stopping Iran from going nuclear.
Given the narrowness of Netanyahu’s government, analysts of all stripes are profoundly doubtful about its ability to govern.
How his leverage slipped away
In order to win the March 17 election after finding himself suddenly behind in the polls, Netanyahu felt compelled to convince more right-wing voters that he was intent on governing from the right. Toward that end, he declared that he would not reach across the aisle and form a power-sharing arrangement with the Labor Party.
To fulfill this promise and preserve his credibility after the election, he was limited to forming a 67-member government with only a select group of parties. Netanyahu felt confident that these parties had nowhere else to go because they were largely right-of-center, but he did not have alternatives either given his campaign promise.
The net effect is that Netanyahu had to reach coalition agreements with the two smaller ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties — Shas (7 seats) and United Torah Judaism (6), whose terms were steep because they believed Netanyahu had no other option.
In negotiating with these parties, Netanyahu agreed to roll back the signature achievement of his last term: a law that would force ultra-Orthodox Israelis to join the army like other citizens or perform a similar national service, with jail time as the punishment for noncompliance. The new deals will also reinstate welfare benefits for ultra-Orthodox Jews who prefer to avoid the workforce by staying in religious study halls. The previous government, spearheaded by then-finance minister Yair Lapid, insisted that such benefits gave the ultra-Orthodox little incentive to work for a living. Lapid has since asserted that the new concessions will cost over two billion shekels, or more than $500 million. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox will retain their influence in ensuring that Jews from the former Soviet Union undergo more restrictive forms of religious conversion.
These concessions were made despite surveys showing that a majority of Israelis want the ultra-Orthodox to perform national service, join the workforce, and give up their role as the arbiters of
In addition, Netanyahu apparently failed to realize that outgoing foreign minister Avigdor Liberman would view these moves as a bridge too far, especially the one directed against his secular Russian immigrant constituency. Declaring that Netanyahu was taking him for granted because his Yisrael Beitenu Party had only six seats, Liberman surprised him by withdrawing from coalition negotiations.
Liberman left Netanyahu with no time to explore other options, so the prime minister capitulated to the far-right Jewish Home Party and limped to the finish line with the absolute minimum of 61 seats. In doing so, he agreed to appoint Jewish Home member Ayelet Shaked as justice minister, despite her open questioning of the Supreme Court’s activist role in Israeli democracy. Her appointment is deemed ominous, as are other Likud-favored measures that could dilute the power of the Supreme Court and, to a lesser extent, the media. Perhaps as a safety valve, Netanyahu has also given coalition member Moshe Kahlon — the leader of Kulanu, a moderate party identified with social change — veto power over certain legislation he does not like (as mandated by the coalition agreement, which states that all members must agree on specified initiatives).
Going forward, the coalition’s razor-thin majority will magnify every member’s leverage to pull the plug on the new government. Accordingly, Netanyahu wants to amend the law that limits the number of cabinet members to 18 as soon as possible, fearing that any malcontent Knesset member who does not get his or her preferred cabinet portfolio could bring down the government before it is even formed. He has already given away several key ministries, leaving many Likud members squabbling over the remaining portfolios. This bodes poorly for Netanyahu, who until now has always tried to form a large enough coalition to avoid such situations.
Will Labor join the government?
Given the nascent government’s precariousness, Likud officials are widely hinting that Netanyahu might reverse his position and ask Labor to join the coalition. With Liberman’s resignation, Netanyahu has put aside the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself — a move clearly designed to lure Labor leader Isaac Herzog into his government. This raises a paradox: the more stable the coalition, the better Herzog’s chances of persuading his party to join, but if the coalition remains shaky, he would likely face accusations of trying to “rescue” Netanyahu. This is no small matter given next year’s mandatory Labor primary, a venue in which efforts to partner with Netanyahu would be especially unpopular among the party’s rank and file.
In addition, Herzog would likely ask for more than just the Foreign Ministry. If he is in fact invited into the coalition, many expect his demands to include changes in Israeli settlement policy, ouster of the Jewish Home Party (the main advocate of settlements), and rotation with Netanyahu as prime minister so that he is not merely a fifth wheel.
Equities for the United States
Washington will be following a variety of developments within the new Israeli government. It will want to know how settler leader and former housing minister Uri Ariel will use his new, lesser post as agriculture minister to influence construction of settlement infrastructure. It will also monitor whether incoming justice minister Shaked or influential Likud members Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin are able to shape legislation that strips away media protections or constrains the power of the courts.
As for the Palestinian issue, with no peace agreement on the horizon, U.S. officials are likely wondering if the new government can at least put together a package of incremental steps that preserves the viability of future two-state negotiations. Such steps could include a limitation on settlement construction, as well as increased Palestinian economic access to more land in the West Bank, even if this land is not formally reclassified. Washington also likely hopes that Netanyahu has a solid plan for ensuring that Gaza does not blow up for the fourth time in seven years.
Finally, the White House will look closely at how Netanyahu plays the endgame on the Iran negotiations. This will largely be a personal decision for Netanyahu — although the Iran issue has not been a major part of the electoral campaign or its aftermath, he is known to view it in the most visceral manner. At the moment, the administration is fairly confident that it has the votes it needs on Capitol Hill to preserve whatever nuclear deal it may reach with Tehran.
Netanyahu he will have many factors to weigh, including questions of security, principles, timing, and maintaining bipartisanship, which has been at the core of U.S.-Israeli relations for decades. n
David Makovsky is the Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at The Washington Institute.