An expert's point of view on a current event.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Grade A Pork-Barrel Politics

Israel’s coalition government is a shaky mess. But Bibi’s wheeling and dealing have cemented his hold on power.

By , a journalist covering Middle East politics.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the traditional photograph in honor of the swearing in of the 34th government of Israel on May 19, 2015 at the presidential compound in Jerusalem. AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON        (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu arrives for the traditional photograph in honor of the swearing in of the 34th government of Israel on May 19, 2015 at the presidential compound in Jerusalem. AFP PHOTO/GALI TIBBON (Photo credit should read GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images)

“You founded a circus of a government,” Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog thundered at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the podium of the Knesset on May 14. Despite Herzog’s protestations, Netanyahu’s new government — his fourth — was officially sworn in last week along strict party lines, 61 votes to 59.

The incoming governing coalition has already been called many things; “a circus” is arguably the kindest. It is dominated by ultra-Orthodox and pro-settler groups, is expected to face mounting international pressure, and only enjoys a single-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset. The public view of Netanyahu’s political fortunes have once again undergone a dramatic swing: “King Bibi,” who won an overwhelming victory on election night after a last-ditch fear campaign, is gone. Thanks to a tortured coalition negotiation process, many are now putting forward the notion that Netanyahu is once again weak and can be toppled. It has almost become conventional wisdom that his government’s staying power will be measured in terms of months, not years.

But Bibi’s coalition will likely prove more resilient than many expect. Indeed, both parliamentary procedure as well as politics should give pause to the thesis that Netanyahu’s grip on power is beholden to the whims of one or two coalition backbenchers. Of course, survival is distinct from governing. But when it comes to simply keeping his government intact, Netanyahu has several factors working in his favor.

To begin with, the previous Netanyahu government passed a little-noticed reform bill last year that made no-confidence votes extremely difficult to pull off. The new law demands that the opposition not only win a successful majority vote in order to unseat a government, but also that it assemble a majority consensus for an alternative government. Put simply, a no-confidence vote has to name a prime ministerial choice, has to have backing for a substitute majority coalition government, and only then can an existing government be toppled — in effect, replaced. In parliamentary legalese, the new rule is called “constructive no-confidence” — the idea being that it assists the durability of any government and decreases the number of frivolous no-confidence votes brought before the Knesset.

Cobbling together an alternative government to win such a vote currently looks impossible. The opposition itself – all 59 seats – is fractured, ranging from Arab-Israeli Islamists and anti-Zionists on one side, to hard-line right-wingers like former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the other. Indeed, one senior Arab parliamentarian joked last week that Lieberman “has to resign from the opposition.” Defections from the governing coalition also look unlikely, given the ideological contradictions between, say, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s government (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and the opposition’s Yesh Atid party, champions of the secular middle class. The belief that members of the pro-settler Jewish Home party would defect from the government because of dissatisfaction with Netanyahu, only to join forces with the opposition’s “Peace Now” Meretz party, is pure fantasy.

In any parliamentary democracy, being part of the ruling coalition brings with it ministerial positions and perks that are difficult to throw away. And Netanyahu lavishly handed out these sweeteners during the recent coalition formation process: The prime minister was seen to be extorted by those outside his Likud Party, cutting one bad deal after the next with his erstwhile partners — the appointment of Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a 39-year-old neophyte from the Jewish Home party, being only his last and most exorbitant concession.

However, as one veteran Israeli journalist put it to me, the result is that all the coalition partners are “well fed.” It would be madness for them to surrender their hard-earned spoils for the uncertainty of another prime minister, and less satiating ministerial packages.

The new government can survive, but will it be able to govern? It will, going forward, assuredly lose votes in the Knesset arguably a relief for many in the world concerned about its narrow, right-wing makeup. Key members of the government intend to pursue an agenda targeting the Supreme Court, the media, left-wing NGOs, as well as the controversial “nationality bill” aimed at giving primacy to Israel’s Jewish character.

Moshe Kahlon, the head of the centrist Kulanu party and the new finance minister, has already said that his party won’t support such legislation — a request Netanyahu reportedly agreed to. However, Kahlon does intend to pursue an ambitious socio-economic agenda focused on lowering the cost of living, including in the real estate, banking, and food sectors. The former Likud minister’s moderation relative to the rest of the government is a recipe for constant coalition crises — yet Kahlon, too, would face difficulties in toppling a right-wing government and joining forces with the Israeli left.

But it might never come to that, as the coalition may find that it needs Kahlon more than Kahlon needs the coalition. His reforms enjoy overwhelming support, not only among the Israeli public but also, probably, across the aisle. Former Labor Party Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich has already publicly stated her intention to support much of the Netanyahu government’s economic agenda. “There are several ministerial appointments that are quite good,” Yachimovich wrote to her supporters, “and to be completely honest, with some of them I have a lot more in common than with many elements in the opposition.”

Yachimovich, who still commands a powerful following inside the Labor party and remains Herzog’s main competitor for the top spot, is likely not alone in her thinking. A surprising number of opposition parliamentarians may break ranks and vote for key pieces of the government’s economic legislation.

To be sure, this new Israeli government can, and likely will, cause a great deal of harm. Ministers will trumpet one paranoid, ultranationalist initiative after another; settlements will likely grow; and the peace process will continue to be an empty vessel. Increased international pressure on Israel is expected, up to and perhaps including U.N. Security Council resolutions and further European boycott efforts. Because of this, some politicians — including Netanyahu — are holding to the idea that Herzog and his Zionist Union will join the coalition at some point in the future, creating a strong and more moderate national unity government.

While not out of the realm of possibility, this may be a bridge too far for Herzog. He is up for re-election as Labor chairman in the coming year. His base, it’s believed, simply doesn’t want to countenance “saving” Netanyahu from what the prime minister refers to as his “natural partners” on the right. “The era of the [centrist] fig leaf” for Netanyahu, one person close to Herzog recently told me, “is over.”

It is worth recalling that Netanyahu brought all this on himself. It was the prime minister who manufactured a coalition crisis last fall, dissolving his own government and heading to early elections — precisely because he was afraid of being outflanked on his right. After an election campaign in which he pandered to the worst impulses in Israeli society, Netanyahu is now reaping what he sowed. It will be a bumpy road ahead for his new government, with every vote carrying at least the implied threat of crisis. It will, indeed, be a circus. But Netanyahu will remain the ringmaster, and his government will most likely endure. Which is, for Netanyahu, probably the whole point.

Photo credit: GALI TIBBON/AFP/Getty Images

Neri Zilber is a journalist covering Middle East politics and an adjunct fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is the co-author of State with No Army, Army with No State: Evolution of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, 1994-2018. Twitter: @NeriZilber