As I write, the Israeli coalition talks are still going on. To follow the Israeli media is to ride a roller coaster of reports. The negotiations are either on the verge of a breakthrough or face imminent collapse.
Maariv recently provided a headline formulated to be read breathlessly: “Netanyahu’s Plan: He Will Get Bennet into the Government and Then Replace Him with the Ultra-Orthodox.” At a meeting with a small group of advisors on Friday, Netanyahu allegedly discussed the idea of creating a government coalition with the Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Bennett’s Jewish Home party. After a few months he will begin a political process with the Palestinians, at which point a natural wedge will develop between Yesh Atid, which favors the move, and Jewish Home, which does not. Jewish Home will have no choice but to leave the coalition. Yesh Atid will not be able to leave the coalition since it wants to revive the peace process. The Ultra-Orthodox will then be invited to enter the coalition, and Netanyahu will enjoy a stable long-term government with the Haredim inside and the most committed pro-settler party out. Accurate? Who knows. But the story is useful in helping us to understand how very difficult Mr. Netanyahu’s position is becoming, and with it the governance of the State of Israel.
Probably the key event that shaped the current impasse was the Likud primary elections. It is now clear that a fair number of people who voted in the Likud primaries to stack its Knesset list with rightist candidates were not truly committed to Likud, and voted for other right-wing parties in the general election. The result was a Likud Knesset faction tilted sharply to the right, and the elimination of prominent moderates. The great beneficiary was Mr. Lapid’s avowedly centrist Yesh Atid party. Yesh Atid clearly attracted moderate center/right voters put off by the new face of the Likud.
One result of the disappointing performance of his party in the elections is that Mr. Netanyahu is feeling considerable pressure from his party colleagues. Publicly, to be sure, Likud figures are maintaining silence, but that may not last very long. The public image of Likud Beitenu seems in free-fall. Current polls show Yesh Atid rising to 31 seats, a full five Knesset seats ahead of Likud Beitenu at 26. Mr. Lapid has insisted on a government without Haredim, and a great cluster of public opinion at the center of the political map likes him for it. And it surely does not help Netanyahu with his Likud faction that he signed a coalition agreement with Tzipi Livni, one of the most vocal doves in the Knesset.
Mr. Netanyahu faces other problems that, while not insurmountable, remain serious. He is deeply committed to maintain the long-term strategic alliance between Likud and the Haredim. As noted, the alignment of Yesh Atid with the Jewish Home party to act together in coalition talks demands that he betray that longstanding arrangement and set up a coalition without Haredim. Such a government would be able to generate the kinds of reform in the standing of the Haredi sector that a broad public wants. It is an astonishing display of the changes wrought in the last election that these two parties – each in own its way representing a Jewish response to modernity but divided on so many issues of peacemaking – can make common cause over the need to contain Haredi power and neutralize the pre-modern ideas that drive that community.
Then there is Mr. Netanyahu’s desperate need for a coalition anchor in the political center. Ever since the right-wing second Begin government in the 1980s produced catastrophic results in the First Lebanon War and in the economy, right-wing prime ministers have sought the participation of centrist and even left-wing political parties to balance the right-wing groups that seek expansion of settlements, an end to the peace process and other policies that these prime ministers have wished to avoid.
Netanyahu reached out for such a centrist anchor when his first post-election phone call went out to Lapid, before any other potential coalition partner. For a short while, it appeared he achieved it when Livni signed on, but in a government dominated by right and Haredi parties, she will not have the clout on her own to provide him with that anchor. As of this writing, he finds himself short of a majority and forced to choose between a government without Haredi participation and one without a strong presence from the center. We see a prime minister struggling to create a coalition that will allow him to achieve goals that appear contradictory: maintain coalition discipline, reignite enthusiasm in his own party, and at the same time lead the country in the difficult period ahead.
Still, he has faced down greater challenges in his long career. The smart money is still betting on Mr. Netanyahu overcoming these obstacles and leading the next coalition.