The tawdry political horse-trading that is keeping Netanyahu in power
As expected, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has formally offered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the opportunity to form a government. This is not much of a surprise considering the election results.
However, even though it is almost impossible to see any circumstances in which anyone else could form a coalition, the road to the formation of Netanyahu’s fifth administration is bound to be rocky.
In all probability, the government that will be formed will rely on the support of those right-wing parties that recommended Netanyahu to the president — but this doesn’t mean that they will make it easy for him. They know that despite his impressive showing at the ballot box, he is vulnerable as a result of the corruption allegations against him, and because his other options are almost nonexistent.
Consequently, during the traditionally prolonged horse-trading sessions that take place during coalition negotiations, the jockeying for influential ministerial positions between and among the parties expected to form the government will be fiercer than ever, and might require the full 42 days afforded by law to the prime minister designate.
There are a number of factors that will determine the outcome of the labyrinthine negotiations over the next few weeks. First, the only realistic coalition that can be formed is a right-wing collective with strong clerical, antidemocratic and messianic elements.
Those who contemplate the prospect of a grand coalition between the two biggest parties, Likud and Blue and White, each of whom won 35 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, are deluding themselves if they think this is either possible or desirable. The theoretical benefit of such a government is obvious: it would enjoy a substantial majority and thereby rid the country of the customary blackmailing by smaller parties, which are sectarian by nature and promote their own interests at the expense of those of the country. If the Blue and White agreed to this, however, it would be a betrayal of more than a million people who voted for them after being promised by party leaders that they would not take part in a Netanyahu-led government.
Moreover, the alliance’s number two, Yair Lapid, declared shortly after the election that by sitting in opposition his party will make life miserable for Likud. Israel’s political system will need a firm and courageous opposition to battle, day-in and day-out, against the anti-democratic winds blowing from the right, led by the prime minister, including his relentless efforts to avoid indictment for corruption.
If any further reason is needed for why any vision of a grand Likud-Blue and White coalition is an illusion, even if the party leaders managed to agree a deal it is likely a number of members from both sides would not support it and abandon the parties.
By the time Netanyahu's coalition government is sworn in, therefore, it will be already ravaged by internal antagonisms that might well hasten its demise and prevent it from seeing out a full term.
Those corruption allegations against Netanyahu will be the second influential factor in the coalition negotiations. They represent a “sword of Damocles” hanging above the PM, a reminder of his precarious position, and, by extension, over whatever government is eventually formed. It is worth remembering that the allegations have already reached the stage of indictment, pending a hearing, and that the police and the attorney general are in agreement that Netanyahu must be brought to court on charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Instead of doing the decent thing and preparing to defend himself in court, Netanyahu and some of his allies are plotting to promote a bill that would give Knesset members immunity from criminal prosecution, thus letting him off the hook. This proposed legislation is not only unethical and contemptible for placing 120 people above the law, but also because it would be a retrospective measure aimed at saving the skin of not only the prime minister but a number of other politicians who are under police investigation in connection with serious corruption allegations.
The very fact that such a shameful piece of legislation is being planned, regardless of whether it passes into law, gives us a taste of what kind of government Israel can expect to have to endure for the next few years. A far-right administration such as the one that is emerging right now will continue the hell-bent mission that was begun by the previous government to demolish not only the independence of the judiciary, especially the Supreme Court and its judicial activism, but also that of any body that can hold the executive branch accountable for its actions. This can only leave the most vulnerable in society, including minorities and those who live under Israeli occupation, exposed to a government that will be able to act arbitrarily, and even criminally, with complete impunity.
A third factor affecting the coalition negotiations is that although the parties that are most likely to form a government are typically referred to as right-wing, or even far-right, they are far from being a monolithic bloc. Consequently, they clash on what should be the guidelines governing the new administration, and on the allocation of ministries they demand to be in charge of.
One ongoing tussle, for instance, is between the secular Yisrael Beytenu and the ultra-Orthodox parties over the exemption from military conscription enjoyed by students attending ultra-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries (yeshivas). Former — and possibly future — defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of Yisrael Beytenu, has said joining a coalition will be conditional on changes to the law that requires such students to serve in the armed forces, which is a red line for ultra-Orthodox politicians.
Other battles will revolve around budgets for specific vested interests, including funding for the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the annexation of parts of it.
Lastly, in a government that will have 26 members from at least five parties, some ministries are more desirable than others, which will leave all the constituent parties squabbling over them — on top of which there are not enough ministerial jobs to satisfy everyone. This will lead to fierce, and at times nasty, negotiations.
By the time this coalition government is sworn in, therefore, it will be already ravaged by internal antagonisms that might well hasten its demise and prevent it from seeing out a full term.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.