From Kingmaker to a King

Mazel Tov, after lots of speculations, spins, threats and sleepless nights, Israel has a new government which will be consisted of Likud-Beitenu, Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and Hatnua.  The clear winners from the negotiations are Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid who stood their ground and forced Netanyahu to accept most of their demands.  The pact that the two have signed after the elections, is the main reason why Israel after a long time has a government without Orthodox parties.

While anyone who followed Israeli politics for enough time knew that Netanyahu’s natural partners were Shas and Yahadut Hatorah, the will of the voters was that it wants to see a government which will promote the burden-sharing, housing issues, electoral reform and education. Netanyahu’s priority was still to form government with the Orthodox parties, he tried to drive a wedge between Lapid and Bennett but their alliance was stronger than he expected, and considering he came weak from these elections, it would be no surprise.

Yair Lapid, who sees himself as a future PM,  got most of what he wanted, in particular reducing the number of ministers in the government (although not to 18 as he wished) to 22, his number 2 in the party, Rabbi Piron, will be the next Education Minister while he himself will be the new Finance Minister. His party which promised its voters a reform of the education system, will present in 6 months a program which will put the ‘core curriculum’ which will be mandatory for all pupils in Israel. In addition, in 45 days from the day the government is sworn, it will pass legislation that will deal with burden-sharing. Resuming the peace negotiations with the Palestinians will also be on the agenda of this government.

Was Lapid right to insist on the Finance brief instead of the Foreign Affairs one? It would seem easier job to try and repair the diplomatic damage caused by Liberman then to fix the mess left by Steinitz. But Lapid, a man of principles (as the negotiations proved) really wants to change the economic reality for Israelis and bring the agenda of his voters to the government table. It’s not going to be an easy task considering the deficit left by outgoing government and he will need to make some decisions which will be unpopular, but he is brave enough to jump to the cold waters and to the battles awaiting him with the Finance Ministry clerks. If Lapid will be able to fulfil his plans and ideas, I have no doubt that he will indeed be the next PM of Israel.

Yair Lapid - From Kingmaker to a King
Yair Lapid – From Kingmaker to a King

That leads to me to PM Netanyahu, who is undoubtedly the big loser of the elections and the coalition negotiations. Although well experienced, he made almost every possible mistake from the merger with Liberman’s party which cost him many seats (although Arthur Finkelstein promised him 48 seats), lack of political platform for elections,  continued with smearing campaign against Bennett (which backfired) and ended with hopeless attempts to form government with Orthodox parties.

Netanyahu who was heavily defeated by Ehud Barak in the past, and who didn’t manage to win comfortably in 2009 (despite big lead in polls over Kadima) and in 2013, will probably not be again a PM no matter what this government achieves. Too many liberal and traditional voters left Likud, and under Netanyahu’s watch, the party became more nationalist than ever, with many of his top MKs strongly against two-state solution. In fact, if you will break down the votes that Likud got this time comparing to the last Knesset (27), it got something in the area of 20, almost like Yesh-Atid – this merger was counter-productive and was strategic error.

Netanyahu - The big loser of these elections
Netanyahu – The big loser of these elections

But his problems haven’t ended with election results, they just started. Since he had a weak hand in the negotiations, it was inevitable that a considerable number of Likud ministers will lose their positions, but also that many of the younger generation MKs who are high in the list, wouldn’t get a job in the cabinet because of the poor result. Netanyahu’s attempt to present himself victorious by retaining the Foreign and Defense briefs is a cheap spin. He does have Livni which can maybe ease temporarily the international pressure regarding the peace process, but if there won’t be real progress there, she may not stay in his government (the peace process is her main card and her last chance to save her political career). I think we can all agree that this is definitely not the results Netanyahu wished for, not the government that he hoped for and the agenda that he dreamed on.

I believe that like in the previous government, his main concerns will be his survival as PM and leader of his party, which means he will be reluctant to take bold steps and difficult decisions. If his newly formed government will be able to make progress in peace process, ease the burden on the middle class, and help to reduce housing and living costs and make life fairer ,he will be hailed as ‘King Bibi’ not just in Mahane Yehuda market but across the country.

But is it possible? There are enough hawks inside his own Likud party who are against an agreement with the Palestinians and adding to that Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett who are against settlement freeze, which is fundamental. As for the economy, Netanyahu’s way is capitalism where the rich get richer and poor get poorer, the tycoons get tax breaks while the regular citizen finds it impossible to break even.

The continuous talk about the ‘challenges’ ahead (mainly security ones) is what guides Bibi. He will continue to put Iran high on the top of his agenda, and the fight against Hamas terror. But it’s quite desperate for Israelis if that’s all he got to offer – they are tired of using the security as an excuse to ignore other crucial issues such as education and the economy. The keys for the success of this government are therefore not in Netnayahu’s but in Lapid’s hands. That’s the big test of his life and we will see if actions speak louder than words. Lapid may turn from kingmaker to a king himself.

About the Author
Tal Ofer is a former parliamentary researcher and now Deputy at the Board of Deputies of British Jews. He actively fights antisemitism and delegitimisation of Israel. In Summer 2014 he masterminded a campaign to target Tricycle Theater donors, which led to reverse of boycott of UK Jewish Film Festival.