At approximately 10 p.m. Wednesday, after 42 days of grueling negotiations and just two hours before the final deadline, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed his name to the final coalition agreement he needs to inaugurate his fourth government.
In a rare consensus across party lines and across the even more fractious fault lines of Israel’s partisan media, everyone seemed to agree that Netanyahu’s great 30-seat victory on Election Day had ended dismally.
The last coalition deal signed Wednesday with Jewish Home saw Netanyahu handing an eight-seat faction two top ministries — education and justice — together with the Agriculture Ministry, the Diaspora Ministry, the West Bank settlement planning and budgeting body, the chairmanship of the Knesset Law Committee and the state committee that appoints judges, and the post of deputy defense minister, along with countless financial and legislative promises that have yet to be fully hammered out.
But even earlier in the process, when Netanyahu was less desperate for time, his deals with parties such as Kulanu and United Torah Judaism were generous to a fault. Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon won not only the finance and housing ministries, but the state agencies responsible for zoning and land planning, along with additional promises and positions yet to be finalized. In effect, Kahlon won control of much of the land-reform pipeline he needs to enact the significant housing reforms he promised in the election. It’s a sensible package, but one that leaves Netanyahu and the ruling Likud with little control over and no credit for any successes Kahlon may achieve.
Shas, with just seven seats, won the Economy Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry, de facto control over the state rabbinate and its appointments process — and on and on.
And all that doesn’t account for the literally billions promised away to ultra-Orthodox and national-religious institutions and to funding various reforms demanded by each party as a “win” for its constituency.
In the end, as with Netanyahu’s last government, the only red line the prime minister set and held was control over the country’s foreign and defense policy. The army, the diplomatic corps, the police, prisons and intelligence agencies, the pseudo-ministries variously called “strategic affairs” and “intelligence,” the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee — these remain in the hands of the ruling party, after it relinquished the state’s finances, housing reform, employment, education, health, anything that might have proven it was meaningfully focused inward on improving the daily lives of ordinary Israelis.
And when all that had been auctioned off, what did Netanyahu have to show for his generosity? A coalition of 61 seats set against an opposition of 59.
Worse, it’s a coalition that already clarified in the negotiations that it would not be beholden to Netanyahu — that is, would not act as a coalition — on no small number of issues.
One example: Kahlon obtained Netanyahu’s agreement that his party had “freedom to vote” — i.e., did not have to adhere to coalition discipline or risk the coalition turning against it on its own bills — on any reforms to the High Court of Justice, and likely over the “Jewish nation-state” bill as well.
That concession means that those bills are effectively dead on arrival, despite enjoying widespread support in the soon-to-be established 34th Government. Zionist Union, the Arab Joint List, Yesh Atid, Meretz and Kulanu are a 63-seat bloc that, if unified, can block any such legislation.
Kulanu’s housing reforms, Jewish Home’s judicial reforms (supported by many in Likud), the ultra-Orthodox demand to reverse some of the legislation passed in the last Knesset on ultra-Orthodox military service or marriage-registration and conversion reforms, even the simple coalition-agreement promise to expand the government from 18 ministers to 22 — all these and more are likely to be brought to the Knesset plenum by a government that may not have the votes to pass them.
Netanyahu did better at the ballot box than any ruling party since the 2003 election, but can’t seem to translate an electoral victory into strong governance. The question that now looms over the political system is, why?
At the immediate tactical level, it’s clear that the most significant factor in Netanyahu’s embarrassment was Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog. It’s an open secret, already acknowledged by Likud officials, that Netanyahu turned to Herzog in recent days (and informally, weeks) in the hopes of piecing together a truly impregnable and effective coalition of as many as 77 seats (Likud, Zionist Union, Kulanu and the ultra-Orthodox parties).
Herzog said no, leaving Netanyahu with only one route to the premiership, a rightist-Orthodox 67-seat coalition. Then Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman dramatically bowed out of that coalition on Monday, taking his six seats with him and bringing Netanyahu’s best-case scenario down to the minimum required to form a government, 61 seats. With just two days left, Netanyahu had no choice but to acquiesce to nearly every demand made by Jewish Home, which held the last eight seats the prime minister needed to reach 61.
It’s not immediately clear why most of that happened. Herzog’s reasoning for refusing a coalition government is sound. For the last 20 years, Labor has replaced its leaders on average every two years. Herzog faces a primary in the next year-and-a-half and believes he would likely lose it if he were seen as Netanyahu’s subordinate in the intervening months. Likud also reportedly asked that Herzog enter the coalition without his partner Tzipi Livni and her Hatnua faction. That presented the very real danger that Livni could reconnect to Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid in the opposition and form a union made more credible by its sitting in the opposition — credible enough, Herzog fears, to do better in the next election than a Netanyahu-linked Labor.
To be sure, Herzog gains little from a Netanyahu failure. While President Reuven Rivlin could have asked the Labor leader to take the second shot at forming a coalition if Netanyahu had come up short on Wednesday, there is almost no path to a Zionist Union-led coalition in the parliamentary math. Zionist Union, Yesh Atid, Meretz and Kulanu reach just 50 seats. It is unlikely that Lapid, champion of the secularists and architect of the last Knesset’s ultra-Orthodox draft reform, could sit in a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, which would in any case create a coalition with as many fractures and nearly as tiny a majority (just 63 seats) as Netanyahu’s.
Herzog also may calculate that the option to enter a 61-seat Netanyahu government won’t go away. Netanyahu is unlikely to win over his bitter sparring partners from the last government, Yesh Atid and Hatnua, so his only hope of growing past 61 seats is Herzog’s Labor. Why take the plunge before the Labor primaries, Herzog may reason, when the offer will still be there after?
With one-quarter of the electorate voting left, one-quarter right, and roughly half voting not on issues but on social and religious identities, the math never seems to add up to a coalition without the ruling party having to barter away large swaths of the political system and the economy
But even without Zionist Union, why didn’t Netanyahu simply stare Jewish Home down, refuse the continually rising set of demands and call their bluff?
The answer: perhaps Netanyahu didn’t fear Herzog, but rather the Israeli voter. Jewish Home believed that Netanyahu had managed to attract a last-minute Election Day rush toward Likud of voters who were more naturally inclined to vote Jewish Home. In other words, another election just weeks after the last would shrink Netanyahu’s faction and grow Bennett’s.
And so the 30-seat Likud finally handed the eight-seat Jewish Home the powerful Justice Ministry in the last two hours of the last day in the 42-day coalition-building period allowed by law.
Netanyahu has vowed to pass electoral reform in the new Knesset that would help a future prime minister avoid the struggles he has faced. But it’s not clear how raising the electoral threshold a bit higher or enlarging the Knesset – among the suggestions floated over the years – would solve the essential problem, which is that the electorate is too fractured to allow for a decisive majority to form in Israel’s Knesset.
With one-quarter of the electorate voting left, one-quarter right, and roughly half voting not on issues but on social and religious identities, the math never seems to add up to a coalition without the ruling party having to barter away large swaths of the political system and the economy.
And so Netanyahu will focus on the practical measure of ensuring the coalition-building clock doesn’t run out on a future prime minister as it did on him Wednesday night. One of his first orders of business in the new Knesset will be to propose amendments to the election laws that will make it vastly more difficult to topple the elected prime minister, even if he or she loses their parliamentary majority.
There’s just one problem. While such a reform might reasonably win the support of Likud, Labor and Yisrael Beytenu – either because they would benefit from it directly or because they have espoused similar reforms for years – those parties might manage to deliver between 55 and 60 votes at best, just shy of the majority needed to actually pass such a law. The 20th Knesset, Netanyahu is beginning to realize, may be too fractured to even fix itself.