Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition-building has been “a disaster,” even “a farce,” Israeli pundits almost universally agreed in recent weeks.
And it is true that Israel’s new government, its 34th in 67 years, takes some explaining. The list of seemingly incoherent appointments is a long one. The minister of justice has no background in law, the minister of science none in science, the minister of tourism is also in charge of the police and prisons. There is a full minister in the Communications Ministry, but he’s not the communications minister; that title is reserved for the prime minister, who is also the minister of health (but promises not to act as such) and of foreign affairs, a portfolio effectively leaderless at a time of growing diplomatic tensions. The absorption minister is also the strategic affairs minister, while the transportation minister is also in charge of a newly christened “Intelligence Ministry.” And on and on.
Worse than all that is the fact that the cabinet that was sworn in two weeks ago isn’t even finalized. Netanyahu is begging Likud number-two Gilad Erdan to join his government, promising him the Internal Security Ministry (to be taken from Tourism Minister Yariv Levin), the Strategic Affairs Ministry (to be taken from Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin), a reshuffle of the security cabinet to allow Erdan in, and other dignities besides.
A possibly final vote on the finishing touches of the cabinet will take place in the Knesset on Monday – assuming Netanyahu can finalize by then who will oversee which ministry, cabinet committee or government agency.
Indeed, with all the maneuvering and ministry-shuffling, one might be forgiven for wondering if politicians grasp that the ministries changing hands are organs of government, funded by taxpayers and ostensibly intended to serve them, rather than playing cards to be traded around two or even three times in the space of a single week to satisfy the wounded dignities of public servants.
Thus one finds a Communications Ministry that lost not only its minister this month (Erdan), but its director-general, who Netanyahu fired in a peremptory phone call in what many pundits maintained was a message to Erdan. The Interior Ministry saw its planning department excised and moved to the treasury to satisfy the demands of the new finance minister, while the Settlement Division was moved from the PMO to the Agriculture Ministry to satisfy the West Bank annexationists in the Jewish Home party.
Billions of shekels are now promised to the Education Ministry and various welfare agencies — not because anyone sat down and worked out what exactly was needed in each place, but because ministers demanded it as a condition for taking their posts. Countless millions are now being promised to the police, if only Erdan agrees to join the government. If Erdan chooses to stay out, in a flagrant challenge to Netanyahu’s authority, then by the magical logic of coalition-building the Israel Police apparently no longer need the money.
And yet, even as Netanyahu squanders no small amount of his new government’s dignity on these cabinet acrobatics in order to placate the ambitions of coalition partners and Likud leaders, nobody seems happy.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett wasn’t shy about his disappointment at landing the job. Tzachi Hanegbi, who announced earlier this month that he saw himself a candidate for foreign minister, calls his relegation to the post of coalition chairman a pre-college “year of service in the Knesset.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon flatly threatened to violate the coalition agreement with Jewish Home by denying his new deputy Eli Ben-Dahan control over the IDF’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. And most spectacularly, Erdan was so deeply insulted by Netanyahu’s refusal to give him the combined internal security and interior portfolios, as he’d asked, that he declined to join the government at all, spending much of the past three weeks going from one television studio to another railing against his own party leader.
The tortured logic of Netanyahu’s coalition-building, in other words, is not his fault alone. The problem is deeper, cultural.
It is a problem hinted at by former Meretz education minister Yossi Sarid, who recalled this week that “in those days [the 1990s], offering someone a post like ‘deputy prime minister’ was an insult.” It amounted to a prime minister telling the cabinet minister “that he thinks he could be bought by meaningless titles.”
In the intervening years, through the Barak, Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu governments, the institution of deputy prime minister, still powerless, has become a basic ingredient in the ego-driven glue of titles that holds together a coalition. Loyalties to party or cause have given way to personal ambition – and that’s no accident.
Method in the madness
It is not hard to trace what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish at each step in the construction of the current ministerial morass, nor is it difficult to ascertain what went wrong each time.
For example, the cleaving of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs and Intelligence, split in two and handed to Elkin and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz respectively, was a tactical decision by Netanyahu to preserve the loyal majority he enjoys in the security cabinet, the cabinet’s most powerful subcommittee. By virtue of their new titles, both Elkin and Katz were made members of the now-11-member security cabinet, offsetting additions Netanyahu was forced to make from other parties — such as Jewish Home’s Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
Such maneuvers account for other idiosyncrasies of the cabinet. The Foreign Ministry is minister-less because Netanyahu is holding on to hope that he can attract into his 61-seat coalition at least one opposition party — Labor, Yisrael Beytenu, even Yesh Atid — to cement his majority. Holding open such a senior post is meant to signal how serious he is about sharing power with anyone willing to be his next ally.
The Health Ministry, too, is without a full minister, this time because the party running it, the ultra-Orthodox non-Zionist United Torah Judaism, refuses to allow its Knesset representatives to sit at the cabinet table of the State of Israel. Luckily, deputy ministers don’t face such encumbrances, so UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman, now deputy health minister, holds de facto control of the Health Ministry despite being technically subordinate to the absentee Health Minister Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has taken to treating even his close allies in the party as potential enemies, backtracking on promises, and leaving a long train of disappointed and insulted party power-brokers in his wake
Such antics convey the extent to which governing an Israeli coalition has become an act of nearly superhuman juggling of allegiances, portfolios, priorities, agendas, budgets and, of course, egos.
What remains to be seen — and it is a mystery on which the coalition and perhaps the future of national politics depend — is whether Netanyahu, despite his own stumbles and the obstacles placed in his path by Israel’s chaotic political structures, can still govern.
Close to home
Despite his Likud winning 30 seats in the March 17 election, better than any party’s showing since 2003, Netanyahu watched his coalition talks run away from him in recent weeks. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu, for reasons of its own, pulled out of the coalition, while Zionist Union party leader Isaac Herzog eventually – one senses with no small measure of regret – turned down the premier’s advances so as not to compromise his own standing in next year’s Labor primaries. That left Netanyahu with a 61-59 majority – and even that only after giving Jewish Home the Justice Ministry in a last-minute squeeze by the right-wing party.
Netanyahu blamed the electoral system for his near-failure to form a coalition, charging Liberman with “twisting the voters’ decision.” By Netanyahu’s logic, the right, broadly understood as Likud, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu, won a plurality of the electorate, and Liberman’s volte-face to the opposition was a betrayal of that trust.
The greedy Jewish Home, the capricious Yisrael Beytenu, an electoral system that denies any premier even the distant hope of a clear unassailable majority — in the prime minister’s telling, it was these factors that resulted inexorably in Netanyahu’s now desperately thin majority in parliament.
It was a convincing argument. Parties did indeed seem to switch from coalition to opposition too easily, threatened to topple the government at nearly monthly intervals over the past two years, and demanded power and ministries that the size of their constituencies didn’t justify, but which no prime minister could have rejected if they wished to cement their parliamentary majority.
But something changed over the past three weeks, when Netanyahu’s theory of who is to blame for his political woes was tested within his own party.
Likud has a long-standing culture of loyalty toward the party leader. It has had only four leaders since 1948: Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrast that with Labor’s nine leadership changes since 1995 and one begins to understand a key cause for Netanyahu’s remarkably long run as premier.
But lately, that devotion has been severely tested by Netanyahu, who has taken to explicitly treating even his close allies in the party as potential enemies, backtracking on promises, and leaving a long train of disappointed and insulted party power-brokers in his wake.
One current example: Hanegbi is slated to leave his post as coalition chairman and join the cabinet as a minister at the end of the coalition’s first year. But will he? One might ask the new tourism minister, Yariv Levin, who was also promised a cabinet appointment after his first year as coalition chairman in the last Knesset — a promise Netanyahu reneged on, even after the resignation of Gideon Sa’ar opened up a cabinet seat.
Levin is the most dramatic winner in the new cabinet, but here, too, the story is not about Levin’s success, but about how Netanyahu used him to stymie the ambitions of others. A respected lawmaker and former attorney, Levin asked to be tourism minister and was handed the job without argument. But then Netanyahu heaped on him posts he didn’t even dream of: internal security minister; minister-liaison between the cabinet and the Knesset; deputy chairman of the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, the cabinet committee that votes to grant cabinet support for bills, often all but assuring their passage into law.
The last post is especially surprising. Levin is one of the most outspoken critics of the powers of Israel’s High Court of Justice, yet has been placed in a post that was created by Netanyahu largely in order to veto right-wing decisions by the committee’s chair, Justice Minister Shaked, including her plans to push through precisely those reforms Levin has long supported. Levin now faces the very real prospect of being forced to veto legislation he has long tried to advance – or risk losing the fickle favor of the prime minister yet again.
How did Levin become so powerful, winning positions of influence he didn’t even seek and which may soon pit him against his own longstanding principles? The answer is simple: where once Netanyahu ignored Levin to the point of neglecting his own promises to him, Levin is now a safe pair of hands in which to place powers the prime minister is trying to keep away from others — holding the internal security portfolio for Erdan or a future Labor or Yesh Atid minister, and keeping the legislation committee post away from rising new security cabinet members such as Elkin or Katz, who Netanyahu fears may be growing too influential.
It is possible, of course, that Levin’s cartoonish number of appointments — even he has admitted that the Tourism Ministry “can’t be run by a part-time minister,” and that he hopes to get to be its full-time minister soon — reflect nothing more than Netanyahu’s faith in the lawmaker. But Netanyahu’s history suggests he is more calculating than that. And more importantly, these maneuvers are being read inside Likud, and especially by Erdan, as efforts to contain the popularity of other ministers and prevent the rise of any serious challengers within the party.
After the collapse of the ideological certainties of left and right in the waning years of the Oslo peace process and in the Second Intifada, a new age of personality politics dawned. The electorate was far more concerned with the fact that Ariel Sharon was Ariel Sharon than with the fact that he led either Likud or Kadima. Netanyahu, too, is far more trusted by today’s voters than is his party. Yair Lapid, Moshe Kahlon, the fretful revolving-door leadership races of the weakened Labor party all speak to the rising importance of personality over party. And as parties grow more dependent on their leaders than the leaders are on them, successful leaders grow harder to oust. Rising powers tend to discover there is little room at the top of the party machine for anyone who might challenge the leader.
Netanyahu’s treatment of fellow Likud leaders, illustrated circumstantially in the above examples, isn’t new, and it has led to an exodus of some of Likud’s best and brightest in recent years. Some of these political refugees need little introduction. Moshe Kahlon left the party in 2013 when his popularity outstripped his opportunities for advancement. Some two years later, in late 2014, Gideon Sa’ar did the same.
Thus, the more popular Kahlon grew, the less Likud could contain him. So he left, and within three years was leading a slate of his own, Kulanu, that basked in his popularity; indeed, that offered voters little more than the promise that Kahlon himself would be looking out for them. He won 10 seats.
Since Sa’ar’s retirement, the Israeli press has hardly been able to contain its excitement over every politically suggestive tweet he has published.
And so all eyes are now turned to Erdan, who has transformed in the eyes of many into a weathervane of the party’s future and a potential challenger to Netanyahu. Over the past two weeks, Erdan did something new and unexpected: he stayed.
Kahlon and Sa’ar didn’t want to be crushed and eventually subsumed by a party that could not be dislodged from its subservience to Netanyahu. Erdan is equally popular in the party, well thought-of in the electorate, and equally ambitious. So will he leave? And if so, why hasn’t he done so already?
One possibility openly discussed in recent days within Likud ranks suggests that Erdan senses a change in the party. The number of powerbrokers embittered by Netanyahu has only grown during his long rule. Meanwhile, some party activists look at Kahlon’s success outside Likud’s ranks and wonder if Netanyahu’s chokehold on power isn’t costing the party some of those seats.
To be sure, these sentiments alone would not be enough to justify considering a challenge to Netanyahu. That would require not only the presence of large groups in Likud’s base and institutions who would challenge Netanyahu, but enough of them to make a pitched battle against a sitting prime minister — unthinkable in Sa’ar’s case only a year ago, and nearly unprecedented in Likud’s long history — worth the risk.
Erdan may yet take Netanyahu’s offer of the internal security portfolio and let the moment of tension pass. But its significance won’t be forgotten.
The more Netanyahu must maneuver against his own Likud colleagues – indeed, the more billions of shekels he promises away in the ad-hominem policymaking on display this past month – the clearer he is signaling his awareness of the subterranean but undeniable shift in mood in Likud.
Netanyahu has not faced a serious challenge to his leadership in years. The recent candidacies of the likes of Moshe Feiglin or Danny Danon did not leave pundits guessing as to who would win the contest. But if in an upcoming leadership race, Netanyahu suddenly faces a Sa’ar or an Erdan, there isn’t a pundit, pollster or prime minister who can say for certain how that race would end.
Netanyahu remains the top dog in the ruling party. But as would-be challengers accumulate and enemies multiply, it is possible that the nation is seeing the beginning of the end of the Netanyahu era in Israeli politics.