On the brink of elections, a coalition scrambles
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On the brink of elections, a coalition scrambles

As crisis over nation-state bill deepens, PM seeks partnership with ultra-Orthodox, the same parties that may stymie his legislation

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 26, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on November 26, 2014 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Likud official had heard the question a hundred times in the last week. No, he said without pausing, the prime minister does not want new elections. But they’re not out of the question.

“It’s not black and white. The prime minister doesn’t want elections, but on the other hand he’s not willing to continue with the way the coalition has been behaving. This habit of constantly threatening the prime minister with elections has to end,” the official declared.

And, indeed, over the past week, as the political crisis over the Jewish nation-state bill has mushroomed, Netanyahu has shown a far greater willingness than in the past to resist the ultimatums of his coalition partners. He declared on Sunday that he was willing to fight for his “Jewish state” bill even if it did not garner all the votes of his cabinet members.

Asked on Sunday if this apparent breakdown in coalition unanimity meant the country would soon be going to elections – a question he has answered countless times in the past few months by publicly urging calm and “stability” – Netanyahu answered simply, “Time will tell.”

The prime minister’s political reasoning is sound. In polls, the Yesh Atid and Hatnua parties are fairing poorly – shrinking by half, give or take, with Hatnua skirting the edge of the electoral threshold at three seats in recent polls. At the same time, Netanyahu’s own Likud, now with just 18 seats in the Knesset, has polled at anywhere from 25 to 30 seats in recent months, the largest single party in each of the surveys.

There is a distinct possibility, as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman noted last week in the Knesset, that a coalition of the right and far-right – Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu – could have a 61-seat majority in the next Knesset without requiring a single centrist or ultra-Orthodox coalition partner.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2013 press conference (photo credit: Flash90)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a 2013 press conference (photo credit: Flash90)

This reality may be driving Netanyahu’s newfound political confidence. And with this confidence, his push for the passage of the nation-state bill may be catalyzing a dramatic realignment of the political map. The prime minister is reading the polls to discern the shape of the next Knesset, and is already negotiating his next government.

That government, sources close to him say emphatically, will not need Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid or Hatnua chair Tzipi Livni. That government, in fact, will reflect the hard lesson of the past 20 months for Netanyahu: that it is simply easier to work with the ultra-Orthodox.

Surprises in store

Winston Churchill once remarked that observing Soviet politics was like “watching a dog fight under a carpet.” One only knows which dog is winning when another dog is tossed out.

The coming weeks will see a great deal of under-carpet wrangling – and at least a few surprise endings. Perhaps the most surprising ending at this point would be the survival of the coalition.

There are many signals that Livni and Lapid, who can read polls as well as Netanyahu, are looking for ways to defuse the furor over the nation-state bill before the coalition goes over the brink.

Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (Photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/ POOL/FLASH90)
Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, on Sunday, November 23, 2014. (Photo credit: Ohad Zwigenberg/ POOL/FLASH90)

The political problem at this point is not the bill’s actual content, but what political handlers call its “optics.”

Last week, the prime minister’s 14 “principles” – a two-page articulation of the guiding principles for the as-yet unsubmitted government version of the nation-state bill – were leaked to Channel 2’s Amnon Abramovich.

Abramovich dutifully reported that these “principles” constituted Livni’s version of the nation-state bill, and the fact that they were coming up for a cabinet vote the following Sunday showed that Livni had successfully “defeated” the right-wing versions submitted by MKs Ze’ev Elkin, Yariv Levin, Robert Ilatov and Ayelet Shaked.

And, indeed, in Sunday’s now-infamous cabinet meeting that ostensibly “passed” the right-wing bills amid shouting from Netanyahu, Livni, Lapid, Science Minister Yaakov Peri and others, the cabinet actually voted to subsume the bills into the softened government bill that would be based on the leaked 14 principles.

The cabinet decision says explicitly that the right-wing bills will get support for a preliminary vote on condition that they are then incorporated into the government bill, which is what drew opposition from Livni and Lapid.

Or, to recap, just last week Livni almost certainly leaked the prime minister’s earliest draft of the future bill, presented the bill as a “victory” on her part – and then on Sunday voted against the very cabinet decision that essentially replaced right-wing versions she opposed with the very version she identified as her own.

That discrepancy is important, because it suggests Livni and Netanyahu actually agree on the content of the government bill now being drafted, and that the fight that threatens to topple the coalition is about symbolism, not substance.

Livni objected to a symbolic Knesset vote on the right-wing bills before their cancellation – a vote seen by the prime minister as a nod to his right-wing supporters but that would not affect the final version of the nation-state bill.

That final version is still being drawn up together with the attorney general and its not yet clear when it will be put before the Knesset.

Of course, Livni and Lapid’s fervent opposition to the symbolic vote on the right-wing versions is not without merit. When it comes to bills that articulate the fundamental constitutional identity of the state, symbolism is arguably as important as substance. Constitutions are as much educational documents as they are legal ones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on October 22, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on October 22, 2014. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/POOL/Flash90)

Yet this has meant that the fog of war over symbolism has masked the fact that there may actually be broad agreement in the coalition over the substance and content of the nation-state bill. When the prime minister vows to move ahead with the bill despite the objections of Livni and Lapid, he fails to note that their objections are not over his own bill, but over symbolic votes on already canceled ones. And when Livni rages over the “anti-democratic” nation-state bill, she is not referring to the principles approved in the cabinet, which she apparently supports, but about ones that have already been replaced.

And so there are now efforts underway by all sides, including quiet contacts between officials of each coalition party, to find a formula for moving ahead with the agreed-upon bill without toppling the coalition over the symbolic votes. The symbolic votes have been delayed till next week — and there is at least some chance that they may be canceled. The reason: Netanyahu may not have the votes to pass the bill without Lapid and Livni.

The right-wing parties that support the bill — Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Jewish Home — make up 43 seats. The opponents at last count — Yesh Atid, Hatnua, Labor, Meretz, the Arab-majority parties and Kadima — have 59.

If Netanyahu cannot heal the rift with his coalition’s centrists and bring them to vote on the final bill, he will need the 18 seats of ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas to support it. But it’s not likely he can get them.

“It doesn’t matter what the bill says, we don’t vote for Basic Laws,” a senior United Torah Judaism official told The Times of Israel this week. “Voting on a Basic Law is an act of faith in the judges of this country, and we don’t have that faith.”

Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during a press conference with the ultra-Orthodox media in Jerusalem on September 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90
Shas chairman Aryeh Deri speaks during a press conference with the ultra-Orthodox media in Jerusalem on September 15, 2014. (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

The official’s comment reflects longstanding policy in the ultra-Orthodox parties, who are wary of the liberal interpretations that Israel’s judiciary have offered for past Basic Laws. Each new Basic Law, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers insist, expands the legal language available to the Supreme Court for its rulings, without actually limiting its ability to rule in any way judges see fit.

So while Likud officials are struggling to bring the ultra-Orthodox to vote in favor of the nationality Basic Law, it is unlikely that they will succeed, leaving Netanyahu as dependent on Lapid and Livni as they are on him. Without them, it’s unlikely the bill will pass, and, if the polls prove right, without him they are not likely to return to power in the next government.

Election fever

Whatever the fate of the nation-state bill, there is little doubt that the fight itself has frayed relationships within the ruling coalition to the breaking point.

On Thursday, Livni once again reiterated in a radio interview that she was willing to risk elections in order to avoid the symbolic vote on the right-wing nationality bills –calling them “anti-Jewish, anti-democratic and anti-Zionist.”

On Tuesday, Lapid offered a scathing critique of his coalition partners in Likud, suggesting that the ruling party was “selling out the country for the sake of primaries and political machines” and calling the party’s leaders “corrupt.”

Moshe Gafni and Yaakov Litzman of the United Torah Judaism party respond to the preliminary results of the elections in Tel Aviv, Tuesday. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90)
Moshe Gafni (center) and Yaakov Litzman (right) of the United Torah Judaism party in Tel Aviv, January 2013. (photo credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash 90)

Meanwhile, perhaps the clearest indication of looming elections may be the signals from the ultra-Orthodox, who effectively began this week the coalition negotiations for the next government.

“We commit not to enter the next government unless the minimum [hourly] wage is raised to 30 shekels,” Deri told reporters in a statement this week — a statement he put out before anyone had asked him the question.

Over the course of the week, Shas presented — publicly — a more comprehensive list of demands for joining the next coalition: a NIS 30 minimum wage, cutting the 18% value-added tax for basic grocery goods, the cancellation of Lapid’s “0% VAT” tax cut for some first-time homebuyers, changes to the ultra-Orthodox draft bill passed by the current government, and increases in welfare benefits for large families and in state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox religious seminaries.

And UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman declared Thursday his party would support Netanyahu’s bid to be the next prime minister — if the current government’s economic policies were reversed in the next one.

The political system is primed. Elections are a single brief prime-ministerial press release away.

For Netanyahu, as for any sitting prime minister, the stakes of early elections are high. Without them, he remains prime minister; with them, he may lose the job. Yet for Lapid and Livni the stakes are also high — he may lose control of national domestic policy (his party now controls the finance, education, welfare and health ministries) and be relegated, along with his secularist “new politics,” to the opposition’s back benches; and Livni, her party now polling at just three seats in many polls, may fail to pass the Knesset threshold and be jettisoned from parliament altogether.

No wonder, then, that backchannel conversations and whispered Knesset-corridor consultations are increasing in tempo. It only remains to be seen who, at the end of the day, finds themselves bruised and ejected from under the carpet, and who remains in the fight.

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