Netanyahu Forms Israel's Majority Coalition, But The Conservative Government Looks Set For Trouble

After triumphing in March elections on the back of a controversial campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel formed a conservative coalition Wednesday, in a last-minute deal that will ensure his leadership for a fourth term. Netanyahu first took Israel’s top office in 1996, and secured a landslide victory for his Likud Party in the 2015 national elections. Seven weeks later, he was struggling to form a ruling government — succeeding to strike a coalition deal on Wednesday night with only an hour and a half to spare before his midnight deadline, according to The Jerusalem Post.

After March’s "great victory" (as Netanyahu termed his election win), Wednesday’s near-deadlock came as something of a surprise. Had Netanyahu not managed to cobble together a coalition, The Guardian reported, he would have faced being ejected from office. As it is, the deal aligns Likud (Netanyahu's far-right party) with United Torah Judaism, Shas, Kulanu, and the Jewish Home parties. The coalition as agreed Wednesday unites the country’s hard-line conservative and religious parties, and has been called a “national failure” by opposition leader Isaac Herzog. The coalition commands a slender majority of 61 seats in Israel’s 120-seat parliament, and will be sworn in next week.

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“I'm sure no one is surprised that these negotiations were lengthy,” Netanyahu told a news conference after the deal was struck. And yet, the agreement was truly an 11th-hour affair — reached just before the expiration of Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government. Reaching a coalition depended, according to the Post, on successful negotiations between Netanyahu and The Jewish Home, a Zionist political party led by Naftali Bennett. Bennett, who received the portfolios of Education and Diaspora Affairs in the deal, hailed the incoming government as a success. “It is not a government for the Right or the Left but for all of the people of Israel,” he said. “I had a good conversation with the prime minister and told him I would be happy to enter a nationalist government under his leadership.”

Bennett's commendation, of course, is conditioned by the fact that his religious nationalist party has been greatly empowered by the deal. But the conservative factions that Netanyahu’s new government incorporates may threaten Israel’s already rocky relationship with the U.S. and Europe, The Wall Street Journal warned. The country’s increasing international isolation — as the Middle East peace process continues to go nowhere, and Netanyahu insists on stoking fires over the Iranian nuclear deal — could be further entrenched by the powerful presence of hardliners in the majority government.

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Herzog, writing in response to the deal on his Facebook page, denounced the government as a "national failure," lacking in "responsibility, governability and stability." Among his grievances, Herzog cited the promotion of controversial Jewish Home member Ayelet Shaked to the post of justice minister. This placement held up the negotiations for some time — with Bennett, insisting on Shaked's appointment, coming up against an unwilling Netanyahu. The latter would have preferred to keep the justice ministry within the hands of his own Likud party, according to The Guardian.

Shaked’s appointment is particularly contentious: Over the past two years, she has not hesitated to indicate her disdain for Israel's liberal-leaning supreme court. Netanyahu, The Guardian reported, is resolutely intending to curtail some of her powers as head of the justice ministry — particularly limiting her ability to influence the appointment of judges. According to The Guardian, Senior Likud officials are reportedly already planning to cut Bennett out of the deal he made so hard to reach — hoping to broaden the coalition, capturing enough seats to ensure Bennett and his party can be forced out.

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Netanyahu’s acquiescence to concessions demanded by Bennett highlight the PM’s vulnerability within his new government. “Netanyahu didn’t establish the government he wanted,’’ Israel Radio political commentator Yoav Krakovsky said of the deal. “He settled for a government that was forced on him by the coalition partners.” At only 61 members, The Wall Street Journal notes, this coalition is Israel’s smallest post-election government in 34 years, leaving Netanyahu with very little wriggle room. If only two coalition members dissent from the party line, Netanyahu’s control of the Knesset (the legislative branch of Israel’s government) will collapse.

“The present government is going to be even more dysfunctional than the last government given how narrow it is,” Sam Lehman Wilzig, a political-science professor at Bar Ilan University, told the Journal. “Something has got to give.” In addition to Likud and Jewish Home, the coalition includes center-right Kulanu, and two ultra-Orthodox parties. As a whole, the coalition is the most conservative, right-leaning government to have held power in Israel since Netanyahu’s 1996 government, which pledged to decelerate the peace process with Palestine.

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Bennett, whose Jewish Home party now holds eight seats, is as conservative as they come. According to BBC, he opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, champions West Bank settlement communities, and has previously demanded the annexation of sections of the occupied territory. Once a Netanyahu disciple, Bennett now jostles with his former superior for votes from the Israeli right.

BBC News reported that Israel’s newspaper commentators are generally displeased with Netanyahu’s rushed coalition. “The fourth Netanyahu government was formed with blood, sweat, and tears — that of Netanyahu and Likud,” Yossi Verter writes in Haaretz. Maariv newspaper noted, Netanyahu “is a general without soldiers.” Meanwhile, writing in the pages of Yediot Aharonot, Sima Kadmon denounces the hamstrung negotiations that turned "a crushing election victory ... into a farce."

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Even Moshe Kahlon, chairman of coalition-member Kulanu, who hopes to push housing and food market reforms, has stated that he would find it difficult to operate in the kind of narrow government that Netanyahu has now formed.

Netanyahu’s knife-edge majority, and the uneasy alliances it necessitates, may indeed force him to try to broaden the coalition beyond his natural partners in the conservative realm. Despite the legal ultimatum imposed on the Israeli PM in the formation of a government, now that Netanyahu holds a majority in the Knesset he is able to continue to ask parties, or individual members of parties, to join his coalition at any time.

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