Israeli Coalition negotiations

Mar 20, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

March 20, 2009
Number 03/09 #05

This Update focuses on the state of the Israeli coalition negotiations, with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu expected today to ask President Shimon Peres for an additional two weeks to form a government – after making a dramatic offer to Labor that party leader Ehud Barak is reportedly pushing his party to accept in a vote on Tuesday.

A good overview of where things currently stand in the coalition negotiations comes from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre. This looks at the likely composition of a right-wing government, assuming Labor does not join, and the difficulties this may cause for Netanyahu, as well as the complex issues the next Israeli government may face.  It also examines the calculations of Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in apparently deciding to stay in opposition. To understand what is currently going on in these characteristically protracted coalition negotiations in Israel, CLICK HERE. Another good overview of the Israeli coalition negotiations comes from American academic Robert Freedman.

Next, Israeli columnist Sima Kadmon looks at the calculations that may have led Netanyahu to offer Barak an exceptionally good deal to join his coalition, and why Barak is inclined to accept. According to Kadmon, Barak basically faced  the option of joining the coalition or sooner or later being ousted as Labor leader, while Netanyahu wants the legitimacy and government stability Labor participation would bring – as well as the ability to exclude certain far right parties from the coalition. Meanwhile, Kadmon points out that many in Labor are now more determined than ever to oust Barak. For more on this complex new development, CLICK HERE. Journalist and blogger Shmuel Rosner has more on the difficult hurdles Barak will face in trying to bring Labor into the government. Also, Likud members are now reportedly angry about the generosity of Netanyahu’s offer to Barak.

Finally, much is being written about the possibility of controversial Israeli politician Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. The always insightful Barry Rubin says he’ll only believe it when the government is actually sworn in, and sees the deal Netanyahu signed with Lieberman as part of ongoing coalition manoeuvring between Netanyahu and Livni. He also argues that while Lieberman is often unfairly treated as some sort of “monster”, he would still be a poor choice for foreign minister, and faults both Livni and Netanyahu for failing to put the national interest first. For Rubin’s full, controversial take on what may actually be going on, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on the possibility of Lieberman as foreign minister is an editorial in the Jerusalem Post, while veteran Israeli journalist Leslie Susser reports on the reasons for Lieberman’s popular appeal in Israel. Finally, American editor and academic Marty Peretz argues it is unfair to call Lieberman a “fascist” but does offer considerable criticisms of him.

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COALITION TALKS ONGOING                                            

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The current state of coalition negotiations

The first deadline for Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu to put together a government is set to expire, but the end is not yet in sight. He has so far initialled an agreement only with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. His most likely route to a coalition remains in bringing in the right-leaning parties: the Sephardi religious Shas, the ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism, the national religious Jewish Home, and possibly also the ultra-nationalist National Union. However, he has yet to fix terms with any of them. Netanyahu has the option of asking President Shimon Peres for extensions of anything up to a total of two weeks to finish the job, and it appears that he will likely request this. Given that no other candidate has a chance to form a coalition, Peres is likely to give him all the time he needs, since the only alternative is new elections.

In the meantime, back channel discussions are ongoing between Likud representatives and Tzipi Livni’s centrist Kadima party, as well as the left-of-centre Labour party under Ehud Barak. It remains in Netanyahu’s interest to try to keep as many options on the table for as long as possible. He maintains his leverage in negotiations with the smaller parties by keeping alive the possibility that he could abandon them and form a centrist national unity coalition instead. So far, there is still a real possibility that Barak may enter the governing coalition, though most of his party is opposed to this and it is conceivable that such a move could lead to the party officially splitting. Livni has shown no signs of budging from her position that the government guidelines must include a commitment to a two-state solution, and she also desires that the position of prime minister rotate between her and Netanyahu, which Netanyahu is so far unwilling to accept.

If Netanyahu does form a coalition with the right-leaning parties, his Likud party with 27 Knesset seats will be the undisputed leader of the coalition. Netanyahu tried to appeal to the centre ground in his election campaign, promoting his own personality and experience as the right man to meet Israel’s major challenges in the fields of security and the economy. He has promised a plan to meet the challenge of the global financial crisis and it is a clear statement of his priorities that he plans to keep the finance portfolio for himself. Another important policy he has outlined is his plan to work with moderate Palestinians to promote economic progress in the West Bank, but without the final status talks which his predecessor engaged in. At the same time, he has made clear his intention to avoid any compromise with Hamas.

>From his Likud list, Netanyahu has indicated that he would like former IDF chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon as defence minister, while Gideon Sa’ar, a popular figure among Likud rank and file, may enter government for the first time as education minister. Yet Netanyahu is postponing firm decisions about the division of ministerial roles among his party colleagues in order to keep maximum flexibility in his talks with other parties. There is also speculation that former minister and law professor Yaakov Neeman will be brought in from outside the Knesset to take up the role of justice minister.

With 15 Knesset seats and five ministers in the government, Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu looks set to be the number two player. Lieberman picked up votes during the election with tough rhetoric which was perceived to be challenging the loyalty of Israel’s Arab politicians and electorate – though in fact this was directed at all Israelis, including the ultra-orthodox, with Lieberman and many in his secular constituency questioning their loyalty to the state. It was a campaign that drew criticism both domestically and internationally. But in his previous spells in government, including as minister for strategic affairs in 2007, he proved a calmer and more responsible political player than when in opposition. The proposal to link voting rights to loyalty pledges was always more campaign rhetoric than serious policy proposal, and it is suspected that it has not found its way into the outlined government programme agreed between the parties. However, a proposal promoted by the party to introduce a form of civil partnership for Israelis without a religious affiliation will be carried forward, as will proposals to make conversion to Judaism easier. Both of these issues are of importance to Lieberman’s constituency, which includes many Russian immigrants who have Jewish ancestry but are not considered Jewish by the Rabbinate. Under the agreement between the parties, Yisrael Beitenu MK Yitzhak Aharonovitch is due to become internal security minister. The party will also receive the tourism, infrastructure and immigrant absorption portfolios.

With 11 Knesset seats, Shas are the next party that Netanyahu need to bring in. In a right-wing coalition, they would hold four ministerial positions. Historically flexible on issues relating to the peace process, their main priority will remain welfare and educational services which benefit their largely Sephardi religious constituency. A potential flashpoint within the government will be the conflict of interests between the religious Shas and the staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu. There are also apparent objections from United Torah Judaism to Shas’s desire to have a representative as a deputy minister in the education department.

With five seats, the Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox United Torah Judaism is the next of the right-leaning parties that Netanyahu is seeking to bring in. Like Shas, they would be preoccupied primarily with the social affairs of their sector. They do not seek ministerial portfolios, but will ask for deputy ministerial positions and the chairmanship of the powerful Knesset Finance Committee.

With three seats, Jewish Home represents religious Zionists, including many of the settlers. They will be opposed to restrictions which halt the growth of settlements or threaten their dismantlement or security. Having performed badly in the elections, the party is troubled by internal differences about who will represent them in the Knesset and the government. Jewish Home Chairman Daniel Hershkowitz is refusing to accept demands from party members to resign from the Knesset to make room for popular parliamentarian Nissan Slomiansky.[1]

These parties together would make a coalition of 61, uncomfortably thin for Netanyahu. The majority would be healthier with the inclusion of the ultra-nationalist National Union. But they are the most hard-line grouping in the Knesset when it comes to the question of settlements in the West Bank and the peace process, and would limit Netanyahu’s policy options even further.

The prospects for the government

Having failed to achieve a decisive victory in the elections, and with many Israelis still harbouring bad memories of his last time as prime minister, Netanyahu will not have a honeymoon period. He will be leading Israel in a time of considerable economic and security challenges, with a coalition which has considerable structural instability.

The most immediate challenge is economic. Among the government’s most pressing tasks will be to pass an overdue budget for 2009. If it fails to do so, a new election will be triggered by law. With the global financial crisis lapping at Israel’s shores, the country faces rapidly rising unemployment and a potentially crippling budget deficit. Among the most immediate dilemmas facing the incoming administration will be how to build a budget and an economic policy that can withstand the economic storms ahead.

On the security front, Israel is locked in a deeply uncomfortable standoff with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. The international community are keen to find mechanisms to bring about Gaza’s reconstruction, but moderate Arab states, the international community, the Fatah-led PA and Israel fear could this could strengthen Hamas. The government will face tough decisions about how to handle this dilemma, which will become more acute if Palestinians agree on a unity government, with Hamas still refusing to recognise Israel and renounce violence. Netanyahu will also have to set a diplomatic course that can sit with his right-wing coalition partners and be squared with a US government that is keen to show it has a more determined approach to promoting the peace process. Equally serious threats lie over the horizon, including the ticking clock of Iran’s nuclear programme, which Israel and the international community are determined to see stopped.

The delicate internal dynamics of the coalition will also force the prime minister to conduct a constant political balancing act. The interests of his main coalition partner, the staunchly secular Yisrael Beitenu, are likely to conflict with those of the smaller religious parties. The religious parties’ interests in pouring money into welfare provision for their constituents is not likely to sit well with the prime minister’s preference to cut back spending. Netanyahu will try to keep his coalition partners in line by keeping alive the possibility that he could – if they make his life too difficult – reform the coalition around a more centrist axis with Kadima and/or Labour.

The Opposition

If Netanyahu does form a government with the right-wing parties, Israel will face the unusual situation of having the largest party in the opposition. Whilst she was unable to become prime minister, Livni will still be buoyed by her success in the elections, and will use her place in opposition to brand herself as the natural alternative to the current government. She has already staked out her territory, making clear that she sees herself as the next prime minister and refusing to enter a coalition with Netanyahu because he will not explicitly endorse the two-state solution. She will bank on the government foundering on its internal differences, and the pressure it will face internationally to adopt a more open stance towards the peace process. If his coalition with the right-wing parties falls apart, she will be ready either to mount a challenge to the government in a new set of elections, or to enter a national unity partnership government with Netanyahu on her terms. There is some scepticism about whether Livni would allow the government to collapse, as she has indicated that she may support the government even from the opposition if it moves forward with diplomatic steps towards a two-state solution.

Her main challenge will be to keep her faction united in opposition. Many of her party list come originally from the Likud, and could be susceptible to changing loyalties back to their former party. Israeli politics have a long history of party splits and realignments in the course of a Knesset period, such as when Ariel Sharon split the Likud to form Kadima. Given the overlaps and haziness about the ideological positions of the major parties and their members at present, similar such splits and realignments cannot be ruled out as events force the politicians to make choices.

Perhaps the party facing the biggest identity crisis is the beleaguered Labour party. If Barak takes the party into the coalition, there is a distinct possibility that the party could split. Assuming that they stay out of the government, the party must somehow reinvent itself, and find a new role and relevance in Israeli politics from the opposition benches. A leadership challenge to Ehud Barak seems likely at some point.

[1] Gil Hoffman, ‘Habayit Hayehudi could split over ministry’, Jerusalem Post, 18 March 2009.

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Barak chooses Bibi

Labor party chairman knows he can either join Netanyahu’s coalition or go home

Sima Kadmon

Ynet.com,  03.19.09

Nothing should surprise us about the conduct of the Labor party chairman, and if you ask him he will aim to prove that everything was there from the start: He never said that the Labor party is going to the opposition, but rather, that “it won’t be deterred by the opposition,” and if someone fails to understand the difference, Barak will be glad to explain it in detail.

Yet what’s the point of explanations: Barak knew he will be the defense minister in the Netanyahu government even before Netanyahu knew he has a government.

Because even Barak can make these simple political calculations: Either he becomes a minister in the Netanyahu government, or he goes home. Anyone who thought we will get to see the former prime minister sitting on the back benches of the Livni-led opposition better think again.

So it is no wonder that the labor party is reaching boiling point: For weeks they have been walking around with the feeling that their party head is finalizing deals behind their backs, while he kept denying it. Even on Wednesday, when Netanyahu itself publically admitted to this relationship, Barak, just like a man whose wife catches him in bed with another woman, continued to deny.
However, the reward is already on the table, for all to see: Five ministers, including only one without a portfolio, two deputy ministers, and a Knesset committee head. You can’t say Netanyahu doesn’t know how to be generous when he wants to be. And now, let’s see senior Labor party figures Ben-Eliezer, Simhon, Vilnai, and Herzog refuse such offer.
Netanyahu’s gains

It is clear what Barak gains from this partnership. Meanwhile, Netanyahu gains the only person he really wanted next to him – Barak. He gains the opportunity to get rid of National Union. He gains a coalition that isn’t much bigger, but is one he will not be ashamed to present in the world. He gains allies he does not fear.

On the other hand, he also gains a much smaller opposition: Kadima, without Labor, goes from being a 55-member opposition to being a 42-member opposition.
Actually, this is not quite so. Should Barak succeed in his mission, Netanyahu will receive a 13-member partner on paper only. Almost half the Labor faction will be against him on a regular basis, assuming the party won’t split. These people already started to prepare for the world war expected to take place this coming Tuesday at the party committee.
Members of the Central Committee will be called upon to decide whether the party will adopt Barak’s way and join the Netanyahu government, or whether to take the opposition way, which is being led, among others, by party veterans as well as its young guard. Barak’s rivals are already collecting signatures in order to make the vote secret.  

Barak will face the fight of his life, his rivals said Wednesday. In addition to his proposal, two more proposals will be submitted for a vote: The young guard will call for his dismissal, and the other one will demand a new primaries date. Paradoxically, Barak’s rivals say, he will end up losing if he wins. If he manages to bring Labor into the government, we will make sure this will mark his demise.

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By Barry Rubin

GLORIA, March 17 2009

It is being widely reported that Benyamin Netanyahu is making Avigdor Lieberman Israel;s foreign minister in his coalition plan.
Maybe; maybe not.

This story should be looked at as a ploy in the maneuvering over Israel’s next government. It may be brilliant for Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party, it may more likely be a disaster for Netanyahu and the country.

Netanyahu is offering a bluff, saying to Kadima: “Hey, guys, look! If you don’t make a coalition deal with us in which I am the sole prime minister we will form a coalition with the right wing and make Lieberman foreign minister! Are you scared yet?”

And Tzipi Livni, leader of the Kadima party, responds: “Nope, not me! If you go with that government and make Lieberman foreign minister, Israel will be bashed by the world and the coalition won’t last long, so ha!”

Livni would rather have a government that is bad for Israel than play second-fiddle for four years to Netanyahu; Netanyahu is threatening to have a government coalition that is bad and for himself rather than have Livni be prime minister for the second half of the government’s term.

I tell everyone: ignore all the stories on the government formation until the first week of April. This is all maneuvering, public relations, and bluffing until the very last minute. When the clock runs out on Netanyahu’s time to form a coalition with a parliamentary majority, he will be motivated to offer his best deal. And if Livni doesn’t want to be left out, she will have to respond with her best offer.

That will be the moment of truth, but not yet.

The problem with Lieberman as foreign minister is not that he is a monster but for four really obvious reasons:

  • He is demonized and disliked internationally so his term will be doomed to failure, damaging Israel’s relations and prestige. To some extent this is unfair – Lieberman even favors a two-state solution though the Western media will probably report that rarely or never – but it is still true.
  • He is tempermentally unsuited for that job because he is deliberately outspoken and insulting.
  • He has no experience and is likely to be the equivalent of Amir Peretz as defense minister, which damaged Israel‚s interests and cost lives in the 2006 war with Hizballah.
  • Liberman’s legal problems may not land him in jail but will be a source of continual humiliation for Israel, giving it an image as a corrupt country headed by leaders who fit the nasty stereotype the anti-Israel forces are purveying

If Livni lets a coalition take office that is dependent on right-wing support and including Lieberman as foreign minister (that doesn‚t mean he might not be safely put in a different job), she will be hurting the country. But she will also be hurting herself. Can Kadima really survive in the opposition? Can she really remain head of the party under such circumstances when she has not shown herself to be a great leader?

People can ask: why should we vote for you if you are willing to let a government like this take power because of your own ego?

But if Netanyahu leads such a coalition, it is likely to fall apart before too long. People can then ask him: why should we vote for you when you campaigned as a centrist but let the far right have so much influence. And why should we vote for you if you are willing to lead a government like this because of your own ego?

Politics are not completely rational but Israel needs a national unity coalition. I care who is prime minister far less than whether the country‚s leaders show a regard for national interests and rational policies.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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