Too Narrow To Move?


Tel Aviv — On the evening of his sweeping come-from-behind election victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to move swiftly to form a new government, saying that Israel could spare no time to meet political challenges at home and abroad.

But nearly two months later, the four-time prime minister still has not brought his government to the parliament for a vote of confidence. Netanyahu has had to endure drawn-out negotiations with coalition partners that concluded just minutes before the legal expiration of his mandate last Wednesday.

Now, with a tissue-thin coalition of 61 of the parliament’s 120 seats, the prime minister is taking the maximum time under law to dole out cabinet positions among legislators in his Likud Party. Though the goal is to buy loyalty to the government by deputizing as many ministers and deputy ministers as possible, the process doesn’t bode well for the future stability of a coalition that will be constantly exposed to the threats of individual coalition members.

While some believe that a narrowly constructed coalition of like-minded right-wing and religious parties will succeed in forming a joint agenda, most Israeli analysts say the seeds are already being sown for the next elections in another two years.

“There is a major issue of trust between the coalition members,” said Yochanan Plessner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former Knesset member.

Plessner was referring to Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist religious Jewish Home Party, who are known to dislike one another and have clashed over the prime minister’s handling of the Gaza war during the last government. Bennett represents the charismatic face of the next generation of right-wing leadership in Israel who, say observers, is presumably waiting for the right time to try to displace the prime minister.

The question of settlement expansion in the West Bank is shaping up to be the main policy fissure between the two in the upcoming government. While Jewish Home is known as a pro-settler party and much of Netanyahu’s Likud has an ideological loyalty to building throughout the West Bank, analysts note that the prime minister isn’t liable to pursue the policies with much gusto.

That’s because Israel’s new government is the country’s most far-right coalition in a generation, without a moderate or dovish party to reassure the international community about the future of peace talks with the Palestinians. With the Palestinians pushing new initiatives at the United Nations and other international bodies aimed at upgrading their diplomatic standing, the prime minister will be loathe to approve provocative settlement-building projects that will make the international community more likely to support the Palestinians in their diplomatic initiatives.

Another landmine in the road ahead for the government is a Supreme Court order for the government to evacuate Amona, a West Bank settler outpost that the high court ruled was built on private land. Some members of Bennett’s party have said that the party will bolt the coalition if the government complies with such an order.

“Settlements could tear apart the government,” said Amir Tibon, a diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli news site Walla! “If Bibi gets to a point where settlement construction needs to be restrained for awhile, what does Bennett do? He could wake up in a year and tell Bibi, ‘Either we annex the Etzion bloc or I’m out of the government,” Tibon said, referring to a settlement region southwest of Jerusalem that is widely expected to remain inside Israel as part of a peace deal.

The prime minister’s aides said last week that he wants to eventually broaden his coalition, and would try to lure the opposition leader from the dovish Zionist Union Party, Isaac Herzog, to join as foreign minister. The problem is that it became more difficult for Herzog to join the government after Netanyahu ended up with an unexpectedly narrow coalition. Herzog, who might face a challenge to retain leadership of the Labor Party, won’t want to be the person to save Netanyahu right now. The other options for Netanyahu are to try to lure individual legislators from the opposition to break with party ranks and cross the line; or to call for fresh general elections.

Domestically, the coming inauguration of Netanyahu’s fourth government is spurring concern that conservatives from Jewish Home and Likud will seek to pass legislation to erode institutions considered the last bastion of Israeli liberalism, such as the Supreme Court. Incoming Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked has said that the Israeli high court’s tendency to strike down laws passed by the Knesset is a sign that the judiciary has become too powerful, and that balance of power between branches of government needs to be recalibrated.

She has also backed laws to limit non-governmental organizations from getting funding from foreign governments and a quasi-constitutional basic law to elevate Israel’s Jewish character over its democratic values.

Many believe that the coalition’s narrow majority will render such judicial reform impossible. What’s more, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his centrist Kulanu Party are strongly opposed to any far-reaching reform of the legal system. Gradual change, he said, is possible.

“If they try to bite off more than they can chew they won’t accomplish anything,” said Gil Hoffman, a political commentator for the Jerusalem Post. “If they nibble, then they can succeed.”

What the government is expected to accomplish is a rollback of policies adopted over the last two years to end entitlements for the ultra-Orthodox and help prod the burgeoning population of men from yeshivas into the workplace. With Shas and the United Torah Judaism parties back in the coalition after being left in the opposition in the previous parliament, they are expected to restore funding for charedi schools that don’t teach core secular curriculum. They also are expected to restore subsidies for yeshivas and to families with at least three children. That will be a disincentive for yeshiva students to get jobs.

“People were leaving [yeshivas] because of necessity and not ideology, and now that incentive won’t be there,’’ said Dov Lipman, a U.S.-born rabbi who served as a legislator in the previous parliament. He too believes the government’s days might be numbered.

The main part of the coalition’s agenda is expected to ride on Kahlon, who has promised major reforms in Israel’s housing market, food retail market and consumer banking — all with the goal of making the cost of living more affordable in Israel and reining in runaway inflation in real estate. But with just 61 votes, passing major economic reform will be nearly impossible for Kahlon, who is expected to pressure Netanyahu to widen the government to strengthen its bare majority. If no one joins, Netanyahu and Kahlon could be stymied on the economy.

“Kahlon will find it difficult to deliver on his agenda, and if that’s the case I can’t see him continuing for very long,” said Plessner. “He received a mandate for economic change, not economic stagnation.”