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Analysis

Netanyahu has 2 days to declare he’s got a coalition. He’s nearly certain to succeed

Despite foot-dragging, a new right-wing and religious government expected to be sworn in by next Tuesday

Carrie Keller-Lynn

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu emerges from coalition talks with Shas head Aryeh Deri and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu emerges from coalition talks with Shas head Aryeh Deri and Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Seven weeks after his right-religious bloc won a definitive victory in general elections, presumed incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to declare he’s formed a new government.

Unlike previous election cycles, there is no uncertainty over who will be part of the next coalition, nor on many key policy points. Rather, there appears to be a lack of trust between Netanyahu and his political allies, who are demanding that they receive upfront what they have been promised.

Netanyahu has less than two days to tell President Isaac Herzog he has put together Israel’s 37th government, though he could attempt to wrangle another four days. Without such an extension, Netanyahu must swear in a government by next Tuesday.

But as a precondition to the government’s formation, several of Netanyahu’s partners are insisting on legislative changes to ensure their ministerial appointments will pan out and to grant them additional powers in office, as promised.

The expected incoming coalition is a week into a legislative blitz aimed at meeting these demands, but as of Monday evening had only passed a single law — one pushed by Netanyahu’s Likud party that will make it harder for rebel Knesset members to peel off from their factions.

While the incoming opposition has done its utmost to jam the legislative process in the hopes of generating friction among the incoming coalition’s parties, no one in the halls of the Knesset halls speaks seriously about the new government not forming. But there is plenty of talk about the lack of trust brewing among its constituent parties.

Lack of trust

Far-right Otzma Yehudit’s leader Itamar Ben Gvir is poised to become national security minister, an expanded and rebranded version of the current ministry in charge of policing.

Among other things, Ben Gvir is demanding that changes be legislated to the police regulations to formally make the police commissioner “subordinate” to his new office and under the authority of the government. At the same time, he has dismissed requests from the attorney general’s office to insert language declaring that the police force is apolitical, which is relevant because “the government” in Israel refers only to the ruling coalition’s ministers, rather than the whole public sector apparatus.

Otzma Yehudit party chief Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Knesset special committee to discuss his proposed police regulations changes, December 18, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Twice in the past month, Ben Gvir has said that either Netanyahu or members of his Likud party were backpedaling from their promises.

Similarly, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, whose deal includes an agreement that will likely see him become an independent minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of West Bank building — a role that will give him unprecedented control over the daily lives of Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank — is demanding Netanyahu push through a change to one of Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws to enable his appointment before the government forms.

As is Shas leader Aryeh Deri, who needs a Basic Law change to clear his path to being appointed a cabinet minister despite his January suspended sentence for tax fraud.

Deri is slated to take over the Interior and Health ministries and then rotate into the Finance Ministry halfway through the government’s term. (Smotrich, in addition to overseeing West Bank settlement from the Defense Ministry, will start as finance minister.)

Opposition leaders have highlighted the apparent mistrust of Netanyahu, who has a trail of unfulfilled political appointment promises to his name.

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, echoing his National Unity party leader Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said Netanyahu’s partners are demanding upfront payment to join his coalition.

“The fact that Bibi’s partners do not believe him and demand cash before the formation of the government — not credit — is already clear and known; this is already a convention,” Sa’ar said on the Knesset floor on Monday.

Sitting from left to right: Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid, outgoing Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar, and outgoing Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli, at the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Sa’ar was a Netanyahu ally until he left Likud after an unsuccessful bid to wrench the leadership away from Netanyahu in December 2019. Gantz was a former partner with Netanyahu in a 2020-21 unity government, who watched Netanyahu torpedo that coalition rather than make good on their power-sharing deal. The incoming opposition is littered with former Netanyahu partners, including his former chief of staff and now vociferous critic, Yisrael Beytenu leader Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Embracing his soon-to-be official role as an opposition party leader, Liberman told the plenum on Monday that “no one here trusts Netanyahu’s word and everyone wants to hammer out all of the commitments immediately, here and now.”

Swear-in scenarios

It is very unlikely that the Netanyahu-led coalition will ultimately fail to coalesce, even though the legislation demanded as preconditions to swearing in a government has not yet been completed.

First off, the incoming coalition has another week to complete the legislative process. It is already very close to bringing to a vote the Basic Law changes to placate Deri and Smotrich.

On Monday, coalition lawmakers included a provision to cancel the 10-day implementation period and make that bill effectively immediately, such that Deri and Smotrich could be sworn in alongside the government by next Tuesday.

Once that matter is resolved, the bill should rapidly come to the Knesset floor for final approval in its second and third readings, which are often conducted together.

Religious Zionism party head MK Bezalel Smotrich after coalition talks with Shas chairman Aryeh Deri and Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu, outside a hotel in Jerusalem, December 5, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ben Gvir’s police regulations demand is trickier, but after five days in committee discussion, it was approved for its first reading on Monday afternoon. It will come to the Knesset floor on Tuesday.

The plenum can be held open for voting Sunday to Thursday, as can committee discussions. After the bill to expand police regulations passes its first reading, it will return to committee in preparation for its second and third readings, which could still feasibly wrap up by the politically imposed deadline.

As a last resort, Netanyahu could press his luck with Herzog to try to extend his mandate by the four days remaining for Herzog to dole out at his discretion; he could have given Netanyahu a two-week extension but so far has only granted him 10 days.

Moreover, even if all the legislation is not finalized in time, Likud and its right-religious partners will likely still form their government.

Netanyahu and his coalition partners won 64 of the Knesset’s 120 seats on November 1, a large majority by recent standards. However, they know that they are likely each other’s only paths to power, and ultimately they all need each other.

Knesset faction leaders at the swearing-in ceremony for the 25th Knesset, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Either no party outside of the current constellation will accept them as partners, as is the case of the three far-right parties, or, as in the case of Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties, there is no alternative coalition to bring them to power.

The Netanyahu-led bloc only needs a majority of cast votes to approve and swear in the next government. Since his political opponents hold just 56 seats, he could probably muster that majority even if one of Likud’s partner parties decided to withhold its support. The only exception to this would be Shas, which holds 12 seats and could torpedo a vote by abstaining.

Netanyahu and Deri are longtime partners, and it would upend Israeli politics if Deri were to dash his ultra-Orthodox community’s chance to return to power after a year and a half in the opposition, just to press a point about his appointment as a minister. And, he still wouldn’t get the legislation he needs to become a minister.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri (R) speaks with Likud chief Benjamin Netanyahu (top L) and Likud MK Yariv Levin (bottom L), during Levin’s election to Knesset speaker, December 13, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Similarly, Religious Zionism and Likud would forfeit their battles to reform the legal system, and Religious Zionism its fight to legalize wildcat settlements and apply Israeli sovereignty in part of the West Bank.

Ben Gvir wouldn’t have the opportunity to be a minister and take control of the police force he has clashed with as a far-right activist and politician; he has multiple convictions for supporting a Jewish terror group and racial incitement.

Noam’s Avi Maoz wouldn’t catapult his one-man party to overseeing Israel’s “Jewish national identity,” with authority over substantive educational programming in Israel’s schools, while pushing an anti-LGBTQ agenda. And United Torah Judaism would not be able to fund Haredi educational institutions without incorporating secular subjects, nor reinstate a formal mechanism for yeshiva students to be exempt from IDF service.

So while the incoming opposition is applying all possible legislative brakes to test the resolve of Netanyahu’s intended coalition partners, even its members know it is unlikely to prevent Israel from having its new government before the new year.

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