Thinking Aloud: With Friends Like These…

May 10, 2015 by Darius 

Habemus papem.  Well, not quite.  Nearly two months after the election, though, we do have a new governing coalition in Israel.

It was a surprise to many observers that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party did well enough in the Israeli elections in March to give him the chance to form a government.  However, winning the election turned out to be the easy part.  After nearly two months and one extension, Netanyahu has finally managed to scrabble together a coalition controlling 61 of the Knesset’s 120 seats—the slimmest possible margin.  And he had to sell the farm to do so.

Netanyahu expected to waltz into a strong coalition.  However, Netanyahu did not expect former ally Avigdor Lieberman to abruptly resign from the Foreign Ministry and pull his party’s six seats out of Netanyahu’s coalition.  That dropped his expected 67-seat coalition, a solid majority, down to a 61-seat coalition.

Seeing Netanyahu’s difficulty, the other right-wing parties smelled blood in the water.  The Jewish Home party, in particular, led by Naftali Bennett, who Netanyahu’s wife hates so much that Bennett has never set foot in the prime minister’s residence, held out for major concessions from Netanyahu.  In the end, Netanyahu was forced to grant the influential education and justice ministries to Bennett’s party.  Bennett will get the education portfolio, and Israel’s new Justice Minister will be a 39-year old Bennett protégé named Ayelet Shaked, who’s basically the Israeli Michelle Bachmann (i.e., ignorant and virulently right-wing) and is quite probably very, very racist despite deleting her comparison of Palestinian children to snakes on her Facebook page.  As Daniel Levy, the Middle East director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a conversation with Foreign Policy magazine, “If you’re an Israeli with any kind of rootedness in liberal or universalist humanitarian tradition, then the thought of your justice minister being Ayelet Shaked and your education minister being Naftali Bennett probably goes beyond your worst nightmares.”

Rounding out Netanyahu’s coalition are a few religious parties and Kulanu, the party led by a former Likud politician who left because he disliked Netanyahu so much.

The other right-wing parties had Netanyahu over a barrel, and they made him pay—big time.  Kulanu, contributing 10 seats to the coalition, received the ministries of finance, housing, and environment.  Shas, a Sephardic religious party with seven seats in the current Knesset, is receiving the portfolios of economy, religious affairs, and development of the Galilee and Negev.  United Torah Judaism, an ultra-Orthodox party, is getting the Ministry of Health.

All that’s left for Likud, Netanyahu’s own party, is the Ministry of Defense.  Yes, really.

It was Likud loyalists, those who had hoped for or even been promised some of those cabinet positions, who paid the price to keep Netanyahu in the prime minister’s chair.  (The situation is evocative of US President Lyndon B. Johnson’s observation that in politics you have to screw your friends because your enemies don’t get close enough.)

Looking ahead, Netanyahu has the slimmest of coalitions full of “allies” who hate him and will throw him under the political bus at the first chance they can get.  Leading the opposition is a resurgent Labor party that Netanyahu will desperately try to entice into his government, as well as Lieberman, a former longtime Netanyahu ally who is now willing to do anything to take down Bibi.

One member of Likud quipped that Netanyahu’s negotiating tactics were so bad in forming this coalition that “It’s a good thing Netanyahu isn’t managing the negotiations between the superpowers and Iran.  Given his negotiating skills, the Iranians would now have quite a few atomic bombs.”  Ouch.

For more, see “Netanyahu Snatches Defeat From the Jaws of Victory,” Al Monitor, May 7, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/05/israel-netanyahu-narrow-coalition-unstable-liberman-herzog.html

and

“The New Face of Israel’s Hard Right,” Foreign Policy, May 7, 2015

http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/07/the-new-face-of-israel-hard-right-netanyahu-ayelet-shaked/

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