With final results of Tuesday’s elections still being counted, and the fate of the New Right party — four seats or oblivion — still hanging in the balance, speculation was nonetheless in full swing Wednesday night regarding the likely composition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and its possible key ministers.
The process of building the next government formally gets underway next week, when President Reuven Rivlin calls in senior representatives of the parties that won Knesset seats, and asks them to recommend who he should charge with building a coalition. In practice, it is evident that Netanyahu will be given the task, and he made plain in a victory speech late on Tuesday that he had already begun discussions.
His choice of parties to partner him in his next government is also straightforward. But the roles he negotiates with those parties’ would-be ministers will likely give broad indications of the policies and strategies he’ll be pursuing in his fifth term, notably as regards to his efforts to avoid indictment in the three criminal cases hanging over him, and as they relate to the Palestinian conflict.
Netanyahu, whose own Likud won a hefty 35 seats in the elections, is certain to bring in the two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, which each won eight seats — for a strikingly high 16 seats in total (three more than in 2015). Shas leader Aryeh Deri is widely expected to remain as interior minister, although he is facing possible criminal charges (having already served time for corruption) which could eventually force his removal; Shas will likely be given two other ministries. UTJ’s leader Yaakov Litzman is expected to remain as deputy health minister (the non-Zionist party does not take ministerial posts).
The Union of Right-Wing Parties, with five seats (plus a sixth MK, Eli Ben Dahan, who was elected via Likud’s own list), is seeking two ministries, with its leader Rafi Peretz and his No.2 Bezalel Smotrich particularly favoring education and justice. Smotrich has been a vocal champion of legislation to protect the prime minister from prosecution for fraud, breach of trust and (in one case) bribery in so-called Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000. Netanyahu “should not have to spend half his time defending himself” from legal troubles, Smotrich declared on Wednesday.
Were Netanyahu to indeed entrust the Justice Ministry to Smotrich, or indeed to any of his own Likud colleagues who favor limiting the power of the Supreme Court, such an appointment would represent the open declaration of political war against the court, and it is not clear whether Netanyahu intends to take that path.
It is also not clear how or whether Netanyahu intends to try to use legislation to try to stave off the threat of his imminent indictment. A straightforward path, requiring no new legislation, would be to seek to utilize the existing Knesset immunity law, which requires a simple majority to protect any MK from prosecution — first in the Knesset’s House Committee (where Likud could easily ensure it) and then in the Knesset itself (which could be harder); such a move would immediately prompt petitions to the Supreme Court, linking Netanyahu’s personal fate to the wider battle between the political and the judicial echelon.
Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, with four seats, has also indicated it will recommend Netanyahu for prime minister and join the coalition, and Kahlon has said he insists on remaining finance minister. TV reports Wednesday night, however, speculated that Netanyahu may encourage Kahlon to rejoin Likud, his former political home, in order to still further boost the party’s Knesset representation, and might offer Kahlon the Foreign Ministry. For now, though, Kahlon is a slightly problematic figure for Netanyahu, since he has declared that he would not support Netanyahu remaining in office if indicted.
With all the above parties joining Likud, Netanyahu would have a 60-strong coalition — one short of a Knesset majority. He could add five more seats if Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu were to join. But Liberman, a former defense minister who resigned in November over what he considered Netanyahu’s soft policy on tackling Hamas in Gaza, might well want that job back again, and would presumably again champion a defense policy harsher than the prime minister’s. Furthermore, the secular champion Liberman would find himself at odds with the two, strengthened, ultra-Orthodox parties as they seek to defang legislation on military service for their communities and push for Israel to become increasingly Shabbat-observant. Nonetheless, the general assessment is that Liberman will wind up joining the coalition; even if he doesn’t, he is seen as unlikely to prevent the formation of the government, or to side with the entire opposition, including Arab MKs, to bring it down.
Pundits on Israel’s Channel 12 and Channel 13 TV Wednesday night assessed that Netanyahu would assign some 15 ministerial portfolios to members of his Likud, but that he might prefer to keep the Defense Ministry, which he took over when Liberman quit, for himself.
By early Thursday morning, the final election vote count should be in, and Netanyahu, and his potential allies, will know whether the New Right of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked has cleared the Knesset electoral threshold, potentially remaking some of the considerations above, or failed to win any seats. In any case, the process of coalition building is likely to take several weeks.
Suggestions in some quarters that Netanyahu might incline to form a unity government with Benny Gantz’s 35-strong Blue and White seem firmly wide of the mark. Netanyahu, in his victory speech, stated flatly that he intends to build a “right-wing government” and any other move seems beyond far-fetched.
The question of how right-wing a government remains open, however. Will Netanyahu now move, for instance, to fulfill his election eve pledge to apply Israeli law to all West Bank settlements? He made the promise in part to drive right-wing voters away from parties such as Bennett’s and toward Likud — with evident success. But does Netanyahu himself actually want to take this step — which would rule out a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank? And is he correct in asserting, as he has done in interviews, that he might be able to win the support of US President Donald Trump for such a move, much as Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem in 2017, and over the Golan Heights last month?
Some of the answers to these questions may become apparent after the Trump administration unveils its endlessly anticipated Israeli-Palestinian peace proposal in the near future. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who is boycotting the US administration, has pre-emptively rejected the plan. Netanyahu is thought likely to accept it, with reservations, and could then move forward with unilateral settlement annexation, bolstered by the assertion that Israel has no Palestinian peace partner.
Congratulating Netanyahu Wednesday on his election victory, Trump asserted that peace had “a better chance now, with Bibi having won.”
In a TV discussion on Channel 12 news on Wednesday night, political pundits underlined the degree to which Netanyahu is perceived to be driving US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than the other way around. Netanyahu hasn’t merely seen the Trump plan, nor even merely had input into it. Rather, the studio pundits joked, it is Netanyahu who wrote it. And soon he’ll get around to showing it to Trump.