Netanyahu has won reelection. How will he build his next government? He says he wants a stable coalition, the Haredi are one means to that end, but will he also seek out the centre-left?

Election Results for the 20th Knesset (Photo Credit: Jpost Staff)

Election Results for the 20th Knesset (Photo Credit: Jpost Staff)

Building Israel’s 34th Government

The dust is settling from Israel’s recent election (see my article: Bibi’s Historic Reelection), and Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has been reelected. The time has come to begin knitting together Israel’s 34th government. Since no one party has ever held a majority in the Knesset, a coalition of parties is necessary to form a government. A government is thus a coalition of political parties whose total number of seats in the Knesset must equal a majority: 61 of 120 seats.  

Parties whose factions total more than 61 seats have recommended Bibi to form the government and President Reuvin Rivlin has formally tasked him to do so. Now the negotiations formal begin.

For more information about Israel’s electoral system and its political parties see my article on that subject.

Building A Coalition

In the US it has been said that “laws are like sausage, everyone likes them but no one wants to know how they’re made.” In Israel one could say that “coalitions are like shawarma…” and for the same reasons. Building a coalition involves negotiation, cajoling, and what could be termed good old fashioned bribery. Bibi has stated so far that he plans to build a stable coalition with the Right Bloc and the Haredi. This coalition, once built, would be more stable than his previous government, but at what price? It will, nevertheless, be difficult to put even this lot together.

The Right Bloc (excluding the Haredi – Ultra Orthodox – Parties) has 54 seats, just 7 shy of a majority. Two prominent Right Bloc parties, Jewish Home and Yisrael Beteinu, have been coalition partners in the past. Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the latter, has made it clear he will be demanding more in order to form a government. His party has shrunk from 11 seats in the 19th Knesset (where it was part of a joint list with Likud) to 6 in the 20th. He has been serving as Foreign Minister and is now driving at the much coveted office of Defense Minister, often seen as one step from the PM’s office. it is unlikely that Bibi will give him this post, but Netanyahu should not have too much difficulty gathering these two parties into the coalition.

Moshe Kahlon and Kulanu are a different matter entirely. Kahlon has made it clear that he intends to play hardball in order to join the coalition. His party formed around social and economic issues, such as lowering the cost of living, especially housing. His party also opposes the special privileges of the Haredi. It is possible he will even demand that Bibi seek out partnership with the centre-left Yesh Atid (There is a Future) Party, led Yair Lapid.

Kahlon will be critical to forming a coalition. Without him even the Haredi do not have enough seats to secure a majority. Kahlon covets the Finance Minister portfolio, a make or break office. Many promising political careers have ended there. Those who have been successful in that office, including Bibi Netanyahu, have often gone on to achieve higher office. During the final week leading up to the election Bibi hinted that the Finance Ministry was precisely what he had in mind for Kahlon. Will it be enough to entice the young upstart into the coalition?

The Haredi, for their part, are easy partners. They simply want their special privileges and disproportionate share of social welfare spending (see below). They also want exemption from mandatory military service. It is likely that acquiescence to these demands will be preconditions to their entry into a government. Bibi needs to use leverage to convince the Haredi to join the coalition without meeting these demands. He also needs to secure promises from the Haredi that they will encourage men to join the workforce and participate in the economy. If Bibi gives in to the demands of the Haredi in part or in full it will weaken his government and reduce its popularity. It would also, unfortunately, offer the government greater longevity. If the social issues raised by Kahlon and Lapid, especially regarding the Haredi, are not addressed to the satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters who oppose their special privileges, then the government of the 21st Knesset will likely by led by the left.

The Two Roads

The Prime Minister has two paths before him: he can compromise with or placate the Haredi in order to form a government, or he can turn to Yair Lapid. Lapid helped to bring down the last government by refusing to cooperate with Bibi on fiscal issues, taxes, and the peace process, which Lapid supports. It would be difficult to imagine the two coming to terms now. Bibi has the stick, however, if Lapid does not join a government, of allowing the reforms of the last two years to fall by the wayside and re-empowering the Haredi. Lapid would be a strong moderating influence on the government which would create flexibility for Bibi. Lapid will certainly demand at least three ministerial portfolios while the Haredi would be fortunate to have just one.

The Cabinet

The Israeli cabinet acts as a form of executive committee that sets executive policy for Israel. The PM chairs and leads the cabinet, but the body as a whole must endorse substantive policy decisions. In the past the cabinet had ballooned to 30 ministers, including ministers without portfolio; these were cabinet members who had no ministry to sit at the head of during their time in office. That made up 1/4 of the Knesset! Under Lapid’s proposed reform in the 19th Knesset, the cabinet was reduced to 24 and will shrink further in the 20th Knesset to 18. The PM’s office is already spoken for, but several other important positions are open to those who desire them.

Moshe Yaalon has held the Defense Ministry, by far Israel’s most essential and highly sought office, for the past two years. Will Yaalon continue in office or will he be replaced? Avigdor Liberman wants to be Defense Minister, but this would not be a good idea. The Foreign Minister is another relevant office. For six years the office has been held for the most part by Avigdor Lieberman or a proxy (while he was recently on trial for corruption). This office is, next only to the PM’s office, the international voice for Israel. Lieberman’s nationalist rhetoric has been seen as lowering Israel’s already tarnished reputation in the international community. Who will assume this critical office? The Interior, Justice, and Transportation ministries are not to be undersold either.

Jewish Home will seek at least a portfolio for its leader Naftali Bennet, and a second; possibly a third. Yisrael Beteinu will seek one highly important office for Avigdor Liberman. Moshe Kahlon will seek the Finance Ministry and would be a right imbecile not to hold out for a second portfolio. The Haredi would seek at least one portfolio, probably for Arye Deri the leader of Shas, who was once convicted of corruption and later rehabilitated his political career. They desire the Interior Ministry, which handles citizenship applications, because they strongly oppose aliyah (immigration) by converts and lower practicing Jews (Modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform). In addition, within Bibi’s own Likud Party, by far the largest faction in the Knesset, the several leaders will likewise anticipate the spoils of victory, many will seek high profile cabinet portfolios for themselves.

Which path will Bibi choose? If I venture a prediction, knowing Bibi, he will prefer to go with the Haredi. He has the most leverage over them and at any crisis he can easily purchase their cooperation with handouts. He can thus hold the coalition together at the expense of opposing the popular will on social reform.

Bibi feels that the security situation is paramount and all other concerns can wait. Israeli voters are tired of the conventional “wisdom” that social issues will have to wait until after the security situation improves; suppose it never really improves? What then? Why not proceed with energy to address both problems at once? Bibi wants a stable coalition and, after securing the membership of the Right Bloc parties, he will likely turn to Shas and possibly also United Torah Judaism (UTJ) to give him that.

Isaac’s Coalition

Let’s say (purely hypothetically) that Bibi called me to come to Israel and help him form a government; why he might do so no one can rightly say. So I am on the plane to Ben Gurion Airport and I am reviewing the political chess board to array a coalition. How would I put together the government? First, I would examine what makes coalitions successful: First, common interest; when you see the word ‘interest’ in politics replace it in your mind with money and the power it entails as this is usually what it means. A coalition of parties must have common goals especially when it comes to spending and the budget. Second, popular support: it is unfortunate that ‘interests’ are more important than popularity. It helps if a coalition is seen to be doing what the voters demand of it, leading rather than reacting to the challenges experienced by the electorate. Finally, deterrent: the Prime Minister must have the leverage (over ‘interests’) to keep wayward parties in the government. So, given that, how to proceed?

If I were advising the PM, I would seek a broadly based coalition designed to curry the greatest public support while not becoming too unwieldy or weak. The Right Bloc is the natural place to start. Jewish Home would enter the coalition with a significant portfolio, like Justice or Interior for Bennet, and a lesser portfolio for one of his subordinates. Moshe Kahlon would be Finance Minister and his party, too, would receive another lesser office. Yisrael Beteinu has declined in popularity and Lieberman in importance, so he should be relegated to a lower cabinet office. Perhaps Lieberman would settle for the Interior Ministry that serves his large immigrant constituency?

I would seek out Yair Lapid with the “threat” or prospect of a more right-leaning government in coalition with the Haredi. Lapid would make an excellent Foreign Minister to help shore up Israel’s damaged reputation and his party’s centre-left outlook would bring flexibility to the government. The carrot of the Foreign Ministry and the stick of the re-empowered Haredi. A lesser ministry would also accompany the offer. A third portfolio might be doable. Lapid would be the least essential to the coalition and it could be formed without him. I, personally, find Lapid’s reform agenda a powerful and popular expression of the demands of average Israelis, much like Kahlon’s. The inclusion of both in the government would be valuable to earn public support. Lapid must find common interest with the coalition as well.

Yair Lapid

Yair Lapid

If Lapid proved unwilling to join the government, I would next seek out Shas, as Bibi is likely to do anyway. Perhaps the greatest difference is that I would do so only on the understanding that Shas was to cooperate in bringing the Haredi into the workforce. In exchange for this, public funding for religious schools would be protected and I would even be willing to allow the Haredi exemption from military conscription. Plans were recently laid to open civil service to the Haredi which would help to provide jobs. There are other fields to which the Haredi can apply themselves wherein they would be successful and uniquely qualified. If this could be done, the coalition would have the balancing act of Kahlon’s reform agenda on the one hand, and Shas’ efforts to restore the ancien régime.

With Lapid, my coalition would have 65 seats and would represent Israel’s two primary political blocs. If Lapid should bolt the coalition, Shas could be brought in to make up for the 7 seats necessary to a narrow majority, a strong deterrent against Lapid’s departure. Likewise, the departure of any other single party from the coalition could be easily remedied by the same means. The parties would share the common interests of a strong security posture, economic and social reform, and effort to lower of the cost of living for average Israelis. A broadly based coalition that sought to address social issues would be more popular.

How will the coalition building process play out? We shall see in the coming weeks. The only certainty in Israeli politics, is uncertainty…

Read more from Isaac Kight.