Netanyahu’s reputation for reneging on promises hobbles coalition talks

Negotiations are stuck as the PM grapples with a trust deficit — even among his closest allies

Haviv Rettig Gur

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel's 73rd Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the Israel Prize ceremony in Jerusalem, prior to Israel's 73rd Independence Day, on April 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu has had the mandate from the president to form Israel’s next governing coalition for 10 days now.

The shape of the next potential Netanyahu government is pretty clear. Netanyahu’s Likud party will be joined by Haredi allies Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as far-right Religious Zionism and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party.

That’s 59 Knesset seats, just two shy of a majority, a gap the prime minister hopes to bridge with the help of the Islamic Movement’s political arm, the Ra’am party.

With the caveat that politics is an all-too-human and often unpredictable business, it’s fair to say there’s little chance that any other parties will be lining up to fill the coalition’s ranks. Netanyahu is probably stuck with the parties listed above.

And that’s a problem for Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, because Betzalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism, continues to refuse to sit in a coalition supported by Ra’am, as he clarified in a Friday statement that began with this blunt sentence: “If Likud fails to form a national government, it will be because he [Netanyahu] has wasted the precious days of his mandate heading in dangerous and utterly hopeless directions.”

As long as Smotrich doesn’t budge, Netanyahu doesn’t have a government.

Head of the Religious Zionism party, Betzalel Smotrich gives a press statement in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on April 4, 2021. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

Doesn’t Smotrich understand?

Smotrich’s refusal frustrates Likud.

On Friday, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom published Ra’am’s coalition demands from Likud. It was a clear message to Smotrich. The demands include funding for education, crime-fighting and housing in Arab towns, and the legalizing of wildcat Bedouin encampments.

The demands do not include — Israel Hayom took pains to emphasize the point — any changes to the Nation-state Law or even to the hated “Kaminitz Law” that led to increased enforcement against illegal construction in Arab towns.

Ra’am is being reasonable, Likud is saying. Now it’s time for you, Smotrich, to be reasonable.

But Smotrich hasn’t blinked. He fears that acquiescing to a coalition with Ra’am will legitimize political alliances with non-Zionist and even anti-Zionist parties — alliances that, once legitimized by the right, will only benefit the left in the years to come. As he has warned repeatedly, it would mark a tactical victory for Netanyahu but a strategic defeat for the right.

In quiet conversations, Likud officials are dismayed at Smotrich’s “naivete.”

Netanyahu only needs Ra’am’s vote once, they say, to usher in the new government. In one fell swoop, that would end the transitional government, thus robbing Benny Gantz of the premiership when the still-in-force rotation comes due in November. In the short time of the new Ra’am-backed government’s life, possibly as little as a few weeks, Likud will be able to appoint a new justice minister, a new state attorney, a new attorney general, and so on.

And once that urgent business is completed, once Gantz is finally expunged from the cabinet and the Justice Ministry is safely in Likud hands, it won’t be a problem to call new elections and (hopefully) be rid of Ra’am as well.

Doesn’t Smotrich get it? This is Netanyahu, after all.

Does Ra’am get it?

Ra’am seems perfectly aware of Likud’s priorities. It seems, in fact, to agree with Smotrich about the nature of the new relationship. Party leader Mansour Abbas wants to break the longstanding tradition, upheld by Arab and Jewish politicians alike, according to which non-Zionist Arab parties cannot do business with ruling coalitions. But he’s under no illusions that he’s a welcome figure on the Israeli right.

Mansour Abbas, head of the Ra’am party, gives a press statement after meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Israel Hayom report of Ra’am’s demands provides fascinating evidence of Abbas’s understanding. The demands include budgets for schools, infrastructure and law enforcement; control by the party (possibly through an appointment to a Knesset committee chairmanship) of how those new funds will be distributed within the Arab community; recognition of large Bedouin encampments in the south as formal towns and villages; and zoning for new residential areas to allow for growth in large Arab towns in the north.

If those are indeed Abbas’s demands — the leaks appear to have come from Likud — they’re a sign of Mansour Abbas’s clarity of purpose.

Gone are the complicated, hard-to-deliver legislative demands to abolish or amend the nation-state law and the Kaminitz law. All the items still on Abbas’s shopping list can be realized easily and quickly — education and police budgets, for example — and are essentially irreversible, such as recognition for Bedouin towns.

Abbas knows he is being used. He’s counting on it. His main fear isn’t that Netanyahu will betray him down the road, but that Netanyahu is only pretending to negotiate with him now as a means of pressuring Gideon Sa’ar and other right-wing leaders to join his coalition in Ra’am’s stead.

If Netanyahu plans to backtrack on their new collaboration, that means he plans to enter into that collaboration in the first place. Abbas intends to be quick about getting his demands realized.

That helps explain, too, why Smotrich is sticking to his guns. Even as Abbas takes full advantage of the political moment, Smotrich is not sure Likud will be so quick to end the partnership.

Head of the Religious Zionism party Betzalel Smotrich, seen with supporters and party members at the party headquarters in Modi’in, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Smotrich may support Netanyahu for prime minister, but he doesn’t trust the man. Last month, ahead of the March 23 election, Netanyahu asked right-wing parties to once again sign a letter committing themselves to him and him alone for prime minister. Shas and UTJ signed; Smotrich refused. The issue, he bluntly told reporters, isn’t whether he’ll carry out his commitments to Netanyahu, but whether, when the chips are down, Netanyahu will do the same for him.

Netanyahu may be planning to toss Ra’am aside immediately after the vote that wipes out the rotation with Gantz, or, conversely, he may cling to Ra’am for as long as they are useful — even if their main usefulness for Netanyahu is in weakening the negotiating leverage of other coalition partners. Partners like Smotrich.

Netanyahu’s reputation for breaking agreements is now his most significant obstacle to a majority coalition. No centrist party will follow Netanyahu into a unity government after he unceremoniously backtracked out of his rotation deal with Gantz. But with Abbas or ostensible ideological allies like Bennett or Smotrich, Netanyahu must pay with cash in hand — immediate appointments, budgets and policy influence. None will be satisfied with his commitments, even written ones, about the future.

Members of the United Torah Judaism party give a press statement after meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 5, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Haredi warning

It isn’t only that Netanyahu’s word has lost value at the negotiating table.

Four inconclusive elections have dented Netanyahu’s reputation as a savvy political operator. His judgment is now being called into question, including among his closest allies.

Netanyahu’s favorite coalition negotiation trick is waiting till the last hours of his mandate to seal an agreement, in the hope that desperation will lower the other party’s asking price. It’s served him well in the past. But in the April 2019 election it backfired disastrously. It was only in the last hours of the last day of his mandate, on the afternoon of May 30, 2019, that he understood that Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman wasn’t bluffing in his refusal to sit in a coalition with the Haredi parties. Netanyahu was left with two choices: hand the mandate over to Gantz or collude with the Arab-majority parties to dissolve the Knesset and call new elections. He chose the latter option and, for the first time in history, an Israeli Knesset dissolved itself without ever voting in a government.

Three more elections have passed since May 2019. Netanyahu is no closer to a majority. It is in the context of that ongoing failure and instability that one should understand the change in tone in Haredi political rhetoric in recent days.

Haredi party sources now tell reporters bluntly that they don’t think Netanyahu will piece together a coalition. There is little patience left in Shas and UTJ after two grueling years of electioneering for any more clever maneuvers.

United Torah Judaism parliament member Ya’akov Asher at the Knesset in Jerusalem, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

UTJ lawmaker Ya’akov Asher put it bluntly on Thursday in an interview with the Haredi radio station Kol Hai: “We don’t intend to wait till the last days of the mandate and let Bennett or someone else surprise us.” If Netanyahu doesn’t present his 61-seat coalition soon, “we will sit together and decide where we go from there.”

An unnamed UTJ official even told the Ynet news site, “If toward the end [of Netanyahu’s mandate] we don’t see a chance for a government, we might put a stop to it.”

It’s not quite a threat. After all, what would Shas or UTJ do if Netanyahu disappoints them? Go with secularist Lapid? Form a government with the left and the Arab and Islamic parties?

It is a warning, a signal that Haredi patience is growing thin. The message to Netanyahu is clear: If you have a deal, lock it down. Pay the price. No more clever tricks. You may not be as clever as you think.

Head of the Yamina party Naftali Bennett arrives for a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on April 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The trust deficit

While the Haredi parties grow anxious, sources in Yamina and Likud each say they have made compromises in the talks and that things are moving forward. If the will is there and the Smotrich-Abbas problem can be ironed out, they say, a new government may be announced as early as next week.

So which is it? Is Netanyahu on the cusp of a deal, or on the precipice of a rebellion by his staunchest allies?

The short answer: Neither

Netanyahu and Bennett both need to appear to be compromising even if they intend to walk away in the end. They know that failure is likely to leave them facing an angry and frustrated electorate; they need to be able to say they tried their best, and that someone else is at fault for the failure.

On Friday, Netanyahu called on New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar — as staunchly opposed to him as Smotrich is to Ra’am — to “return home.”

“Likud is your home,” Netanyahu said. “You grew up in this home. You’ll be welcomed here with open arms.”

It’s more theater. Netanyahu knows Sa’ar won’t return to Likud as long as he’s its leader. No promise Netanyahu can now make will overcome the simple fact that Sa’ar doesn’t trust Netanyahu to keep his word. But Netanyahu has to play the part; he must be able to show he tried when the inevitable right-wing blame wars begin.

A campaign poster for Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party in Tel Aviv prior to the Israeli general election, on March 18, 2021. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As for the prospect of a Haredi rebellion, the Haredi parties cannot walk away from Netanyahu as long as he’s in the ring fighting for a religious-right government.

None of the rumors leaking out of the coalition talks are a good indicator of the actual state of the talks. But they nevertheless carry a clear message.

The pro-Netanyahu right insists the prime minister has been the target of a relentless, years-long campaign of mudslinging and delegitimization, up to and including what they view as his unfair and unjust corruption indictments.

There’s something to the concern. Netanyahu’s trial represents a point of real disagreement between right and left about fundamental questions of prosecutorial policy and the relationship between the legal system and the political system. Netanyahu’s opponents on the left, in the media and in the Knesset have not been shy or delicate in their criticism over the years. Some journalists have even been caught lying outright about Netanyahu and his family.

New Hope leader Gideon Sa’ar at a party event in Moshav Azaria, April 4, 2021. (Flash90)

But none of that is what now stands in Netanyahu’s way to a coalition. The right-wing elements in Israeli politics who adamantly refuse to join a Netanyahu government (Avigdor Liberman and Gideon Sa’ar, for example) or seem to be quietly hoping for it to fail (Naftali Bennett) all share the right-wing critique of his trial. Media partisanship and the trial itself are already so baked into voting patterns that the election campaigns in last month’s race scarcely acknowledged them.

Netanyahu’s troubles at the coalition table are rather a function of his own behavior toward political partners. Netanyahu suffers from a trust deficit, and the political system as a whole suffers with him.

It’s a simple question to which Likud political strategists and negotiators must now find a practical answer: How do you build a coalition without trust?

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