Bibi’s Double Bargain

Prime Minister Netanyahu may find that the outcome of the bargaining process to determine the coalition for the 33rd government has repercussions for his future political survival.

I try not to predict things very often, especially in Israeli politics, but the news coming out of the latest coalition talks between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennet make “predictioneering” very tempting.  So here we go: if Naftali Bennet takes Netanyahu up on his very specific offer to join the government—an offer that would only be on the table for 48 hours—the next Israeli government will lead a tumultuous life and is unlikely to survive until the next elections.

Most likely, Naftali Bennet will accept the offer. With its 12 Knesset seats, Bennet’s HaBayit haYehudi party is a contending force in Israeli politics, representing more hawkish views than the Likud party, and is a heavily favored political choice in the modern orthodox and national religious settler communities. However, it is not concern for the party’s relative numerical strength that will compel Bennet to join the coalition. Neither is it his own personal political ambitions (of which I am an unqualified judge). Rather, the nature of the party itself and the issues that it promotes makes a role in the opposition unthinkable and utterly meaningless.

This is because Bennet’s party is essentially a one-issue party; its only true concern being the prevention of any developments in the process to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace that could lead to the creation of a Palestinian state and the surrender of Israeli-held territory. Because of its singular focus, a seat around the coalition table is crucial, as it would only take one political “misstep” for the next Israeli administration to destroy the party’s raison d’ être.

The lessons of the Olso Agreement and the Gaza evacuation taught the national religious that “peace” can “strike” at any moment and that even the most staunch settler allies (read Ariel Sharon) can have what seams like a sudden change of heart. This is sometimes referred to as the “peace disease” or “peace fever” and can be described as the realization by Israeli politicians—once they assume a leadership role—that territorial sacrifices are necessary in order to prevent further deterioration of Israeli democracy as a result of the impending Palestinian demographic “bomb.” In other words, they come to understand that it is imperative to separate Israel from territories that are heavily populated by Palestinian Arabs in order to retain a Jewish majority inside of Israel’s borders. How HaBayt haYehudi intends to deal with the impending demographic inevitability is the topic for another day (and one that resembles the debate between evolutionists and creationists). More important, however, is what happens next if Bennet accepts to be part of the coalition.

According to recent reports, the party was offered a number of important ministerial posts to sweeten the deal, including the education portfolio and a top-level economic portfolio. Apparently, the party would also get the portfolio of deputy of defense, which would mean that it would have broad authority over the expansion of settlements and construction in Judea and Samaria. If it’s true that Likud-Beytenu is also willing to grant Bennett’s party the chairmanship of the Knesset Finance Committee their victory over those who promote a settlement freeze would be complete. In other words, should Yair Lapid also decide to join the coalition, he will be in for a battle.

Once Bennet accepts the deal, Netanyahu needs to decide what his priority will be on the most contentious domestic issue in Israel today, that of the Ultra-Orthodox draft. Yair Lapid (Yesh Atid) made the issue of the drafting of Yeshiva students and the need for “burden sharing” his most central election issue and is unlikely to back down due to the commitments he made during the campaign and in his most recent Knesset speach. Because of Netanyahu’s past tendencies to include Shas and Ultra-Orthodox parties in his governing coalition, Lapid may end up in the opposition, with the changing of the Tal Law being put on the backburner or watered down to something that the Ultra-orthodox can accept.

Without Lapid however, Netanyahu has two choices. He can either form a right-wing-ultra-orthodox-ultra-nationalist coalition (similar to Yitzhak Shamir in the 1990’s), or he can seek support from the center-left block. A purely right-wing-ultra-orthodox coalition would endanger Israel’s relations with the outside world, and further frustrate the Obama administration. He may therefore opt for “national unity” by turning to the left. Neither of the remaining three available candidates in the center-left block—Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak (who says he is leaving politics for 5 years), and Shelly Yacimovich—are likely to allow the predicted US pressure for Israeli-Palestinian renewed negotiations to be ignored.

So what will he choose? Honestly, that’s more than I can predict. Sadly, Netanyahu’s concern is most likely more with his own political survival than with the future of the peace process. Or as Yossi Verter so cleverly put it a few days ago in Haaretz:

“Netanyahu is like a participant on the reality show “MasterChef.” He’s trying to find a magical culinary coalition recipe that will allow him to mix most of the Knesset ingredients into a stew fit for human consumption, and get immunity from being toppled as dessert. He has a time frame. The clock is ticking. He has 36 more days, including ‏(to change the metaphor‏) overtime and penalty time.”

About the Author
Tova Norlen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, Switzerland, working on issues relating to international security, Middle East/Israel, conflict management and US foreign policy. She has a PhD in international relations and conflict management from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies in Washington DC, and has worked for several years teaching International relations and related subjects in Southern California.