When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fired his two centrist coalition partners Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni last week, he momentarily lost his Knesset majority.
From a majority of 68 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the prime minister was left with just 43.
It was a sticky situation for Netanyahu, one that left him exposed in the last days of his government. Under law, a prime minister can be replaced without going to elections if another member of Knesset can gather 61 lawmakers to back them in a “no confidence” vote. Netanyahu’s opponents theoretically enjoyed a 77-seat opposition in which to build that majority.
The government also had some urgent last-minute bills it needed passed, from a campaign finance bill to budget transfers. These included NIS 3.6 billion ($900 million) to the Defense Ministry to make up for the financial hit the army took in Protective Edge, and the financially small but, for Netanyahu’s now narrowed right-wing coalition, politically important transfer of some NIS 130 million ($33 million) in investments in West Bank settlements.
For all its power, the staunch right is still only one-third of the Knesset. Without Yesh Atid and Hatnua, the prime minister faced the very real prospect of losing those votes. In the plenum, and in the Finance and House committees, his shrunken coalition was no longer guaranteed the majority it had enjoyed before. For Netanyahu, it could have been an ignominious way to end a premiership, and perhaps a political career: losing every vote, and, possibly, finding himself unceremoniously replaced at the last minute without even the dignity of an election.
Yet as Monday wore on, those counting the committee and plenum votes noticed something. The coalition wasn’t losing votes, but winning nearly every one. And in every case the reason was the same. Someone was casting votes for the government’s initiatives, someone from beyond the coalition.
That someone: the lawmakers of the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. Whether it was Yaakov Litzman (UTJ) or Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) who helped shepherd the budget changes through the Finance Committee, or Shas’s Avraham Michaeli and Uri Maklev voting in the House Committee, the ultra-Orthodox, formally in the opposition, acted like the most reliable of coalition allies. And they were decisive. In every vote, they were on the side that won.
And the new partnership between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox wasn’t hidden, to be sure.
“We had an agreement,” Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri said bluntly in the Knesset Monday, “and the agreement holds today. If the prime minister is determined to go all the way, to elections, we won’t let him be toppled. We won’t participate in no-confidence votes… Even today there are plans to topple him with 61 [votes] and prevent the elections.”
Deri addressed the outgoing government in mocking terms, calling it “a covenant of brothers, new Israelis, enlightened – with Haredim outside.” He seemed to relish pointing out how unstable a government sans Haredim turned out to be: “It’s not natural for a government to last just 18-19 months.”
And more than once, he praised Netanyahu and backed the prime minister’s version of the reasons for the coalition’s collapse.
“I’m very happy [the government] has reached its conclusion. But I have to say, we can’t take credit for this. We didn’t topple the government. It was the prime minister who decided to go to elections. [He had] one of two reasons: either he was concerned that there would be attempts to replace him in the middle of his term – and he had what to base this on – or that they would pass [Lapid’s] zero-VAT [tax cut on some first-time home purchases] and the [2015 state] budget, and then topple him. He acted preemptively, and of course we supported him.”
The support was reciprocated in no uncertain terms.
In the Likud party meeting Monday, the very last before the elections, Netanyahu declared his own acceptance of the new alliance by announcing that he was adopting a tax cut that had been one of Deri’s key demands for Shas joining a future government: scrapping the 18% value-added tax (VAT) on some staple grocery goods.
“As long as there was a coalition commitment to another zero-VAT [law, a reference to Lapid’s], obviously it wasn’t possible to do both,” Netanyahu said. “But when that option went away” in the coalition’s collapse, “we were able to push ahead with… zero VAT for millions of citizens on price-controlled food products, and that way to help millions of people, not just a few thousand, if that.”
“There is something that we won’t miss [from the 19th Knesset],” Likud MK Yariv Levin, chair of the House Committee and until last month the chairman of the coalition, declared emphatically in the Knesset plenum minutes before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself late on Monday. “I’m talking about an act that in hindsight was a harbinger for everything that has happened since – the disqualification of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and UTJ, from partnership in this government.”
“Invalidating an entire community in that way is not appropriate,” Levin said, calling for a broad-based governing coalition, “and only when that fails you seek out other alternatives, rather than the other way around.”
As the election campaigns get underway, the political system is rife with uncertainty. But when it comes to the prime minister’s relationship with the ultra-Orthodox, there is clarity. Monday, the last working day of the 19th Knesset, was the Haredi parties’ moment in the sun after two long years in the political wilderness. A once-dependable fact about Israeli politics – that coalitions are stabilized by the Haredim – snapped back into place.
Monday’s votes showed that the burgeoning Netanyahu-Haredi alliance is not merely in the works; it is already full-blown, and already delivering in the Knesset. It is, for the moment at least, the most significant realignment produced thus far from the coalition’s collapse.