Benjamin Netaynahu Having Trouble Forming Government As Deadline Nears
There hasn’t been much attention paid to Israeli politics since March, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to have coasted to an overwhelming victory in elections that many thought would end up being closer than they ended up being. The only thing that remained for Netayanyahu after the results were clear was to put together a governing coalition in the Knesset, which seemed as though it would be fairly easy given that his own Likud Party had increased its membership. As it turns out, though things have not gone quite so smoothly after all:
JERUSALEM — Facing a midnight deadline to form a government or step aside, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was under intense pressure on Wednesday from the conservative Jewish Home party over powerful ministerial posts and contentious policy positions.
Mr. Netanyahu, who exulted in what looked like a strong mandate for a fourth term after the March 17 elections, instead was scrambling to form a coalition with the slimmest possible majority in Parliament. Many analysts said such a coalition would be able to do little and would be unlikely to last long.
Israeli news organizations reported on Wednesday that Mr. Netanyahu had yielded to Jewish Home’s demand for the Justice Ministry, which the party could use to weaken the Supreme Court, emphasize Israel’s Jewishness and restrict leftist advocacy groups.
If Mr. Netanyahu cannot enlist at least 61 of Parliament’s 120 members into his coalition, President Reuven Rivlin must turn to another lawmaker to try to form a government over the next month. If that attempt fails as well, a third Parliament member would be given a chance; after three failures, new elections would be called.
“Netanyahu simply miscalculated, and it’s going to be very difficult for him to get out of this mess,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who specializes in politics and communications. “He won a big victory and lost the ability to form a stable coalition, and this is remarkable.
“He may go through with 61, but nobody in his right mind believes that this will hold for even a short time, because any party to the coalition can threaten to leave, and there is no government tomorrow.”
Ben Caspit, a columnist for the Israeli daily Maariv, wrote that Mr. Netanyahu had thought forming the government “would be like putting a knife in butter,” but instead “the knife is stuck in his back and the butter is on his forehead, melting in the hot sun.”
With Jewish Home on board, Mr. Netanyahu would have a coalition of 61 lawmakers from five right-leaning and religious factions. Experts predicted that the prime minister would ultimately persuade Jewish Home to join him, rather than risk the wrath of conservative voters by potentially handing the premiership to Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union. But they said that such a government would be weak and unstable, and that Mr. Netanyahu would probably reach out to Mr. Herzog or other opposition parties to try and broaden his coalition.
Yuli Edelstein, a leader of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud Party who serves as speaker of Parliament, told Israel Radio on Wednesday that he now supports a unity government with the Zionist Union, because it would be difficult for a 61-member coalition to serve the public. He called the situation “very sad.”
After weeks of fierce personal and political negotiations, Mr. Netanyahu’s hopes of creating a stronger 67-member coalition were dashed on Monday when Avigdor Lieberman, the ultranationalist and unpredictable foreign minister, announced that he would not play along. That left the prime minister with just 53 Parliament members in his corner – including his own Likud party, with 30 seats, and two ultra-Orthodox factions, plus the center-right, economically focused Kulanu party. That gave Naftali Bennett, the head of the Jewish Home, who has frequently clashed with Mr. Netanyahu, new leverage.
Mr. Bennett, a modern-Orthodox former technology entrepreneur who advocates expanding Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and annexing most of it into Israel, was already in line to become education minister. After Mr. Lieberman’s departure, he insisted that Ayelet Shaked serve as justice minister. Ms. Shaked is an outspoken hawk on thePalestinian issue who has described African asylum-seekers as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character and pressed for a “nationality bill” that critics say would disenfranchise Arab citizens.
Nachman Shai, a Zionist Union lawmaker, said that giving Ms. Shaked the post “would be like appointing a pyromaniac to head the fire department,” and Yariv Oppenheimer, head of the anti-settlement group Peace Now, compared it to putting “an idol in the Temple.”
Jamil Shehadeh, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, denounced the coalition under construction as “completely committed to the extremist right” and said Israel would face increasing isolation.
“It is clear that this government will make all international parties lose hope in the peace process,” Mr. Shehadeh said on Voice of Palestine radio. “The government is going to be a real burden to the Israeli people and to the entire region.”
As I noted in my posts about the March election, I am hardly an expert on Israeli politics so I’m not going to comment on what all of this might mean, but Netanyahu’s failure to form a government before now is somewhat surprising. It is true that Israeli politics has a history of long gaps between an election and the final formation of a government, but going down to the wire like this is somewhat unusual, and likely indicative of just how difficult some of the more hardline members of this potential coalition are likely to be. The fact that Avigdor Lieberman backed out of a coalition deal is particularly interesting given the fact that he has served as Foreign Minister of Israel since 2013. At the same time, though, the party that he heads holds such a small number of seats in the Knesset makes it unlikely that he’s much of a threat to Netanyahu himself right now. In any case, there probably will be a government of some kind formed before the deadline, but the question will be how long it lasts. Right now, many observers don’t seem to think it will last very long.