Last December, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, the head of a centre-right government of 68 members in the 120-seat Knesset, called for new elections following disputes with several key coalition members. On March 17, Netanyahu’s Likud party emerged as the clear winner, with a seemingly comfortable path to a right-wing coalition of 67 seats.
Yet, in the end, Netanyahu only managed to eke out a precarious 61-member centre-right coalition, and only at the last possible moment constitutionally.
This surprising outcome was precipitated primarily by the shock decision of Avigdor Lieberman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party to refuse to join the Coalition.
Lieberman, who heads a secularist party dominated by immigrants from the former Soviet Union, said he was annoyed by Netanyahu’s promises to the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, such as diluting laws forcing ultra-Orthodox Israelis to perform national service and reinstating welfare benefits for ultra-Orthodox Jews who avoid the workforce by remaining in religious studies. Yet Lieberman has sat in governments alongside these parties under similar terms before.
More importantly, Lieberman said, Netanyahu had rejected his legislative agenda – including his provocative insistence on the reintroduction of a “Jewish state” bill that many lawmakers argued was redundant and dangerous – and also refused to promise more settlement expansion in the coalition agreement.
For Lieberman, however, Netanyahu’s worst offence was his refusal to stop trying to bring the centre-left Zionist Union/Labor party into a unity government.
To date, Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union party – a conglomeration of Herzog’s Labor and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah factions – remains very firmly outside the coalition. However, the parameters of Netanyahu’s new government, and the time it took for the coalition to be formed, all suggest this was not for the lack of Netanyahu trying. Indeed, in his speech announcing the new government, Netanyahu said as much, stating “I am leaving the door open for broadening the government. The country needs this.”
Despite some significant concessions that were necessary to bring Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home party into the government, Netanyahu was also careful not to form a government that the Zionist Union would be unable to join in the future.
In one telling example, the Housing Ministry – a sensitive portfolio in relation to the controversial West Bank settlement issue – was taken out of the hands of pro-settler Jewish Home and given to the new centrist party Kulanu.
This move surely heralds a continuation of Netanyahu’s policy of building fewer homes in West Bank settlements than the prime ministers who preceded him, with the overwhelming majority in areas Israel is expected to keep in any future diplomatic agreement.
It also gives the lie to critics who incorrectly argue settlement “expansion” is making a Palestinian state geographically impossible.
Furthermore, the coalition agreement drafted by Netanyahu calls for the new government to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians” and he re-affirmed to European diplomats on May 20 that “I support the vision of two states for two peoples.”
Netanyahu and Herzog largely see eye-to-eye on defence matters, including the paramount imperative to push for a better nuclear deal with a totally unreformed, revolutionary, repressive Iran which would effectively prevent Teheran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, both today and in the distant future.
Similarly, Netanyahu and Herzog share a belief in Israel’s long-term need for a secure, negotiated two-state peace outcome with the Palestinians. At the same time, they oppose risky, short-sighted initiatives such as a reported French-inspired and New Zealand-backed UN Security Council resolution which apparently would impose a deadline for the establishment of a Palestinian state – a serious disincentive for Palestinian compromises and willingness to resume bilateral negotiations, the only constructive way forward.
They also agree that such a move does not take into account the dangerous realities on the ground, including the strength of Hamas and its rejectionist allies who are sworn to continue trying to destroy Israel even after a Palestinian state is created.
This is why Herzog did not promise a pie-in-the-sky peace agreement with the Palestinians during the recent election campaign, but only vowed to try to improve relations with the Palestinians and explore possibilities for interim agreements.
This is also an approach which Netanyahu – who voiced scepticism over the likelihood of an agreed Palestinian state in the short-term primarily because of the resurgence of violent Islamism across the region – can readily support.
In addition, it is the Likud and the Zionist Union’s shared interest to work together to enact electoral reforms to make governments harder to topple and weaken the leverage of fringe parties, thus coalescing power around the political centre. Indeed, Netanyahu called for such reforms during the election, and again in announcing his new government.
Netanyahu, who has kept the vital Foreign Ministry portfolio to himself, is apparently reserving it for Herzog in the hope that the issues preventing the Zionist Union from joining the government can somehow be resolved.
The negotiations between Netanyahu and Herzog were private, and so it is impossible to determine exactly what the remaining obstacles to a unity government are.
Yet Herzog, for his part, has been under intense pressure from Israel’s left and many in his own party intent on remaining in opposition both out of principle and to improve Labor’s chances next time around.
Thus, a broadening of the government may not be achievable and the current narrow configuration may persist. Yet despite the obvious pressures and frequent crises it is likely to confront, it may, like other similarly narrow governments in Israel’s past, endure longer than anticipated.
While the future is uncertain, Netanyahu’s willingness to let Yisrael Beitenu walk rather than pander to its demands, along with his firmness with Jewish Home over the settlement issue, appears to reveal a determination by the Prime Minister to maintain a centrist pragmatic stance in his new narrow centre-right government, even if he cannot broaden it.