The departure of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party from the government is no longer a far-fetched scenario: chairman Naftali Bennett defused a crisis in which the prime minister threatened to sack him – but is now threatening to bolt the coalition over the peace process anyway.
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office hinted that if the Jewish Home storms out of government, “Netanyahu has enough alternatives”. Indeed, the prime minister has several – but some of them include the side-effect of installing Bennett as leader of the opposition, and this could backfire for the prime minister.
It is not in Netanyahu’s interest to elevate Bennett to the leadership of the opposition, because this would give him an especially privileged position from which to attack the government: he would have an automatic right of reply at the plenum, for example, every time the prime minister addresses the Knesset. Netanyahu is also wary of being outflanked on the right: Bennett is an electoral wunderkind, having quadrupled the Jewish Home’s representation from the last Knesset and increased this by a further two seats across the last year’s polls. If the Jewish Home has to leave the government so that Netanyahu can make concessions to the Palestinians, these are exactly the conditions in which the party can reposition itself as the natural party of the right and claim that the Likud has sold out.
The leader of the opposition is not as prominent as in some other democracies, but the identity of the person receiving these privileges has to weigh in the prime minister’s calculations to some degree.
If the Jewish Home goes, the coalition would be down to 56 MKs. For a Knesset majority, Netanyahu has five plausible replacements:
|New partner(s)||Coalition total|
|Labour + UTJ||22||78|
|Shas + UTJ||18||74|
It is virtually certain that Netanyahu would not invite all three of Labour, Shas and the UTJ together. A coalition of 89 would be unwieldy: the huge diversity of opinion on sensitive policy issues, and the necessary inflation of the size of the cabinet, would make it all but impossible to govern. Likewise, a coalition that includes both Labour and Shas is unlikely too: a government of 82 MKs would be a nightmare to handle.
One can assume that Meretz and the Arab parties would not be invited to join the government, given the vast distance between their political positions and the Likud’s. It is conceivable that the prime minister could invite Kadima, but it would hardly be necessary or wise to part with even a deputy ministerial position for a paltry 2 MKs.
The prime minister does not have the luxury of cherry-picking new coalition partners, however: his choice is constrained and fraught with complications, because his prospective partners might not be so forthcoming on terms acceptable to the rest of the cabinet, and because he will also have to consider the identity of the new leader of the opposition in deciding whom to leave out of the tent.
Scenario 1: Labour
If the prime minister is serious about the Kerry peace framework, he needs the Labour Party: new chairman Isaac Herzog has already pledged to join the government if Netanyahu “makes a daring move towards peace“. If, however, Labour’s presence is not deemed necessary to facilitate a peace accord, it will surely refuse to be a fig-leaf for the Netanyahu administration: Labour wants to position itself as a serious rival to the Likud, and it cannot do so from within the government. Labour is already plotting to bring down the government, so will not prop it up unless the peace process demands it.
Under Israel’s electoral law, the leader of the opposition is to be drawn from the largest opposition party, unless a majority of opposition MKs nominate another candidate in writing to the Knesset Speaker. If Labour joins the government, Naftali Bennett would therefore become leader of the opposition: it is unlikely that a Shas-UTJ-Kadima-Meretz alliance nominate Shas chairman Aryeh Deri instead, or that the Arab parties would help him, notwithstanding their animosity for Bennett.
Scenario 2: Shas
If the Jewish Home bolts for reasons other than an imminent peace treaty (and this writer is deeply sceptical on this front), Shas would be Netanyahu’s partner of choice as a traditional ally – neither Yesh Atid nor Hatnuah would want it in, but neither would they be prepared to veto it and force new elections. It was only the surprising Bennett-Lapid alliance that prevented Netanyahu from bringing Shas into coalition, and with the bromance over, Netanyahu could put his foot down. Netanyahu might prefer to bring in Labour (thereby neutralising it as an opposition party), but if Labour refuses to join, inviting Shas may be the only viable alternative.
Labour chairman Isaac Herzog would remain leader of the opposition, because the Jewish Home would be unable to cobble together any other parties to nominate Bennett as leader of the opposition.
Scenario 3: UTJ
Incorporating the UTJ would leave the cabinet with a wafer-thin majority of 63, but this is not necessarily problematic. Yesh Atid and Hatnua have no interest as yet in provoking new elections, so will not walk out; the government would be vulnerable to a split in the Likud-Beiteinu, but since such a split would legally require a breakaway faction of at least 7 MKs, the same problem would arise if Shas joined the government, bringing it a narrow majority of 67. The prime minister might, therefore, decide to cross that bridge when he comes to it and govern with a narrow coalition in the interim. Since the UTJ has fewer seats than Shas, it also has less clout, so Netanyahu could prefer it as the less troublesome alternative – but there has been a lot of bad blood, and the UTJ could well reject the invitation if it feared being used as a fig-leaf for policies detrimental to its Haredi constituency.
If the UTJ joined, however, Labour would retain the leadership of the opposition: even if the Jewish Home and Shas put aside their differences, they would lack the numbers to force another result.
Scenario 4: Labour + UTJ
If the prime minister wants to insure the government’s survival against the departure of any one party, the only choice is to add the UTJ in conjunction with either Labour or Shas: in that case, Yesh Atid would be the only party that could bring down the government with its 19 MKs, absenting a major split within the Likud-Beiteinu. Indeed, the present cabinet is not insured against the exit of a single party – but only because the Bennett-Lapid alliance after the election blocked the admission of the ultra-Orthodox, and the Arab parties and Meretz were never in contention. It is reasonable to assume the prime minister would want to bolster the coalition against threats by any single party to walk out, because the ability to threaten the collapse of the government gives parties “blackmail potential” and more clout. Indeed, he would want to fortify the government as much as possible to reduce the blackmail potential of Likud MKs to break away if progress in the peace process is on the cards, which is why if Labour comes in, it would make sense to add another junior partner too. This configuration depends, as above, on the willingness of the UTJ to join.
If Labour and the UTJ joined the government, Naftali Bennett would be leader of the opposition – which might give Netanyahu pause for thought in taking Labour out of the opposition, because Bennett is a greater threat to the Likud’s electoral fortunes and giving him this extra prominence will hardly help the Likud’s poll numbers.
Scenario 5: Shas + UTJ
Bringing Shas and the UTJ in the government would be the most sensible move for the prime minister if the Jewish Home leaves the coalition but Labour does not feel the time is right to join it. The coalition would be fortified against the exit of any single party except for Yesh Atid, but it would not leave anyway, because its support would likely plummet if fresh elections were held: Netanyahu, therefore, would be free to add these two parties. Moreover, Labour would remain in the leadership of the opposition, so Bennett would be denied a platform from which to attack the PM from the right.
For Bennett to become leader of the opposition, it is both necessary and sufficient that, after the Jewish Home’s exit from the government, Labour should join the coalition. This means that Bennett has to leave over something big if he cares about capturing the leadership of the opposition, because Labour is not about to join a Netanyahu government unless Israel is at a historic juncture that requires its help.
Bennett may, however, still storm out over a comparatively minor issue: the threat of being sacked and replaced by Shas and the UTJ means that Bennett is not as free as he would like to speak his mind in government, so may prefer to be in the opposition (and not lead it) if an even bolder stance against Netanyahu’s diplomatic policies would boost his party’s electoral chances. Centre-left Israelis should temper their enthusiasm, therefore, about the possible exit of the Jewish Home from the coalition, because unless it is crunch time in the peace talks, the ultra-Orthodox will find their way back into government.
It’s all getting rather interesting.