Australia/Israel Review, Featured
Nov 22, 2022 | Amotz Asa-El
Netanyahu’s coalition conundrums
It should have been a cakewalk.
Having finally achieved victory after four electoral failures in less than three years, Binyamin Netanyahu hoped to present a coalition in tandem with the 25th Knesset’s inaugural session, which was held on November 15, two weeks after the Nov. 1 vote.
Instead, the morning after the new Knesset assembled, talks were stalemated, as Netanyahu’s likely coalition partners raised conflicting demands.
Though no landslide, Netanyahu’s victory was decisive. His Likud won 32 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and ultra- Orthodox and far right allies collectively won another 32, so what Netanyahu calls his “natural coalition” emerged sizeable and cohesive enough to ostensibly govern for at least most of the new Knesset’s four-year term.
In itself, this solid majority would be welcome even to many who did not vote for Likud and its allies, as this result signals the end of half a decade of Israeli political instability, with five general elections in less than four years. However, the new coalition is proving more difficult to build than initially assumed, for both personal and programmatic reasons.
On the personal side, Netanyahu is challenged by the leaders of the Religious Zionism Party, a confederation of three far-right parties that emerged from the election with 14 seats, before splitting into separate factions. This is three more than the ultra-Orthodox Shas and twice as much as the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism.
The reason for the far right’s electoral success is a matter of interpretation.
Some see it as the technical result of its three leaders’ readiness to run together, an inversion of what happened at the political spectrum’s opposite end, where Labor refused to form a joint ticket with the left-wing Meretz party, which then ended up just under the electoral threshold of 3.25%, and will not be in the Knesset at all. Had the two left-wing parties run jointly they would have won seven seats, and thus shrunk Netanyahu’s majority to perhaps one seat.
Other analysts have pointed out the electoral effect of last year’s violence in cities where Israeli-Arab and Jewish communities cohabitate, and of a crisis of Arab Bedouin lawlessness in southern Israel.
The shocking footage last year of torched synagogues in Israeli cities, and Arab mobs trying to lynch Jewish passersby during the May 2021 fighting in Gaza, were exploited by the leader of the Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party which ran as part of Religious Zionism, Itamar Ben Gvir, a former disciple of banned racist extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Ben Gvir promised in his campaign to seek to become the minister of homeland security, and use that office “to restore order”.
Ben-Gvir, who had been convicted in the past of racist incitement and supporting a terror group, has indeed demanded Netanyahu appoint him to that sensitive cabinet position, which oversees the Israeli police force. Meanwhile, his former running-mate Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of Religious Zionism and a former transport minister, has demanded to become either treasurer or defence minister. If appointed, he is expected to use either office to seek to push settlement expansion, legalising unauthorised Jewish outposts in the West Bank and transferring increased funding to settler-related causes.
Reports attributed to Smotrich’s aides claimed he has met with no fewer than six retired IDF generals since the election in order to prepare for the position of defence minister. While it is not clear if these meetings actually happened, the reports evidently alarmed Netanyahu, who for several days avoided communicating with Smotrich, and when he finally met him it was in order to tell him he wouldn’t agree to Smotrich becoming defence minister. Why Netanyahu doesn’t want to make the appointment is a matter of speculation.
Some claim Netanyahu received strong messages from Washington that the Biden Administration would prefer an appointee at defence with whom it could work smoothly. Others say Netanyahu thinks Religious Zionism emerged too empowered from this election, and letting it head the defence ministry would make it even stronger. Still others think Netanyahu wants his own candidate, former education minister Yoav Galant, a retired IDF major-general, to get the post. Finally, some think Netanyahu simply finds Smotrich, who served in the IDF for only 14 months in a non-combat role, unsuitable for the position.
Netanyahu may be ready to hand Smotrich the post of treasurer, but that ministry has been demanded by Netanyahu’s other key ally, Shas leader Aryeh Deri.
The 63-year-old Deri is a lifelong politician who first became a cabinet minister in 1988, so is much more experienced. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, Deri is also far more dependable than the 42-year-old Smotrich, who has been in the Knesset only seven years, and may seem overly ambitious to Netanyahu.
Yet to make things even more complicated, Deri’s prospective appointment as treasurer faces legal hurdles, since he was convicted last year of tax offences. This is in addition to the jail term he served 20 years ago for accepting bribes in the 1980s. There will almost certainly be legal challenges against Deri’s appointment to any cabinet seat, and how Israel’s High Court of Justice will rule is anyone’s guess.
The one coalition partner with whom Netanyahu’s negotiations have been relatively simple is United Torah Judaism (UTJ). The party requested, and has already been granted, the housing ministry and the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee, amongst other positions. In keeping with that party’s tradition of seeking financial benefits for its ultra-Orthodox constituents in previous governments, UTJ used the prospect of a compact, conservative coalition to demand a sharp expansion of spending on religious institutions and scholars. Most notably, its leaders demand a near doubling of the average monthly stipend paid to Talmudic seminary students, with the current budget of NIS 1.15 billion (A$495 million) for such students expanding to NIS 2 billion (A$860 million).
The other ultra-Orthodox party, Shas, which strives also to represent the poorer social classes, has demanded food subsidies for “needy families” through special plastic cards that would be an Israeli version of America’s food stamps.
From Netanyahu’s viewpoint, such demands, while fiscally expensive, are politically relatively cheap.
That cannot be said of his prospective coalition partners’ expectations that the new government will quickly and swiftly pass legislation that would limit the powers of the High Court of Justice. Widely referred to as “the overriding clause”, this controversial bill would allow a simple majority of 61 lawmakers to reinstate any legislation the High Court invalidates as unconstitutional.
Netanyahu is no less critical of Israel’s judiciary than his partners, having alleged publicly that the courts were part of a conspiracy to unseat him, along with the prosecution, the media and police, following his indictment on corruption charges.
However, the extent to which he is coordinating with his allies on this sensitive front is not clear.
The ultra-Orthodox parties want the High Court’s power diminished because they want a full exemption from military service granted to their constituents. The court has repeatedly thrown out legislation in this spirit, arguing such laws violate the principle of equality before the law.
The Religious Zionism party wants the High Court sidelined because it poses an obstacle to unchecked land expropriations in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s main concern, however, is a deal that would undo, or at least reduce, the indictments he faces in court.
As Netanyahu likely sees things, a scenario whereby he is in a narrow coalition dependent on ultra-conservative militants is highly uncomfortable.
In his previous governing coalitions, he has always included at least one senior minister from a party to his left. Most recently it was Benny Gantz of Blue and White as his defence minister, before that it was Moshe Kahlon of the Kulanu party as treasurer, before that Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni, who were respectively Netanyahu’s finance and justice minister, before that it was Ehud Barak of Labor as his defence minister, and back in the 1990s it was a centrist party called The Third Way.
It is against this backdrop that Israel’s Maariv newspaper claimed that secret talks are being held between Netanyahu and his centrist arch-rivals, outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party won 24 seats, and Benny Gantz, whose National Unity won 12.
The reports have been flatly denied by all parties, and there appears to be no formula that will see either Lapid or Gantz striking a deal with Netanyahu – both parties insist that he must clear the political stage so long as he faces a trial on corruption charges.
Most Israeli pundits expect the current coalition negotiations stalemate to drag on for at least a couple of more weeks. Yet ultimately, the negotiations will almost certainly eventually produce the sort of narrow, ultra-conservative government that foreign governments would tend to view with suspicion and Netanyahu has been so reluctant to form. The decisions of Israeli voters have made this all but inevitable.