Analysis: Coalition-building

Sometime in the next 14 days, Netanyahu will ‘swallow the frog’

Much as he wants to avoid alienating the ultra-Orthodox, the prime minister wants to stay in power even more, so he will form a coalition by March 16

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 2013 (photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It’s been more than a month since the elections and so far there are no signs of political stability. On Saturday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked President Shimon Peres to grant him a 14-day extension to assemble a viable government. But judging from the daily flow of spin and counter-spin regarding the status of coalition talks, Netanyahu is still light years, not two weeks, away from cobbling together a majority comfortable enough to allow him to remain prime minister and govern the country.  

But don’t be fooled by misleading headlines about looming deadlines and the possibility of new elections. In two weeks Israel will have a new government and Netanyahu will still be prime minister.

As shaky as the situation may appear, and regardless of the current mudslinging — with everyone accusing the other of the worst political crimes — in the end several of the parties currently at loggerheads will sit together at one coalition table as if nothing happened. What today sounds improbable will soon come true. There is just no other way.

Granted, Netanyahu has his principles, and he hates to “boycott” the Haredi parties, as he said Saturday, quoting Yesh Atid. But when push comes to shove, Netanyahu’s political survival will be more important to him than any “natural allies” or personal dislikes. One could argue that if the last four years showed anything about Netanyahu’s political strategy it is that despite all ideological convictions, which he undoubtedly has, he is first and foremost interested in staying in power.

As of now, Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beytenu alliance has managed to sign up only one other coalition partner. Together with Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua party, he has 37 seats, a far cry from the 61 he needs for a majority in the 120-member Knesset. The centrist Yesh Atid and the far-right Jewish Home parties, which said they would only enter the government together or join the opposition hand-in-hand, could with their combined 31 mandates help Netanyahu reach a comfortable majority of 68 seats. The Haredim, on the other hand, together have only 18 seats, meaning that a coalition of Likud-Beytenu, Hatnua and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties falls six seats short of even a tight majority.

Over the past four weeks, Netanyahu tried to form “the widest possible coalition for the state of Israel,” which would include both the Haredim and the Bennett-Lapid bloc. But Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid has made it clear that he will not join a government with the Haredim: “I do not believe that Shas and UTJ can sit in a government that will achieve the changes for which we went to elections: changing the criteria for housing subsidies, core curriculum studies for all, equal share of the burden, and the necessary cuts in yeshiva budgets,” Lapid said Saturday. And Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett has made it just as clear that he will not join a government without Lapid.

That leaves Netanyahu with few options. Either he accepts Lapid and Bennett and their demands, or he will find himself unable to present a viable government once the 14-day extension is over. (There are two other possibilities: Netanyahu could either finally break the Lapid-Bennett alliance or get the Labor party — or a part of it — to join him. But these scenarios are exceedingly unlikely.)

Netanyahu doesn’t want to leave the Haredim in the dust. More lobbyists for their particular constituents than politicians interested in determining how this country is run, they are the best coalition partners he could wish for. As long as Netanyahu fulfills their demands — mainly draft exemptions for yeshiva students, budgets and stipends for the community — they will vote with him on everything else.

Netanyahu’s reluctance to ditch his “natural partners” even led him to indirectly accuse Yesh Atid and Jewish Home of something not a million miles from anti-Semitism:

“There is a boycott of a sector of society in the state of Israel and that doesn’t fit my view,” he said on Saturday evening at the President’s Residence. “I believe that we as Jews have suffered from boycotts. We know that Israel is boycotted in international forums; we are rightly outraged when goods from the settlers in Judea and Samaria are boycotted. More than anyone it is the settler population in Judea and Samaria who should understand this as they suffer from daily boycotts.”

President Shimon Peres (right) meets on Saturday evening with head of the Likud party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and grants the premier a two-week extension to assemble a coalition. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
President Shimon Peres (right) meets on Saturday evening with Benjamin Netanyahu, and grants him a two-week extension to assemble a coalition. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

On Sunday, during the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu vowed to try again to “unite our forces and bring together” the different parties that could make up his dream coalition. But there is no indication that what failed in the first four weeks will succeed in the next two.

Lapid and Bennett have vowed to stay together, and Lapid especially is unlikely to give in. He promised his voters to end the blanket draft exemptions for yeshiva students and was rewarded for that pledge with 19 seats. He would be ill-advised to squander the public’s confidence by entering a government that will not bring about the much-desired change. That means Netanyahu has no majority without agreeing to draft the Haredim, which will be impossible with the Haredi parties in the government.

If Netanyahu fails to present a government, Peres can choose another MK to try his luck. If that effort fails as well, the country is headed for new elections. And nobody in the political system wants that.

According to several surveys published in the last few days, Netanyahu’s Likud party would lose several seats while Lapid and Bennett would gain much ground. One online poll conducted last week by Tel Aviv University’s Camil Fuchs predicted 31 seats for Yesh Atid and 26 for Likud-Beytenu. Netanyahu knows full well that his time as prime minister would be over if the country headed to the polls again in another three months. Therefore he will do everything necessary to present a coalition, any kind of coalition, within the next two weeks. If need be, he will drop the Haredim.

Yes, Netanyahu really doesn’t like the idea of angering the ultra-Orthodox by leaving them out in the cold. But there is one thing he hates more: not being prime minister. So some time around March 16, about a week before Passover, expect Netanyahu to bite the bullet — or as the Hebrew idiom goes, to swallow the frog — and announce the formation of a government, probably with Bennett and Lapid, and no Haredim.

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