Calling elections at the start of December, having fired his finance minister and his justice minister, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to the people of Israel. “You, the citizens of Israel,” he told us all, “deserve a new, better, more stable government, a broad-based government that can govern.”
The 61-strong coalition Netanyahu finalized 90 minutes before his time ran out on Wednesday night can be called many things. Narrow, fragile, and right-wing-Orthodox come readily to mind. “Stable” and “broad-based” certainly do not.
Given that Netanyahu tore his last coalition apart because of the coup he alleged Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid were plotting against him, given that he castigated them for disloyally attacking their own government, it is more than ironic that the latest iteration of the Netanyahu government, desperately cobbled together in the final hours of the last of the 42 days allotted to him, features as its last addition Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party. For during last summer’s war, when the nation’s soldiers were risking their lives, when the government was its most closely scrutinized, when unity of purpose was most vital, and when Lapid and Livni were publicly disciplined and loyal, Bennett was a relentless public critic of his own cabinet, demanding harsher action in Gaza, bemoaning the stewardship of the conflict.
Bennett wound up with maximal leverage, which he delightedly utilized to secure every possible concession from the hapless, hamstrung, deadline-dependent Netanyahu
It does not reflect well on Netanyahu’s skills as negotiator, furthermore, that he elected to build this government by signing up the ultra-Orthodox parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas — before he had secured partnerships with Bennett and with Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman. Liberman was the other publicly disloyal senior minister last summer. Liberman is a consummate opportunist. Liberman, like Bennett, was a battered and much-reduced political force as a consequence of Netanyahu’s mantra in the final days of the campaign that supporters of the “national camp” — that is, supporters of Likud and its allies such as Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home — had better vote “Likud, Likud, Likud” if they wanted to ensure Netanyahu’s re-election. Liberman duly returned the compliment on Monday — two days before deadline day — by announcing he would not be joining the coalition.
This left Bennett with maximal leverage, which he delightedly utilized to secure key ministerial positions and every other possible concession from the hapless, hamstrung, deadline-dependent Netanyahu.
And that in turn means Netanyahu now has the further disagreeable task of pacifying his leading Likud party colleagues, self-perceived senior ministers one and all, for whom there are simply not enough top jobs to go round.
Oh, what a recipe for stable government.
Will Netanyahu, as he is promising, be able to quickly expand that fragile 61-member coalition? It seems unlikely.
It is hard to see where Netanyahu gets his extra votes. Meretz? The Joint (Arab) List?
There is no shortage of reports about ongoing contacts between his people and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog’s — firmly denied by both sides, of course. Channel 2 claimed Wednesday night that Netanyahu was wooing Herzog all along, never really wanted Bennett, but was rebuffed. Herzog was said to have been offered the deputy prime ministership and other jewels, but to have been told there was no place for his new best friend Livni, and to have said a firm no. Publicly, at least, Herzog has certainly given a good impression of a man with his sights fixed on leading the opposition. Why, after all, rescue Netanyahu from his angry right-wing coalition partners? Why serve as a rightist government’s fig-leaf? Why infuriate his voters, who chose Herzog, after all, because they didn’t want Netanyahu?
It would seem similarly unthinkable that Lapid, fired five months ago, would help out Netanyahu now, even if offered the conspicuously vacant post of foreign minister. The much politically traveled Livni surely could not be pulled back into Netanyahu’s orbit. And Liberman can hardly be expected to now change his mind and join up after all.
This is Israeli politics, where cynicism is rarely misplaced. But still, it is hard to see where Netanyahu gets his extra votes. Meretz? The Joint (Arab) List?
Unlike all of his current rivals, Netanyahu emphatically knows how to win elections — remember, the Likud has a vast (by Israeli standards) 30 seats in the new Knesset — even if it required using frankly disreputable tactics, such as warning lackadaisical supporters that “the Arabs are voting in droves.” But building effective and sustainable political alliances? That’s been proving increasingly beyond him.
If Netanyahu had known how this would all play out — if he had foreseen the humiliating reality of Wednesday, May 6, when he found himself reduced to imploring Naftali Bennett to help him muster a wafer-thin majority — would he have put himself through all this? Would he have put the country through this whole election nightmare? Would he have dissolved his previous diverse coalition more than two years early, only to return with a smaller, narrower, potentially far more problematic one?
I greatly doubt it.
One thing is for certain: The coalition whose construction he breathlessly announced to President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday night is not the “better, more stable… broad-based government” that he rightly told us we deserve.