Netanyahu Struggles to Build a Coalition

  • Middle East Policy

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Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has requested an additional 14 days to form a government. The request, granted by the country’s president, underscores the difficulty of cobbling together a majority via a coalition of small right-wing parties. The newly-reelected PM’s task is made harder by changes introduced in previous years limiting the number of ministries and deputy ministers without portfolios. Given the task ahead of him, some have started calling for a national unity government of the center-right and center-left, which leaders from both camps have declared dead on arrival in the past. Still, with the negotiations with the smaller parties turning sour for Mr. Netanyahu, calls for a grand bargain might become louder.

Reporting on the difficult choices facing the Israeli Prime Minister, Arutz Sheva’s Elad Benari comments on the almost Faustian bargains Mr. Netanyahu must strike in order to ensure the formation of a new governing coalition: “Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett on Sunday night threatened to end the coalition negotiations with the Likud, if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu decides to appoint Shas chairman Aryeh Deri as Religious Affairs Minister….Netanyahu has been struggling thus far to close deals with the different parties, despite important meetings with Jewish Home and Yisrael Beytenu on Friday….Reports on Friday indicated that Netanyahu is expected to offer Jewish Home more portfolios during this term — with the Agriculture Ministry, the Strategic Affairs Ministry, the Economics Ministry, and at least one other unnamed portfolio on the line, but to specifically keep Bennett away from central and influential positions.”

Jerusalem Post’s staff writers have also picked up on the rising discontent among the various factions in the right, many of whom have voiced their misgivings in public: “After May 6, Rivlin can ask any MK to form a government except for Netanyahu….Sources in the Bayit Yehudi negotiating team complained that portfolios the party has demanded were being given to smaller factions, such as Religious Affairs to Shas and apparently the Foreign Ministry to Yisrael Beytenu. The sources said Bayit Yehudi was not bluffing and was ready to go to the opposition….Netanyahu told Rivlin that coalition talks had advanced, but he would need more time to complete negotiations to build a stable government. Rivlin granted the request because party heads who recommended he form the government had not changed their minds, but he urged the prime minister to complete the task as soon as possible.”

If Mr. Netanyahu is to lead his fourth government, he will also have to find ways to undue constitutional constraints which currently limit the number of ministerial cabinets to 18, which, as Israel Hayom’s Mati Tuchfeld and Yehuda Shlezinger suggest, given the demands of Likud’s likely junior partners might prove insufficient: “Basic Law: The Government, enacted in 1968, originally limited the number of ministers to 18, but an amendment introduced by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 1999 annulled the restriction, affording the prime minister the authority to name as many ministers as necessary. Over the years, the number of ministers, deputy ministers and ministers without portfolios ballooned, and the practice has been widely criticized as imprudent government spending. During the previous government’s term, Yesh Atid was able to pass another amendment to the Basic Law that effectively reinstated the 18-minister restriction, limited the number of deputy ministers to four, and barred the appointment of ministers without portfolios. These restrictions mean Likud will have to pursue a legislative amendment to facilitate a 22-minister government.”

It is not surprising then that the prime minister has asked for an addition 14 days to form a government: “Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited President Reuven Rivlin Monday morning and received a 14-day extension in which to cobble together a new ruling coalition….According to Israel Hayom, the next government will probably be enlarged to 22 ministers, in order to accommodate the demands of the various parties. This will involve amending the current law, which specifies a maximum of 18 ministers. Likud will have 11-12 of these portfolios, apparently including the Justice, Public Security, Transportation, Welfare and Education ministries. Coalition agreements are expected to be signed with the haredi parties and with Kulanu within the next few days.”

Until now, both Netanyahu and the opposition leader (and loser in the recent election), Isaac Herzog, have rejected the possibility of a national unity government, but Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yuval Karni has hinted that things might change should the current negotiations become further entrenched: “If one were to go back through the history of Israeli politics, one would be hard pressed to find a more militant campaign that was more strongly against the establishment of a unity government as in the elections of 2015. And the leader, strategist, formulator and thinker of this campaign was none other than the prime minister and leader of the ruling party, Benjamin Netanyahu….After the elections, the Zionist Union leader declared his party would serve the people from the ranks of the opposition: ‘This is the only realistic option — we will be a worthy substitute to this government with a limited lifespan.’…This week Israel’s Channel 1 television reported a secret meeting between Netanyahu and Herzog….If this is the case, shall the twain ever meet?”

Judging from Michael Bar-Zohar’s op-ed on Yedioth Ahronoth, there may be some in the left who feel that the time has come for the Labor Party to embrace a security-driven agenda, and even consider the possibility of a national unity government: “Ever since it lost power to the Likud, it has abandoned David Ben-Gurion’s way and hasn’t stopped shifting to the left….But after the 1977 upheaval, the Labor Party began shifting to the left (from a political and security aspect), reaching the situation we are witnessing today… It left the center of the political map to the Likud, Shinui, Yesh Atid and other parties….Now that the question of a national unity government is being raised, every child understands that in a reality of heavy dangers and threats against Israel, a unity government is necessary. Every child understands that a narrow right-wing government is not good for Israel, and that it should rather have a wide, balanced government, which represents the majority of the public and will curb the radical right’s dangerous initiatives.”

But the idea is anathema to many others on the left, as demonstrated by a recent Haaretz editorial which urges Mr. Herzog to “keep his word and stay out of Netanyahu’s coalition…. The morally unacceptable idea of legitimizing another nationalist, settlement government that would promote anti-democratic and racist laws against Arabs and foreigners is joined by a practical consideration. To create a true alternative to Netanyahu’s government, one cannot be part of it. Political history proves that the premiership is conquered by candidates from the opposition only….Herzog’s main goal must be to establish as broad an opposition as possible, which will be based on the principles of democracy, negating racism and the struggle for peace. The unworthy Israeli government must be changed, not perpetuated.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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