Apr 27, 2021 | Amotz Asa-El
Israel’s seemingly impossible coalition maths
Israel emerged from yet another election on March 23 with its two-year political deadlock fully intact.
In fact, the already complex plot thickened further, spotlighting two kingmakers who, despite having nothing to do with each other, might jointly write a new chapter in Israel’s political history.
The fourth election in just over two years was as inconclusive as the previous three. The ruling Likud party’s result, 30 Knesset seats, is far higher than that of the next largest party, the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”), which won 17. However, Likud and its three religious satellite parties command only 52 of the legislature’s 120 seats.
At the same time, the rest of the new Knesset cannot easily produce a coalition either, since its components seem unable to unite around any one agreed candidate for prime minister. Indeed, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the next highest vote getter, enjoys even less parliamentary backing to become PM than Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu.
That is why President Reuven Rivlin asked Netanyahu to attempt to form a coalition on April 5. Israeli law gives Netanyahu 28 days to complete this task – which can then potentially be extended by another 14 days, if necessary, at the president’s discretion.
Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, was thus saddled with a task even he has never faced before: attempting to pull sworn antagonists together into a governing coalition, in the brave hope he could somehow keep such a coalition intact despite the forces of repulsion constantly threatening to tear it apart.
The two main antagonists he needs to unite for this bold experiment are the Religious Zionism party, a federation of far-right movements with six seats, and the United Arab List (UAL), an Islamist non-Zionist party with four.
Religious Zionism’s head, former transport minister Bezalel Smotrich, has said that under no circumstances will he join a coalition backed by the UAL, which he says includes supporters of Hamas. Even more vociferous in rejecting any cooperation with UAL has been another Religious Zionism lawmaker, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a virulently anti-Palestinian disciple of the late racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ben-Gvir was elected as the sole representative of the far right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party under the umbrella of Religious Zionism’s electoral list as part of a pre-election deal.
Ironically, the Jewish and Muslim conservatism embodied by Religious Zionism and the UAL respectively entail some common denominators – for instance shared opposition to LGBTQ rights.
In addition to this hostile duo, to form a government Netanyahu also needs former defence minister Naftali Bennett and his Yamina (“Rightward”) party.
Bennett won only seven seats, but unlike all other parties, did not commit himself to any post-election coalition, though he has said he would prefer a purely right-wing government should one be obtainable.
Having thus been handed one reasonable opening for negotiation, Netanyahu met with Bennett, hoping to set aside years of bad blood between himself and a man who was once his chief of staff. Reportedly, Netanyahu offered Bennett the defence ministry, and his party colleague Ayelet Shaked the foreign ministry, a political bonanza for a faction that won barely six percent of the vote this election.
As of this writing, it isn’t clear what Netanyahu would offer his prospective Arab partner, UAL leader Mansour Abbas. Pundits suggest Netanyahu will probably try to negotiate an arrangement to have them support the coalition from outside the cabinet, making do with chairmanships of parliamentary committees and assorted budget allocations.
Between them, Bennett and Abbas – one a hi-tech millionaire, former IDF commando, and modern Orthodox Jew, the other an Islamist preacher and Hebrew University-trained dentist – seem best placed to snatch personal victory from a crisis that is otherwise a worrying defeat for everyone, both for the politicians and for the country they purport to lead.
Abbas’ victory lies in the taboo he broke.
Until now, Israel’s Arab-dominated parties consistently avoided entering into coalition negotiations, arguing that such a move would legitimise Israeli policies toward the Palestinians which they decry. Abbas, 46, broke with this pattern, and ran independently with a promise to look after Israeli Arabs’ communal issues, which he said his former colleagues neglected, by being ready to enter fully into the argy bargy of Israeli coalition politics.
Faced with a choice between this and more traditional Arab parties, 40% of Arab voters opted for Abbas’ line. At the same time, Netanyahu’s eagerness to harness Abbas as a source of vital political support legitimises similar arrangements with anti-Zionist Arab-dominated parties by all of Israel’s mainstream political players.
It now is clear that, one way or another, Israeli Arab parties will soon be part of an Israeli government, if not this time around then in elections to come.
Israeli Arabs make up one-fifth of the population, and while their voter turnout rates have usually been lower than the population average, in recent decades they have voted overwhelmingly for Arab-led parties which rejected collaboration with the Israeli mainstream, and thus effectively remained removed from the centres of political power.
Israeli Arab entry into governing coalitions would be a third major turning point in the evolution of Israel’s political system.
The first such transition happened in 1967, when the previously sidelined Menachem Begin – and the right-wing forces that he represented – were first admitted into an Israeli government. The second happened a decade later, when ultra-Orthodox politicians joined Begin’s government, despite being ostensibly non-Zionist, subsequently becoming a fixture in Israel’s corridors of power. Curiously, the ultra-Orthodox model of political participation to gain communal benefits is what inspired Abbas’ move to seek similar arrangements.
Bennett’s personal victory is different, as it represents neither an idea nor a community, but an individual – himself.
Raised in an English-speaking home by parents who moved to Israel from San Francisco before he was born, the 49-year-old Bennett is reminiscent of Netanyahu not only in his unaccented English, but also in his eloquence, media skills and impressive record of military service.
Bennett’s electoral performance has hardly matched that of his former boss, but current circumstances seem likely to multiply his political power far beyond his party’s nominal size.
Bennett’s status as kingmaker, though new to him personally, is not unique – coalition governments in many countries frequently empower small parties with the ability to make or break parliamentary majorities. What is unique about Bennett’s current situation is that it may allow him, the leader of a miniscule faction, to nonetheless become prime minister.
Reportedly, this is what Lapid is offering Bennett in return for his rejection of Netanyahu’s offers. More specifically, Bennett and Lapid would rotate the role of PM, with Bennett getting first shot at the premiership.
Still, when it came time to formally present to President Rivlin his prime-ministerial recommendation, Bennett supported neither Netanyahu nor Lapid, but himself. It was a setback for Lapid, as was the failure to win backing from another small right-wing faction, New Hope.
Headed by former education minister Gideon Sa’ar, that six-member faction supported no candidate. Sa’ar and Bennett’s refusal to formally back Lapid raised hopes within the Likud that Netanyahu could manage to patch together a coalition, possibly by persuading Sa’ar to support a Netanyahu-led government without taking cabinet seats, or in exchange for a deal to elect Sa’ar to the largely symbolic post of President in June, when Rivlin’s seven-year term expires.
Sa’ar has flatly rejected all such ideas, sticking to his election promise not to join a government headed by Netanyahu.
Another bad sign for Netanyahu’s effort came on April 19, when the Likud lost a key Knesset vote regarding the Arrangements Committee – which controls the Knesset’s agenda until a government is formed. The UAL voted with the bloc opposing Netanyahu to give them a majority on this important committee.
A silent factor in the political equation is the good personal rapport between Bennett, Lapid and Sa’ar, all of whom are from the same generation and have worked well together over the years as ministers and lawmakers.
Some pundits even assume that the three collectively want to see Netanyahu fail to assemble his coalition, and then use Netanyahu’s unsuccessful efforts to negotiate the participation of the UAL in a government to legitimise their own inclusion of UAL or other Arab factions in an alternative broad-based coalition.
In such a case, the new government would include, besides Lapid’s 17-seat Yesh Atid, Bennett’s seven-seat Yamina and Saar’s six-seat New Hope, Benny Gantz and his eight-member Blue and White party, with Gantz likely remaining defence minister; former defence minister Avigdor Lieberman and his seven-member Yisrael Beteinu (“Israel is Our Home”) party, with Lieberman possibly becoming finance minister; Labor and the left wing Meretz party, with seven and six members respectively, and lastly, Abbas’ UAL faction, possibly also with some members of the rival Joint Arab List.
The foreign minister would be Lapid, who would then swap positions with Bennett after a rotation in two years. Saar would likely be justice minister, a pivotal position considering the corruption trial Netanyahu is currently facing, and potential efforts to pass legislation designed to affect Netanyahu’s legal situation.
Another way out of the current mess that has been touted is to make Netanyahu the next president – the one political role in Israel that by law makes its bearer immune from criminal prosecution while in office.
However, Israeli presidents are elected by a secret ballot in the Knesset, and Netanyahu reportedly would want that changed to an open ballot, lest prospective coalition partners secretly fail to vote for him. However, Bennett has said he will oppose any personal legislation along those lines.
Lastly, there is the option that Netanyahu’s own Likud party colleagues will ask him to make way for another leader, having failed to deliver victory four consecutive times. However, the Likud is a party that has never in its long history deposed its leader, so such a prospect seems almost unthinkable.
Then again, until recently, no one in Israel imagined four elections in two years, nor a prime minister appearing in court in the morning, negotiating a new coalition in the evening, and in the interim running the country, as Netanyahu is currently doing. Evidently, there is a first time for everything.