A weak Liberman could be pushing Netanyahu toward a unity coalition

A weak Liberman could be pushing Netanyahu toward a unity coalition

The possibility that Yisrael Beytenu may prefer the opposition is forcing Likud to keep its options open, even if it means turning to the left-wing Zionist Union for help

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog during the opening session of the Knesset on March 31, 2015. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Asked whether there was a chance Israel’s two largest political parties could join up to form a unity government, the leaders of both factions have been consistently unequivocal in their answers.

“An ideological chasm divides us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party spokespeople declared dozens of times during the election campaign.

“It simply won’t be,” Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog declared every time the question was turned in his direction.

With the election results giving Netanyahu an easy right-wing coalition of 67 seats in the 120-seat Knesset – ultra-Orthodox parties with a combined 13 seats, the right-wing Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu with 14 and Kulanu with 10 – there was no reason to doubt the two men.

But a month and a half after the March 17 election, with coalition agreements signed only with United Torah Judaism and Kulanu, that certainty for Likud is coming unraveled.

Ironically, it is the very weakness of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman that could leave Netanyahu searching for a broad-based government with the center-left.

Yisrael Beytenu’s collapse to six seats in the last election has sparked a dramatic reappraisal of the party’s conduct and future, a reappraisal that could well leave it outside the next coalition and leave Netanyahu with an untenably slim majority of just 61 seats.

It is reasonable to assume that Netanyahu prefers a 67-seat right-wing coalition with few dramatic ideological gaps cutting through his government and no meaningful chance that the opposition could push no-confidence motions through the Knesset. And his 30-seat dominance over the coalition should, in theory at least, make his life an easy one at the head of such a coalition.

But politics don’t always obey the obvious math. Liberman’s political handlers have concluded – or, at least, are telling reporters – that the party’s dismal showing was caused by the massive corruption scandal that became public in December; that, in fact, the party has nowhere to go but up in future ballots.

There’s one more aspect of Liberman’s calculation that goes unstated.

In his election campaign, Liberman made specific promises he knew he could not deliver, such as passing into law a death penalty for terrorists.

Neither honesty nor influence are preconditions for a successful political career. But the same can’t be said of the appearance of those two attributes. Voters must trust a politician, and believe their vote for the politician not wasted, if the politician wishes to succeed.

And so staying in the coalition, Liberman believes, carries a real political price. When it comes to the appearance of both honesty and political clout, is it more damaging to fail to pass one’s agenda while holding a senior post in the ruling coalition, or while sitting in the opposition?

Liberman’s waffling so late in the game – barely three days remain before the final deadline for building Netanyahu’s new coalition – has far-reaching ramifications.

If Liberman stays out, Netanyahu’s majority declines precipitously to 61 seats, where the prime minister will not only be more dependent on his coalition partners for each Knesset vote, and, indeed, for the government’s very survival, but he will have to keep every MK in his own Likud party satisfied on every issue or risk losing his parliamentary majority. The cost that the prime minister must pay to maintain the coalition will skyrocket, and likely become intolerable.

Few politicians worry about such an outcome more than Kulanu leader and incoming finance minister Moshe Kahlon, who told Channel 2’s “Meet the Press” over the weekend that “a 61 [seat] government is bad.

“We can live with it if it’s temporary,” Kahlon added, but insisted that “everything must be done to prevent it.”

Kahlon is hinting – not for the first time – at his own preference for a broad unity coalition with Zionist Union.

As long as the 67-seat right-wing coalition was all but assured, such a hope remained a pipe dream. But with that coalition teetering on the knife’s edge of Avigdor Liberman’s political calculations, there are signals hinting at a reassessment by Netanyahu, Zionist Union chief Isaac Herzog, his number-two Tzipi Livni and others.

For one thing, there’s Netanyahu’s strange, ongoing snub of the center-left. Since the election, the prime minister has invited to his office the head of the Arab Joint List, MK Ayman Odeh, and met for a consultation with Meretz leader MK Zahava Gal-on. But no meeting has been held, or, indeed, been scheduled, with either Isaac Herzog or Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid.

And while Gal-on and others have been criticizing the progress of the coalition talks, Herzog, Livni and even the famously activist Labor party number-two Shelly Yachimovich have been strangely silent on the matter for the past month.

So is Netanyahu’s inexplicable boycott a sign that he has written off the center-left for the duration of the coalition talks (more so even than the Arab list or Meretz), or that he’s holding off on a formal meeting because he’s not yet sure if he’ll be inviting them into the coalition?

That question now dominates the political conversation.

“My assessment is that Zionist Union’s leaders want to find themselves in the coalition,” was Gal-on’s blunt appraisal in an Army Radio interview on Sunday.

Herzog’s precondition for such a coalition, Gal-on and others have noted in recent days, is that Netanyahu leave out Jewish Home, which is opposed to the peace initiatives Zionist Union would demand. A Netanyahu-led government sans Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home but with the addition of Zionist Union’s 24 seats gives the new prime minister a very comfortable majority of 77 seats – albeit at the expense of leading a more centrist coalition than he would ostensibly like.

Yet leader after leader who has been willing to speak on the matter seems to believe such a coalition is increasingly possible.

“Are you convinced [Herzog] is staying in the opposition?” Army Radio’s Razi Barkai asked Lapid on Sunday after news broke that Lapid and Herzog had met at a northern Tel Aviv café over the weekend.

“You’ll have to ask him,” Lapid answered with a laugh. The two spoke about Zionist Union’s possibly entering the coalition, he admitted, but it was not his place to reveal what Herzog had told him.

Presumably if what Herzog had told Lapid in private was the same as what he has spent months saying in public, Lapid would not have felt the need to be so coy.

While Herzog and Netanyahu haven’t spoken, Herzog was spotted last week speaking to Likud number-two Gilad Erdan at a funeral attended by the two. The channel is open. The hints are mounting that new plans are underway.

None of this means that Netanyahu actually wants a coalition with Zionist Union, or that it is anywhere near a certainty. But with three days to go, in the shadow of the very real looming threat that he may find himself ruling an untenable 61-seat coalition, the evidence is growing that Netanyahu is working hard to keep his options open.

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