Last night, or early this morning, Binyamin Netanyahu finally cobbled together a governing coalition with the slimmest of majorities – 1 seat. The haggling and horse trading went down to the wire and no one was sure we wouldn’t wake up facing either a Labour government or new elections. The new coalition is more or less centre-right, with the exception of Shas which defies description besides being a haredi party out to get as much money as it can for its constituents and damn the consequences.
Just like in the last elections, and breaking his promise to invite Bayit Yehudi first into the government, Netanyahu’s and Likud’s most natural partner, Bayit Yehudi let by Naftali Bennett, was pushed off, humiliated, scolded and made to stand in a virtual corner until the very last (and I mean VERY last) minute – midnight last night – when the deal was signed to give Bennett the Education portfolio and Ayelet Shaked the Justice Ministry. More haggling ensued when Netanyahu tried to empty the Justice portfolio of any meaningful content by removing Shaked’s ability to appoint judges, but that was one maneuver too many for Bennett and he threatened to withdraw from the coalition. At that point Netanyahu capitulated.
Along the road Yisrael Beitenu walked out of the coalition and joined the opposition, while on the other hand Netanyahu is reportedly keeping the Foreign Ministry in his pocket to tempt Zionist Union to join the coalition.
The only party that was treated fairly and in parity with its electoral success was Moshe Kachlon’s new Kulanu party, with Kachlon being appointed Finance Minister as promised.
Haviv Rettig Gur explains how Netanyahu’s election victory became a political rout:
The last coalition deal signed Wednesday with Jewish Home saw Netanyahu handing an eight-seat faction two top ministries — education and justice — together with the Agriculture Ministry, the Diaspora Ministry, the West Bank settlement planning and budgeting body, the chairmanship of the Knesset Law Committee and the state committee that appoints judges, and the post of deputy defense minister, along with countless financial and legislative promises that have yet to be fully hammered out.
But even earlier in the process, when Netanyahu was less desperate for time, his deals with parties such as Kulanu and United Torah Judaism were generous to a fault. Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon won not only the finance and housing ministries, but the state agencies responsible for zoning and land planning, along with additional promises and positions yet to be finalized. In effect, Kahlon won control of much of the land-reform pipeline he needs to enact the significant housing reforms he promised in the election. It’s a sensible package, but one that leaves Netanyahu and the ruling Likud with little control over and no credit for any successes Kahlon may achieve.
Shas, with just seven seats, won the Economy Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the Religious Affairs Ministry, de facto control over the state rabbinate and its appointments process — and on and on.
And all that doesn’t account for the literally billions promised away to ultra-Orthodox and national-religious institutions and to funding various reforms demanded by each party as a “win” for its constituency.
And when all that had been auctioned off, what did Netanyahu have to show for his generosity? A coalition of 61 seats set against an opposition of 59.
Worse, it’s a coalition that already clarified in the negotiations that it would not be beholden to Netanyahu — that is, would not act as a coalition — on no small number of issues.
But even without Zionist Union, why didn’t Netanyahu simply stare Jewish Home down, refuse the continually rising set of demands and call their bluff?
The answer: perhaps Netanyahu didn’t fear Herzog, but rather the Israeli voter. Jewish Home believed that Netanyahu had managed to attract a last-minute Election Day rush toward Likud of voters who were more naturally inclined to vote Jewish Home. In other words, another election just weeks after the last would shrink Netanyahu’s faction and grow Bennett’s.
And so the 30-seat Likud finally handed the eight-seat Jewish Home the powerful Justice Ministry in the last two hours of the last day in the 42-day coalition-building period allowed by law.
Netanyahu has vowed to pass electoral reform in the new Knesset that would help a future prime minister avoid the struggles he has faced. But it’s not clear how raising the electoral threshold a bit higher or enlarging the Knesset – among the suggestions floated over the years – would solve the essential problem, which is that the electorate is too fractured to allow for a decisive majority to form in Israel’s Knesset.
With one-quarter of the electorate voting left, one-quarter right, and roughly half voting not on issues but on social and religious identities, the math never seems to add up to a coalition without the ruling party having to barter away large swaths of the political system and the economy.
There’s just one problem. While such a reform might reasonably win the support of Likud, Labor and Yisrael Beytenu – either because they would benefit from it directly or because they have espoused similar reforms for years – those parties might manage to deliver between 55 and 60 votes at best, just shy of the majority needed to actually pass such a law. The 20th Knesset, Netanyahu is beginning to realize, may be too fractured to even fix itself.
You might have guessed from the tone of my virtual voice above that I am not happy with the coalition and you would be right.
Of course I’m glad that Bennett and Shaked have received such important portfolios and I believe they will be a positive influence on Israeli society. I think that Bayit Yehudi’s ethos, a continuation of the old National Religious Party which held the Education portfolio for decades, will uphold and improve our educational system and will cultivate in the students a love of Israel, broaden interest in Jewish history and hopefully will continue to strive for excellence in the sciences and humanities. As for the Justice Ministry, that has been in the hands of the left for too long, and the Israeli system of judges appointing their own successors has led to a distortion of the judicial system which must be reformed. Similarly, the Supreme Court’s insistence on “finding everything justiciable” makes a mockery of the powers of the Knesset to create new legislation. At the moment we are in a situation where any law created stands to be struck down before it is ever enacted by an unelected, self-appointed, ultra-leftist Supreme Court answerable to no one. If Ayelet Shaked can improve or change this situation she will be a hero to vast swathes of Israeli society.
But Netanyahu’s rush to invite the haredim to the coalition is infuriating, and his caving in to all their demands simply outrageous. With the flick of a pen all the religious and educational reforms achieved over the last few years are in danger of being rolled back to the bad old days, and this is before we mention the hugely generous financial “persuasions” offered to Shas and UTJ.
My frustration, even anger, at Netanyahu’s needless politicking when he could have secured a solid right-wing government immediately after the elections which he won by a landslide, is expressed more eloquently than I could manage in this column (h/t JudyPT) by Gil Troy in the Jerusalem Post: “Say it ain’t so Bibi – a Zionist critique of the coalition cave-in“. (emphases are mine):
… Say it ain’t so Bibi, say it ain’t so. Can you imagine just how opportunistic you must seem when Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman emerges as the man of principle? Are you really so desperate to stay in power that you needed to auction off Israel’s future? What kind of a nationalist are you? What kind of a Zionist? Clearly, I am not as smart as our prime minister.
I do not understand how someone who calls himself a Zionist can promise hundreds of millions of shekels for ultra-Orthodox education which is proudly, flamboyantly, often crudely anti-Zionist. I do not understand how someone who calls himself a nationalist can abandon the progress his last government made in demanding all Israeli schoolchildren learn core curriculum subjects such as modern Hebrew, English, math and science – where in the Torah is knowledge banned? I do not understand how someone who calls himself a security hawk can mortgage Israel’s future just to stay in office, producing more draft-dodgers and job-shirkers, inducing some Israelis to take from the state not contribute to it. …
Jabotinsky believed in sticking to principle not succumbing to blackmail. At what point does holding onto power for its own sake become pointless? Doesn’t Benjamin Netanyahu hope to leave a legacy beyond mere longevity? And why won’t he stand by the important reforms he implemented in 2003? Back then, Israel was overtaxing and under-incentivizing too many citizens, bribing them to procreate, discouraging them from working. Netanyahu’s cutbacks helped trigger Israel’s economic miracle then, what will his cave-ins accomplish now? I am not angry at the United Torah Judaism negotiators.
… They did what Israel’s malfunctioning coalition system and what the current prime minister masquerading as Chicago ward heeler encourage them to do. As New York’s corrupt nineteenth-century Tammany Hall pol George Washington Plunkitt boasted: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”
Netanyahu’s appeasement puts added pressure on Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett if he becomes education minister. The haredi sellout constrains everyone else financially and contradicts Bayit Yehudi’s founding principles, too. His party’s vision statement endorses nurturing a “Jewish-Zionist identity” among “all the state’s children,” teaching about “Herzl and the founders of Zionism, David Ben-Gurion and the leaders of the nation.”
The pressure is on Moshe Kahlon too. Kahlon vowed that his party, Kulanu, would keep Netanyahu centered and protect the average taxpayer.
The base of “Kulanu” – all of us – is tired of being mugged. … Turning the budgeting process into a political auction is exactly the kind of bad-government practice Kahlon’s good-government promises pledged to end. Kahlon and his party members should beware. If they start weak, they will become another impotent minor party.
Our politicians should address the Ethiopian crisis as a Zionist crisis too. Let’s redirect the haredim’s billion-shekel ransom toward these hard-working, taxpaying, army-serving patriots. The Ethiopian rescue is one of the great Zionist adventures of recent times – we should make their successful adjustment one of the great Israeli success stories of all time.
And watching the IDF’s heroics in Nepal, one wonders, how can one security establishment – the army – be so good and a second security establishment – the police – so jinxed? Did any coalition partners demand a thorough police reform, weeding out sexual harassers and removing racists? Will the new government effectively target organized crime and disorganized but rampant home burglaries, two of Israel’s biggest policing challenges today? If the search for Cabinet-issued Volvos trumped those issues in Bibi’s bazaar, shame on all our leaders.
Despite this deep criticism of Netanyahu and Israel’s chaotic political process, Troy finishes on a note with which I identify completely:
My current anger will not sour me on our state or our mission. Just as I can support Netanyahu regarding Iran – and other matters – while criticizing him when necessary, I can distinguish between my current, immediate, completely justified anger at this coalition sellout and my ongoing, deep commitment to Israel and the Zionist enterprise. I don’t see any Americans, Left or Right, abandoning the America of Baltimore and Ferguson, no matter how angry they might be. We should not abandon Israel – while reminding our country and ourselves about the core Zionist mission to create the model Jewish Democratic state at least some of the coalition partners, and most of Israel’s citizens, desire. Let’s build it together, in hope not despair, in optimism not cynicism.
All we need do now is wait for Zionist Union to decide to join the coalition and sit back and watch the histrionics begin all over again.