With only a few hours remaining to form a new Israeli coalition government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the very real possibility Wednesday that his right-wing Likud party’s hard-fought victory in March’s elections will be squandered. At stake are Netanyahu’s political reputation and Likud’s right to lead an Israeli state with pressing foreign and domestic concerns.
Beset by crippling demands and competing interests, Netanyahu must cobble together 61 of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats by midnight Thursday or Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will allow another party to pursue a workable coalition. Netanyahu assembled a strong 67-seat majority composed of centrist and right-wing parties by Monday, only to see his stable position undone by Avigdor Lieberman’s stunning decision to withdraw his Yisrael Beitenu party from the political alliance. Bereft of Lieberman’s support, Netanyahu was forced to pursue a partnership with Naftali Bennett’s conservative Jewish Home party, whose eight parliamentary seats would give him a razor-thin 61-seat majority.
Netayanhu’s relationship with Bennett has been contentious in the past, and Jewish Home has demanded that Ayelet Shaked, one of its top members, be named Israel’s foreign minister in exchange for the party’s support. Shaked is a polarizing figure who advocates hard-line measures against the Palestinian territories. One member of the leftist Zionist Union party described Shaked’s potential appointment as akin to “appointing a pyromaniac to head the fire department,” the New York Times reported.
But Netanyahu is running out of options, and continued failure to form a workable coalition could ultimately lead to new elections. Several obstacles stand in Netanyahu’s way, both in terms of forming the necessary majority and of maintaining it in the long term.
Israel’s current parliament consists of 10 separate parties, each with unique views and motivations. Netanyahu’s Likud party controls 30 seats and the opposition Zionist Union party controls 24 seats, the BBC reported. That means the prime minister has to find 31 additional seats among the Knesset’s eight remaining parties, of which only a few have views similar enough to join with Likud. Netanyahu has hard-won deals with the centrist Kulanu party (10 seats) and the right-wing United Torah Judaism (six seats) and Shas (seven seats) parties. Without Yisrael Beitenu, Netanyahu had to pursue the seats he lost with little political leverage.
Limited Bargaining Chips
Netanyahu’s main leverage while attempting to woo fence-sitting parties stems from his ability to offer ministerial posts to top party members. But any agreement struck with one party can alienate another. Bennett’s Jewish Home party balked when Netanyahu promised the Religious Services Ministry to Shas on Monday, Haaretz reported. Netanyahu’s potential acquiescence to Bennett’s demand that he appoint Shaked as foreign minister would likely generate dissent as well. Legally, Netanyahu can offer only 18 ministerial posts, which means his government would likely alter laws to allow for the 22 positions his coalition requires.
Domestic politics aren’t Netanyahu’s only concern. Any coalition he forms will face continued scrutiny from the international community, particularly from the United States government, with whom Netanyahu has a increasingly contentious relationship. To please the international community, Netanyahu will likely have to shift his normally conservative ideology toward the center, which could alienate his hard-line allies, analysts told CNN.
Israeli coalition governments are not built to last. It’s been more than three decades since a majority lasted for a full election cycle, CNN reported. It would be nearly impossible for Netanyahu’s volatile coalition to govern with such a thin majority, especially given how tenuous the alliance will be from the start. The cracks are already in place. Netanyahu and Bennett have been at loggerheads since 2008, when Bennett was removed from his post as Netanyahu’s chief of staff. And the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties are still smarting from Netanyahu’s decision to banish them to the opposition in 2013, the Jewish Daily Forward noted.
“He may go through with 61, but nobody in his right mind believes that this will hold for even a short time, because any party to the coalition can threaten to leave, and there is no government tomorrow,” Eytan Gilboa, a politics professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, told the New York Times.