After exhausting all possible extensions, Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled his next governing coalition today, less than an hour before deadline.
Following his victory in March’s elections, the prime minister had hoped for a comfortable 67-seat Knesset majority composed largely of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties. But his plans were thrown into disarray yesterday when Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, in an effort to cripple Netanyahu and revive his own floundering political prospects, yanked his Yisrael Beitenu party—and its six seats—from coalition talks.
The result: an eleventh hour scramble to secure the support of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party and its eight seats, in order to achieve a razor-thin 61-seat majority. Bennett recognized that Netanyahu was out of options—he needed Bennett to cross the 60-seat threshold—so he held out to the end, effectively forcing the prime minister to cede the Justice Ministry to Jewish Home’s MK Ayelet Shaked, who is controversial not only for her harsh statements about Palestinians, but also for her strident criticism of the court system she will now oversee.
But for both Bennett and Bibi, this is likely a pyrrhic victory. Netanyahu’s 61 seats is Israel’s smallest post-election coalition since 1981, and a recipe for political paralysis. As Haaretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer tweeted wryly, “Ayelet Shaked, Supreme Court’s number one enemy, as Justice Minister is creepy. But on the bright side, with a 61 MK majority, nothing will happen.”
That’s because with a majority ensured by only a single Knesset seat, it’s hard to see how this coalition—let alone Shaked—will be able to accomplish much of substance, given the ability of any single dissenting Knesset member or party to obstruct, or even collapse, the government. Indeed, Bennett’s hardball extortion of Bibi in the coalition talks is likely a prelude of things to come from every party and interest group in the new government. Bennett’s gambit was not so much the exception as the new rule.
Moreover, without Lieberman’s six assuredly hawkish seats, any hopes Netanyahu entertained for a reflexively right-wing government have been dashed, with the balance of power shifting to the centrist Kulanu party and its ten seats. Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon has already come out against the plans of some in Likud and Jewish Home to revise the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court, and will doubtless continue to flex his newly empowered political muscle in the days ahead.
In fact, the coalition may prove so unwieldy that it might be only a matter of months before Netanyahu reaches out to the opposition Zionist Camp, and its 24 seats, to form a more stable unity government. Today, Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog greeted the new coalition with derision, pronouncing it “the government of national failure” while promising to offer a more hopeful alternative. But despite significant pressures during the final days of coalition talks, Netanyahu pointedly kept the post of foreign minister vacant, thus leaving open the possibility of inviting Herzog to fill that key role and bring his party into the fold.
Whether circumstances will force Bibi’s hand—and whether Herzog would accept it if offered—are just two of the many unknowns in the coming days.
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