Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have managed to patch together a new coalition government 90 minutes before the deadline to present a ruling majority to the country’s President, but it is one that offers little hope for new peace talks with the Palestinians or stable government for Israel.
The resulting government commands only 61 out of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats and is comprised of parties that are either reluctant or outright opposed to restarting peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. With few voices in the new government in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict, which is the desired outcome of the U.S. and most of the international community, Netanyahu is likely to continue to find himself on a collision course with the international community in general and the Obama Administration in particular.
The paper-thin majority Netanyahu sets out with in his fourth term as Prime Minister looks far from the “stable and broad-based government” he confidently asked voters to allow him to establish when he dissolved his coalition last December, deeming it ungovernable.
The parties in Israel’s new government are all right-wing or religious, with the exception of Kulanu (in English-All of Us), headed by Moshe Kahlon, who defines himself as centrist and brings with him pragmatists such as Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington. Kahlon, however, is a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and does not appear to have moved significantly far from that party’s conservative positions on security and defense issues. It is only if Netanyahu’s government runs so afoul of the international community that it winds up hampering Kahlon’s economic agenda as Minister of Finance that the new government could be forced to be more moderate, says Professor Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“This is a government that is very cohesive ideologically on the security agenda. The hawkish parties would prefer not to give anything up and to build more settlements,” Hazan says. “Kahlon has a domestic economic agenda and he may be the most moderate in this cabinet. But he is a former Likudnik who is very comfortable with Netanyahu’s security agenda, and unless the world acts very harshly and it seems like it will affect Kahlon’s economic plan, such as with threats of boycotts, Kahlon is unlikely to interfere with Netanyahu’s stance.”
In a dramatic turn of events in the 48 hours before the deadline to form a government, Netanyahu’s one-time ally and now rival, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that he would not be joining the new government. Lieberman heads the hardline Israel Beitanu party, and allied himself with Netanyahu’s Likud in the 2013 election, resulting in Lieberman’s re-appointment as Foreign Minister. But Lieberman, who has a base of conservative voters who are immigrants from the former states of the Soviet Union, saw his support in the March 17 elections dwindle, giving him just six Knesset seats. Subsequently given short shrift in the coalition-building process, Lieberman decided to turn his back on Netanyahu and deprive him of six seats that would have allowed for a more comfortable governing majority.
Netanyahu was left having to give in to the demands of the last party with whom he needed to sign a coalition agreement, the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett. That party’s main agenda includes expanding settlements, increasing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, and upholding an uncompromising stance on Palestinian demands for statehood. During Israel’s war with Hamas last summer, Bennett was continually critical of Netanyahu for not hitting “hard enough” and publicly opposed Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw Israeli ground forces from the Gaza Strip, promoting instead a full re-occupation of the Palestinian territory that Israel left in 2005.
“Bennett was a relentless public critic of his own cabinet, demanding harsher action in Gaza, bemoaning the stewardship of the conflict,” Times of Israel editor David Horovitz notes in a column questioning the achievements of Netanyahu’s gambit to dissolve his last government with the intent of forming a stronger and more stable one.
In the final days of haggling over posts, Bennett took the education ministry for himself, and demanded that Ayelet Shaked, a 39-year-old politician who became a first-time legislator in 2013, be appointed Justice Minister.
“She replaces Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister, which puts her in charge of the ministerial committee for legislation, and that is the committee that has to approve every piece of legislation that comes through the Knesset,” Hazan explains. “This is a bottleneck. Laws in the Israeli parliament can only pass if the ministerial committee approves them, and this committee can block it. This committee is one that Netanyahu fought to get control of again, and with Shaked there he’s closer to doing that, but it gives her enormous power.”
Netanyahu has not appointed a new Foreign Minister, holding that portfolio for himself as he is permitted to do under Israeli law. Analysts believe this holds open the possibility that he can still convince Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, which includes the left-of-center Labor party, to join the government at a later point. Moshe Yaalon, who was Netanyahu’s last Defense Minister, will retain his position, making it likely that Israel’s position on local and regional defense issues — including for example Israel’s opposition to a potential Iran nuclear deal — will remain unchanged.