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Israel’s Knesset is in business—at least for now. After weeks of negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has won the support of five parties, equal to 61 out of 120 members of the parliament, the minimum needed to form a government. Not surprisingly, many observers doubt the new administration’s durability. With the support of just over half of the Knesset, and given that the parties in the coalition have different legislative priorities, any party—or even any member of a party—could bring down the government over a minor policy dispute.
Still, although no one should expect this government to last its full four-year term—instabilities built into the political system itself preclude that—it may well limp along for longer than most assume. This is for two reasons: because a balance of fear exists between Netanyahu and his coalition partner-rivals, and because of the temptation for members of the opposition to join the coalition.
First, although the coalition appears fragile, in reality its members do not want to take a chance on new elections. The 2015 vote took place only about two years after the previous one. Although voter turnout increased and a number of issues were deemed critical enough to draw out different segments of the population, there was already a general fatigue with the conduct of politics and with Netanyahu himself. A new election will not go over well with the public.
For his part, Netanyahu is well aware that his victory is qualified. Before the vote, polls and anecdotal evidence indicated that he and Likud could well lose. His subsequent win can be partially attributed to his scare-mongering in the week before the vote, but that served more to draw support from other right-wing parties than from the electorate itself. Moreover, Israelis have tended to view Netanyahu as the best among a roster of only tolerable candidates for prime minister. Another election is unlikely to consolidate more support for him.
The other party leaders in the coalition are similarly aware of the dangers of a new vote. The haredi (ultra-religious) parties can expect to maintain the same share, but both Naftali Bennett of the religious-right-wing Bayit Yehudi (eight seats) and Moshe Kahlon of the center-right Kulanu (ten seats) were disappointed by their parties’ final showing. Bennett’s inability to maintain his party’s popularity among the broader Jewish public is cause for concern among party strategists, as is Kahlon’s ability to increase his share of the vote—a problem all centrist parties have faced—before even ringing up any legislative achievements.
The balance of fear is likely to make coalition members leery of bringing down the government and signing up for another uncertain election and difficult bargaining process.The balance of fear is likely to make coalition members leery of bringing down the government and signing up for another uncertain election and difficult bargaining process.
Second, there are several Knesset members sitting outside the government who would like to be on the inside. Avigdor Lieberman pulled his party, the secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (six seats), out of coalition talks only toward the end. It was a political ploy, not done out of ideological conviction. Although he can now support the elements of the government’s agenda that he agrees with from the outside, his own legislative agenda—particularly the focus on reducing haredi control over personal status issues—is endangered by the presence of the haredi parties in the coalition.
During the negotiations, Lieberman was unable to overcome Netanyahu’s desire to bring the haredi parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) into the fold and so he decided to stay out. But he still knows that he can accomplish more from the inside. With the right incentives, he would join the government. At the same time, his own political ambitions compel him to enter government, to generate momentum toward his ultimate goal of becoming prime minister.
Finally, there are already rumblings of discontent within the opposition parties Yesh Atid and Zionist Union (an alliance between the Labor Party and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua). Given the propensity of Israeli politicians to switch parties for personal political gain, it’s possible that Netanyahu might be able to entice two or three parliamentarians from these parties into government. He has kept some ministries for himself (Foreign Affairs, Communications, Health, and Regional Cooperation) partly as bait, and some other government members have been given more than one ministry or a ministry responsible for two or three issue areas. These can be broken up and divided among new recruits as necessary.
The need to maintain the delicate balance of his coalition also means that the prime minister will likely try to avoid major policy decisions or legislative changes that might endanger the coalition or channel external or internal pressure toward him. Netanyahu is a manager rather than a visionary, and to manage Israel he must remain in office.
However, there are a number of policy issues that Netanyahu won’t be able to avoid for long. Not in foreign affairs: this government is unlikely to change much in its foreign policy. No party in the coalition is committed to the peace process or a Palestinian state; Kahlon’s indifference will facilitate the continuation of the status quo: a creeping expansion of settlement activity, security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and discreet but vague talks with Palestinian negotiators over time. Relations with the United States, including regarding an Iran deal, will remain the purview of the prime minister. Whatever pressure the Obama administration will try to bring to bear on Netanyahu is unlikely to have much impact on these issues.
But there are several domestic policy issues that the government will have to address. These include the law drafting haredi men into the military (which the haredim have been working to undermine) and the place of religion in the public sphere more broadly; the still-rising cost of living; relations with the Arab minority; judicial independence; and changes to the structure of political and civil rights in Israel (particularly the ability to criticize and dissent from official state policy). Discussions over the state budget, which are always subject to disagreement and trade-offs, will be particularly intense given the return of the haredi parties to government, with their demands for more resources for their communities, and Kahlon’s commitment to reducing the financial burden on Israelis.
In addition to having to find a proper balance within the coalition on these issues, Netanyahu faces a struggle getting final government decisions passed into law. Previously, it has been common for Knesset bills to pass with only a small plurality of administration parliamentarians. But it will be more difficult in this Knesset given the non-government parties’ firm opposition to the government parties’ priorities on these issues. A shift of only two votes could mean a defeat for a government bill.
There are no leaders of similar stature either on the right or the left who can credibly claim to be a genuine and realistic alternative to Netanyahu.If Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s fiery speech in the Knesset on May 14 is any indication (and it may not be, given his mediocre performance in the election campaign), Netanyahu will face more scrutiny and public criticism from a more determined opposition than he did in his previous two governments. In this way, he might be forced to take a side in the debates over these key policy issues, and thereby trigger a strong enough reaction among his coalition partners that they will feel necessary to pull out of the government, leading to its collapse.
Israel is facing unfamiliar circumstances. Never has a politician served so long as prime minster without any major achievements to coast on. Only David Ben-Gurion was in the office longer than Netanyahu: he served 14 years to Netanyahu’s nine. But Ben-Gurion was the founder of the country, and led it during its critical first years, carrying it through the war of independence. Ben-Gurion was a visionary who worked—often against members of his own party—to mold Israel into the state he thought it should be. Netanyahu has sought to maintain the status quo, avoiding direct confrontation as long as possible.
Yet in Ben-Gurion’s time there were a host of younger leaders who, through their political and military activities during the pre-state period in Mandatory Palestine and the first two decades of Israel’s existence, were not only well known to the public but popular. There are no leaders of similar stature either on the right or the left who can credibly claim to be a genuine and realistic alternative to Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s sharp political instincts developed only after his first term in office (1996–1999), and they have carried him far since then. Yet the limited options that Israeli voters perceive may be the most important factor keeping him in power.