A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wheeling and Dealing Continues on Israeli Coalition

I haven't been blogging about the coalition dealing in Israel since the January 22 elections, but the continuing delays are starting to raise some questions about whether Binyamin Netanyahu can form a viable coalition by March 16. Should he fail, another party could try form a coalition, or new elections could be called. But that also raises the specter that Israel may not have a government in place when President Barack Obama is scheduled to arrive later this month. While the White House has ended it might cancel the visit if no coalition is formed, that remains unlikely. But the party that came in second, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid,is playing hardball, and seems likely to force Netanyahu to make concessions he would prefer not to make.

Let's go back to the election results in January. The combined Likud/Yisrael Beitenu bloc won only 31 seats, down from 42 in the old Knesset. Two relatively new parties came in second and fourth: Lapid's Yesh Atid running second with 19 (it is new since the previous election), and Naftali Bennett's rightwing Ha-Bayit Ha-Yehudi with 12 (up from only 3). (Running in third place was Labor, with 15 seats.

During his initial month to form a coalition, Netanyahu persuaded only one party, Tzipi Livni's Hatnua, to join his coalition. (He needs 61 votes to win a confidence vote in the 120-seat Knesset.) As a result, he asked for the 14-day extension he is permitted; that's common; Israeli Prime Minister designates often run out their clock.

Lapid, who as leader of the second largest party could be theoretically offered a chance to form a government if Netanyahu fails, probably knows most other parties are probably not willing to make a newcomer the Prime Minister, is nevertheless trying his best to call the shots in a new coalition. To further increase his leverage, he has now formed a working alliance with Naftali Bennett's party; though seemingly ideologically far apart, they have agreed to not compete with each other for specific portfolios, and thus have essentially made it difficult for Netanyanu to play them against each other.

Today, Lapid cancelled a round of coalition talks; depending on the account the dispute is either over whether to reduce the number of ministers from 28 to 18 (Lapid wants it smaller; Likud wants enough to keep its senior members in the Cabinet); or whether it is over Lapid's demand for the Foreign Ministry; Likud has reportedly offered him Finance, but he wants Bennett in Finance.

What is clear seems to be that Lapid will not join a Cabinet with the religious parties. (Though Bennett is Orthodox, and his party in part derives from the old National Religious Party, today it is more a rightwing nationalist party.) That could allow the government to resolve the controversy over the question of military service for yeshiva students, but would mark an end to Netanayhu's policies of alliance with the religious parties.  Some see an opportunity there, but it does not appear to be a welcome prospect to Netanyahu. Nonetheless, it is probably going to be forced upon him.

It's highly likely that a coalition including Lapid, Bennett, and the already-on-board Livni will emerge, but the exact division of the spoils is still in play.

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