‘By hook and by crook’, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has apparently cobbled together a majority of one in the 120-member Knesset. Even as I write, Likud Knesset Member Ayub Kara has threatened not to show up for the required Knesset vote of approval on May 13th, unless Bibi first promises to make him a cabinet minister. This illustrates the nightmare now facing Netanyahu: every one of his miniscule majority will have the power to topple his new shaky coalition comprised of the Right Wing Likud, the Far Right Jewish home and the Centrist Kahlon party. There is a literal Hebrew expression that describes it perfectly: ‘Every bastard will be a king!’
Once crowned ‘Bibi, king of Israel’, Netanyahu has barely been able to ignominiously patch together a far-Right, ultra-orthodox coalition that will tie his hands as prime minister both in foreign and domestic policy. Ironically, Bibi himself precipitated his now sorry state of affairs by firing former moderate coalition partners Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, charging they had made it impossible to govern. But after achieving what we all hailed as a stunning election victory on March 17th, how did Bibi manage to parlay this into his current predicament? Did he have any choice? Not really.
The ultra-orthodox religious parties emerged from the election holding the balance of power, and they chose to go with Bibi and not Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog. From their position of kingmaker, Shas and United Torah Judaism then milked Bibi for all he was worth. It is estimated they came away with up to two billion dollars in grants for their educational and religious institutions, for large families (the ultra-orthodox have an average of seven to eight children), and a guaranteed income for men who study Torah all their lives while exempting them from military service. This after ten years ago, Finance Minister Netanyahu had slashed these grants arguing that the ultra-orthodox should be encouraged to get jobs. His outgoing government even passed a law that would prosecute religious draft dodgers (but only starting in 2017), but all that has now gone by the board. One ultra-orthodox MK, Yaakov Eichler, has reacted by saying:
“What’s the big deal? Netanyahu has only given back what he took from us ten years ago as finance minister!”
But although these coalition negotiations are kosher, they stink to high heaven with the majority of Israelis. The fact is that Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog would have probably given the same inducements to the ultra-orthodox if they had opted to support him. What’s more, Netanyahu also agreed to grant the ultra-orthodox almost complete control not only over religious matters, but such delicate issues as marriage and divorce.
When the impact sets in it could lead to a mounting wave of resentment tow
There is a dangerous side to this ultra-orthodox over-kill, which many secular Israelis perceive as ‘political extortion’. When the impact sets in it could lead to a mounting wave of resentment toward the ultra-orthodox. (Where will the public funding come from – from the already shrinking social service budgets or Israel’s huge military expenditure?)
Once the ultra-orthodox declared for Netanyahu, it was game over. Economic reformer Moshe Kahlon followed suit and came aboard the Netanyahu bandwagon with the offer of finance minister and Bibi’s backing for the much-needed economic reforms. The Prime Minister was then believed to be home free with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and Avigdor Lieberman next in line. But obviously in the driver’s seat, Bennett also drove a hard bargain by not only demanding the education portfolio for himself but also the Justice Ministry for his razzle-dazzle sidekick Ayelet Shaked, a charismatic computer engineer who has displayed a sharp tongue to complement her political skills.
Moreover, settler Uri Ariel will be in control of settler affairs. On another level, both Bennett and Shaked are in the bad book of Bibi’s wife Sarah, and therefore a bitter pill for the PM to swallow, but swallow he must. Every Israeli political commentator worth his salt then predicted that Netanyahu was finally home free after weeks of coalition haggling. All that was left to do was to offer Avigdor Lieberman to retain his current job as Foreign Minister and ‘Bob’s your uncle’, Netanyahu would have carved out his 67-seat majority in the 120-member Knesset.
But as is often the case in Israeli politics – a political bombshell! Lieberman convened his six-member caucus asking each one what they thought the party should do. Thinking that Lieberman had no choice but to join the coalition on Netanyahu’s terms, they supported the idea. In a typical Putin-like response Lieberman retorted something like:
“After hearing each of you say we should join the coalition, I’m more convinced than ever that we should not!’
Apparently seething over Netanyahu’s making him wait last in line, and after some of his former Knesset members and party officials are being subjected to an intensive police investigation on suspicion of kickbacks, Lieberman has vented his spleen on Netanyahu by leaving him the barest minimum of a sixty-one seat majority. Can such an unstable conglomeration survive? Not only Bennett’s party will be pressing for settlement building as well as Bibi’s colleagues in the Likud. Add to this, the anger at Netanyahu inside the Likud by those front runners who want and will not get a cabinet post after Netanyahu distributed most of the plumb portfolios to the coalition partners.
Then there’s Yitzhak Herzog’s Left wing Zionist Camp. There’s talk about Bibi trying to maneuver what was Labor into his coalition by dumping Bennett in the future. This would give him some wiggle room in the international arena if Herzog were to become his foreign minister. Meanwhile, Bibi will keep the foreign ministry for himself saying:
“A majority of 61 is alright but plus is better!”
On the face of it, this is an allusion to Lieberman having second thoughts and eventually coming aboard and getting his old job back. But it could also apply to Herzog and Labor. As we have witnessed, Lieberman is a mercurial personality – it is impossible to predict what he will do. Maybe after putting Netanyahu through the wringer he will calm down and return to the coalition fold.
But there would be strong opposition in Labor to saving Bibi by reinforcing his coalition. Shelly Yachimovich, who was ousted as party leader by Herzog, would lead a campaign against such a move, if Herzog opted for it. Labor believes Bibi’s days are numbered and it is only a matter of time before his coalition will collapse. Netanyahu himself would also have to work hard to persuade his party to join forces with Labor.
The problem with Israel’s Center and Left wings is that they need a strong leader – someone the public believes can cope with the Iranian nuclear threat and navigate the state through the sea of Islamist violence that is now sweeping the region. The late Yitzhak Rabin once succeeded in steering a minority government, but alas Yitzhak Herzog has not shown he is in the league of Yitzhak Rabin. Alas he is more of an Ed Miliband.