Even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new Israeli government was sworn in on May 14, the thirty-fourth since 1949, he reiterated his interest in enlarging his cabinet and making it more representative of the country.
In the general election on March 17, the Likud won thirty seats, more than any other party. In lengthy negotiations which followed, the prime minister scraped together a narrow coalition consisting of his right-wing Likud Party, the center-right Kulanu Party, the far right-wing Jewish Home Party and the two ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
Netanyahu was thus able to form a government with a bare majority of 61 Knesset seats, not exactly a prescription for stability and longevity. If Avigdor Liberman of the Yisrael Beteinu Party had joined the coalition, he would have regained his post as foreign minister, and Netanyahu would have had 67 seats at his beck and call, a far more comfortable majority.
Absent Liberman, he now commands the slimmest parliamentary majority in about two decades. Being politically weak and vulnerable, Netanyahu will have little room for maneuver, and will have to tip toe carefully to keep his coalition intact.
Which is precisely why Netanyahu would not be averse to coopting Isaac Herzog’s and Tzipi Livni’s Zionist Union — an amalgamation of the left-of-center Labor Party and the centrist Hatnua Party — into the government. With the Zionist Union’s twenty-four seats in his pocket, Netanyahu would be sitting pretty now.
Herzog and Livni have rightly rejected appeals to serve alongside Netanyahu and thereby prop up his government — the most right-wing nationalist regime Israel has had since the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister in the early 1990s.
“This is a government without vision, without a working plan, without hope,” said Herzog two days ago, refusing to be Netanyahu’s fig leaf. Earlier, he said, “I have no intention of joining this government. I’ve said it again and again. I’ll be in the opposition and I’ll lead it.”
Livni, who was justice minister in Netanyahu’s last government until she was summarily fired last December, is just as adamant. “Our mission is to be in the opposition,” she said. “I would not do a thing to strengthen Netanyahu.”
Much to his credit, Herzog has been consistent in his refusal to join forces with the Likud, most of whose leading members oppose a two-state solution. Last November, just hours after replacing Shelly Yachimovich as the Labor Party’s new leader, Herzog said he would not stand together with Netanyahu unless he made “a clear, daring step toward peace.”
Far from doing so, Netanyahu has gone in the opposite direction.
In the final hours of the election campaign, he told supporters that a Palestinian state would not be established under his watch. And even after he backtracked, in response to international pressure, he made it abundantly clear that a two-state solution is not a viable proposition today and will not be for a long time to come.
After taking the helm of the government, Netanyahu said he would pursue a “diplomatic settlement,” but there are no references to a two-state solution in his government’s guidelines.
This is hardly surprising.
Netanyahu’s chief ministers, including Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon, oppose Palestinian statehood, as does his coalition partner, Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home Party. Bennett believes that Israel should annex sixty percent of the West Bank and grant the Palestinians limited autonomy elsewhere in the West Bank.
It’s a sure-fire formula for endless strife with the Palestinians and the Arab world and a pathway to either an undemocratic Jewish state or a binational Jewish-Arab state, which would be antithetical to the Zionist dream. Bennett’s proposal, if implemented, would turn Israel into a South African-style pariah state, shunned and isolated by international opinion.
Herzog and Livni are both acutely aware of the self-destructive path upon which Netanyahu has embarked, and this accounts for their laudable and level-headed reluctance to go into partnership with him.