Benjamin Netanyahu, large and in charge
Pundits suggest PM is weaker and more hawkish than in the past, but a closer look shows an unassailable leader who preserved some space for political maneuvering
Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.
If you believe the media coverage of Israeli politics in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a weakened premier clinging to power by his fingernails.
The New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren has called Netanyahu’s political standing both “diminished” and “weakened.” He leads a government that “is likely to be paralyzed on the Middle East peace process.”
Tablet’s Liel Liebovitz explained that “Netanyahu has been considerably weakened by the recent election and now depends on Bennett and Lapid for his political survival.”
Netanyahu’s weakness has become an unassailable axiom among journalists, a fact so obvious no one bothers to examine whether it is true.
The only problem with this recurring trope is that it isn’t even remotely true, and doesn’t hold up under any real scrutiny.
Granted, Netanyahu has done a few things that could be read as showing weakness. He gave Hatnuah’s Tzipi Livni, who won a paltry six seats in the new Knesset, the plum post of justice minister. He offered Yair Lapid arguably the most powerful post in Israeli governance after the premiership: the Finance Ministry. Even more dramatically, he struggled for eight weeks to cobble together a coalition. Now, coalition in hand, he faces anger and resentment in his own party over his cabinet appointments.
Apparently, he just can’t win.
Or that’s the narrative, anyway. But look a little closer and the rationale quickly unravels. To understand why this is so, it’s important to dive for a moment into the sausage-making of the coalition negotiations. As with most things, the devil is in the details.
1. On the generous concession to Tzipi Livni, think settlements. Netanyahu knows he will have to dismantle at least some settlements in the coming government. Even without a peace process, some settlements are in clear violation of Israeli law and government regulations. The High Court of Justice has already ordered the removal of Amona, an illegal settlement that was removed once before, in 2006, to scenes of violent confrontation between security forces and settlers.
Netanyahu needs Livni’s six seats as a hedge against the far-right in his coalition in the event that the removal of a settlement turns into a political crisis. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home is a coalition of traditional national-religious leaders and farther-right factions once unified under the National Union party. It is widely understood among Israeli political strategists that if the removal of Amona, or any other symbolic settlement, turns violent, as many as half of Jewish Home’s 12 MKs, likely headed by former National Union leader and newly appointed Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel, could bolt the 62-seat Netanyahu-Lapid-Bennett coalition, pushing it under the 61 seats required for the government to survive.
Unless, that is, Hatnuah’s six seats are there to pick up the slack, pushing the coalition’s total to 68 seats, beyond the reach of Jewish Home’s internal fractures.
Netanyahu’s early concessions to Livni were anything but a sign of weakness. Rather, his first successful coalition move greatly expanded his maneuvering room when it comes to settlements, significantly weakening the hold of the far-right on the incoming government and its policies.
2. Another argument for Netanyahu’s weakness points to the eight weeks it took him to negotiate a coalition agreement with Lapid and Bennett. That’s a long gestation period for a coalition deal, to be sure, but it was due more to the weakness of Netanyahu’s partners than his own bargaining position.
Bennett and Lapid led their parties to spectacular overnight gains at the polls. They are triumphant. But they are also acutely aware that Israel’s political history is full of such upsets. Indeed, it is a rare election cycle that lacks at least one surprise surge. And these surprises always end in the same way: disappointment and political oblivion.
For both newbie leaders, the lesson is the same: deliver for your constituents or disappear. And both are just as aware that it is exceedingly hard to do much for your constituents from the opposition. Neither can afford to sit out this government.
Why, then, did the coalition negotiations take so long? Put simply, Lapid and Bennett understood that they needed more than to merely sit in the next government. They needed guarantees that their campaign promises would be fulfilled, would be part of the guidelines of the new government. They also couldn’t help noticing that together they held 31 seats, the same number as Netanyahu. These realizations led to the most surprising development of this election cycle, the unlikely alliance between two very different political camps. The same pressure that drove Bennett and Lapid into Netanyahu’s arms also united them to demand detailed promises, in writing, from the prime minister.
Netanyahu, who largely agrees with their proposals on key issues ranging from the economy and educational reform to Haredi national service, nevertheless stood his ground and fought hard to water down any promises he might be asked to make – because why surrender the political maneuvering room?
In short, it was an inevitable coalition, delayed only by the weird logic that underlies all negotiations.
3. Then there is the rightward shift of the Likud itself, often cited as a sign that Netanyahu is losing his grip on the party. The facts are correct. Many of Netanyahu’s allies lost ground in the party’s primaries in November, and the final list saw a young guard of more-hawkish candidates catapult to the top ranks. That shift, Netanyahu believes, cost the party dearly at the ballot box.
But any argument that Netanyahu’s position is weakened by those primary results must contend with his ruthless response, seen most clearly in the cabinet appointments announced Sunday.
Through these appointments, Netanyahu has sent a blunt message to the hawkish upstarts, offering his more centrist allies cabinet posts that their primary showing could hardly justify. Hawks such as Tzipi Hotovely (#15) are struggling to find a place in Netanyahu’s cabinet, while weakened (and more centrist) veterans such as Yuval Steinitz (#24) and Limor Livnat (#27) are guaranteed cabinet posts.
Danny Danon (#9) is a particularly good illustration of Netanyahu’s cabinet game. Danon will be the next deputy defense minister, but only because Yesh Atid’s Ofer Shelach declined the post, probably on the grounds that any inexperienced deputy to the renowned former chief of staff and new defense minister Moshe “Bogi” Ya’alon would hold a largely ceremonial position. Had Shelach taken it, Danon would have been denied even that slot.
Indeed, there is a special irony in Danon’s appointment. Danon built his political fortunes declaiming his support for settlements and annexation of the West Bank. As deputy defense minister, he will be charged with dismantling settlements such as Amona. The irony is not lost on Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has explained this mistreatment of the primary’s victors by coining a respectable-sounding but ad-hoc new principle: “We don’t dismiss a serving minister.” Livnat, Steinitz and others will hold cabinet posts simply because they held posts in the last government when their place on the party list merited it. Under this new regime, Livnat, #27 on a 31-seat list, is guaranteed a ministerial post while Danon, #9, must beg for the leftovers of other parties.
It is no surprise, then, that the young hawks are angry and blustering, openly accusing Netanyahu of transforming the Likud into a dictatorship. But their bluster only emphasizes their powerlessness. Indeed, Netanyahu has responded to their complaints by openly talking about doing away with the party primaries altogether.
4. Two clarifying caveats are in order by way of a conclusion.
The first caveat: Netanyahu can still be weakened by the looming split between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu, which would push Netanyahu’s faction down from 31 to 20, just one seat more than Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid. But it is significant in this context that Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman stuck by Netanyahu throughout the coalition negotiations: Better to be second place on the ruling party list than head of an 11-seat faction tied with Shas for the fifth-largest party in the Knesset.
To be sure, Liberman’s political fate remains unclear as he faces legal troubles that have temporarily driven him from office. If he does not return to politics, inheritence of the party’s leadership will fall to Yisrael Beytenu’s #2 Yair Shamir or another influential member such as the party’s competent ex-director-general MK Faina Kirschenbaum. Both are political unknowns when it comes to compromising over settlements, the Haredi draft and other potential coalition-busting issues.
The second caveat: Netanyahu worked hard to preserve his maneuvering room when it comes to peace talks and dismantling settlements, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he wants to do either. He maneuvered with equal gusto to avoid being locked in to the demands of Bennett and Lapid on national service and economic issues, with which he largely agrees. Given the choice, it makes sense for him to prefer to remain uncommitted to any particular policy, whether he agrees with it or not. Thus this is not an argument that Netanyahu will engage in new peace talks or remove settlements — only that he maneuvered hard to make sure he can.
None of Netanyahu’s actions over the past eight weeks is those of a weakened, dependent premier, but rather of a nearly invincible one, at least for the foreseeable future. Netanyahu leads a shrunken Likud, to be sure, but political power is not measured in objective terms, but rather in one’s strength relative to any viable opposition. It is a simple mathematical fact that Netanyahu finds himself in a Knesset in which no other party leader but himself can cobble together a stable coalition. This “weakened” premier is strong enough to largely ignore his own party’s primaries while piecing together a coalition that can dismantle settlements (but won’t pressure him to do so), deliver economic and social reforms he supports, and is as dependent on him as he is on it.
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