Netanyahu's Political Woes — Forming the New Government


by Sarah Ann Haves
February 28, 2013

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to be given more time to form the next Israeli government.  After a two week extension, Israeli President Shimon Peres can decide whether to call for another national election. Netanyahu, so far, has been unable to pull together a government coalition since Israeli elections were held in January 2013. At that time, 3,833,646 Israelis voted, representing almost 68% of eligible voters.

During the election campaign Netanyahu’s political party (the Likud) merged with the Israel Beitenu party, hoping to build a strong nationalistic bloc. But, the merger did not benefit Netanyahu. In fact, the united Likud Beitenu party only received a total of 31 seats, 11 seats less than the total of what both parties received, collectively, in the 2009 election.

A new centrist party, Yesh Atid, headed up by former Israeli broadcaster Yair Lapid was the surprise wild card in the January election. Yesh Atid received 19 seats to become the second largest party in the Knesset. In Lapid’s successfully run campaign, he appealed to undecided Israeli voters who were looking for an alternative to Netanyahu.

...Lapid
offered hope
and change...on
domestic issues.

Many Israelis felt Israel’s diplomatic problems could not be readily solved, and so they voted for change in regard to domestic socioeconomic issues.  This is where they thought their vote would count, and Lapid appealed to these citizens, offering hope and change. Most of these voters decided the last minute to cast their ballot for Lapid, surprising pollsters as well as politicians.

Bayit Yehudi, a right-wing party, did better than expected in the Israeli election. Headed up by Naphtali Bennett, a former Chief of Staff for Netanyahu, the party received 12 Knesset seats. Due to a previous misunderstanding between Bennett and Netanyahu’s wife Sarah, it took several weeks after the January election for Netanyahu to be willing to meet with Bennett, who apologized for his unkind remarks about the Prime Minister’s wife. This resulted in a reconciliation meeting between Bennett and the Netanyahu family.  Now, it appears that Bennett’s party could end up in the coalition.

Both Bennett and Lapid have been popular among Israelis. It has less to do with their political leanings, and more to do with their demand for social change, especially among the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population.  Because of the sluggish global economy, which has affected the Israeli middle class, most citizens want to see a fairer distribution of government funds.  For many years, Israelis have felt that the haredim political parties have hijacked the national budget, demanding financial hand-outs to support their yeshivas.  Today’s cash-strapped citizens want to see some of that money benefit others, not just the haredim. A real problem in Israel, especially in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has been affordable housing. Netanyahu has been too focused on diplomatic, military and security issues to give enough of his attention to the domestic ills in Israeli society, despite the massive social protests against his government which began in July 2011. Supporters of these protests have wanted more government attention given towards improving the cost of living, particularly more affordable housing and education.

But, the biggest contention among Israelis is about sharing the burden of national military service. Many of the haredim have exemptions, and do not think it is necessary for them to join Israel’s Defense Forces (the IDF). This has caused a rift in Israel society which has deepened over the years. The haredim claim that to study Torah is as important as mandatory army duty.  The division over this contentious issue has threatened the stability of Israeli society.  Both Lapid and Bennett, though ideologically not partners when it comes to diplomatic issues, are in agreement that all sectors of Israeli society should fulfill their military obligation to the state.

Therefore, after the current election, Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi formed a political pact in order to try and break the alliance between Netanyahu and the haredi political parties.  This alliance has been in place for over 30 years and, despite the will of Israeli society, Netanyahu continues to try and hold together this partnership. It is costing him, politically, as he wavers in his desire to serve the Israeli public, but to also do what is politically expedient for himself. He has admitted that he wants to run for a fourth term as prime minister in the future.

To gain leverage in dealing with the demands of Lapid and Bennett, Netanyahu has continued to meet with all political parties that won seats in the current election, despite obvious ideological differences. At the same time, he has been trying to find a compromise that would benefit both secular and religious Israelis. Yet, even trying to get the haredim to concede on some of the issues regarding military service has caused certain rabbis to refuse to cooperate on any change to the status quo.  

The problem is that not all those who claim to be studying Torah full-time are actually doing so. Proposals being drawn up by political parties to deal with change in haredi society outline a new system of accountability within the haredi population. Jerusalem policy makers want to make sure that young Israelis are either fully dedicated to Torah study, or enlisted in compulsory army service. 

Because Netanyahu was not able to initially cut a political deal with either the Yesh Atid party or the Bayit Yehudi party to join his coalition, he offered former Foreign Minister Tzippi Livni the Justice Ministry portfolio, as well as the position of Chief Negotiator in future peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Livni’s party only received six Knesset seats in this election, but her party was also offered a second portfolio in order to get her into the government. 

Livni’s coalition agreement with Netanyahu is now being hotly contested by Lapid and Bennett. The reality is that Livni is willing to compromise with the Palestinians on land for peace, as well as on dividing Jerusalem, which is not acceptable to many of Netanyahu’s more hawkish Likud members. Furthermore, Lapid had hoped to receive the Foreign Ministry portfolio in the next government, which is still possible. But, because of the Netanyahu-Livni agreement, that position will not include leading negotiations with the Palestinians. This weakens the authority given to the future Israeli Foreign Minister.

Meanwhile, as long as Lapid and Bennett are able to bloc Netanyahu’s progress in forming the next Israeli government, Netanyahu’s political future remains in doubt.  It is possible that he could form a coalition of 57 members, and then give Bennett the opportunity of either joining the coalition or being the one to call for new elections. Bennett might not want to be responsible for leading Israelis back into new elections. Regardless of how the formation of the new government takes place, there will be compromises that break the haredi stronghold; but, it will not be as dramatic as the demands of Lapid and Bennett.

Netanyahu needs at least 61 seats to form the next government. However, for the government to be stable, he needs to form a broad coalition. If all he is able to do is form a narrow mostly right-wing coalition, his government will not be expected to last out its full term. This is due to the fact that if one party decided in the future to pull out of the coalition, then his government could fall. This is why his intent is to form the widest coalition as possible.

One way he was able to do this in the 2009 Israeli election was to create plum positions for his faithful friends, with his advisors being given titles such as “Minister without Portfolio”. This swelled the number of members serving in his coalition and in the Knesset, putting a financial strain on the government because of political pay-offs. 

...a majority of
Israelis still trust
Netanyahu in the driver's seat.

Lapid is insisting that only a total of 18 ministers be allowed to serve in this next government coalition. It is another effort by Lapid to weaken Netanyahu’s power and leave him without political leverage to successfully retain his position as prime minister. Despite Lapid’s lack of experience, especially in regard to diplomatic issues, he has aspirations to eventually replace Netanyahu in the next national election.  Yet, even with Lapid’s increased public support, he has not been able to successfully negotiate with Netanyahu, who does not trust him, and has been reluctant to meet his demands. Lapid could end up in the Israeli opposition.  If he is a student of recent history he will note that Tzippi Livni headed the opposition in the previous election and ended up losing most of her political support when Israelis went to the polls this time.

While it appears to outsiders that Israelis are leaning towards the more liberal parties this is not the case. Currently, a majority of Israelis do not want a final peace deal that results in Israel giving up most of the land in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank).  Israelis want peace with the Palestinians but not if it compromises Israel’s national security and sovereignty over the land.  The Bayit Yehudi party has an obligation to the settlers and conservative rabbis, who are expected to demand that Israel not retreat from any land beyond the 1967 borders (the Green Line). Israelis who voted for this party did so to keep Netanyahu in-line. They wanted to make sure that Netanyahu would not succumb to pressure from the center and left-wing parties who would expect him to submit to Palestinian and international demands for Israeli concessions in peace negotiations. Meanwhile, when it comes to diplomacy and security issues, a majority of Israelis still trust Netanyahu to be in the driver’s seat.

It remains to be seen if Netanyahu can successfully form a new government or not. One of the first tests of the new government will be to pass the national budget. If it doesn’t pass, the government will fall, and Israelis will be subject to another general election.  Even with all the political maneuverings going on in this election for power, position and influence, Israelis hope that a stable government will be formed, because they cannot conceive of having to go through another election campaign, again, in the near future.

“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.” Psalm 20:7
   

Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues in Israel and the nations.

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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 

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