With the Knesset entering its summer recess as of this morning, the new government has finished its first session with no major successes or significant failures. The past few months brought with them fierce rhetorical battles between the right and left, including unprecedented racist statements directed at the Knesset’s Arab MKs, but very little substance. No groundbreaking reforms or important pieces of legislation, even if only for being controversial, were passed (other than, perhaps, the law permitting the force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike, which passed last night).
The analysis below will try to draw broad conclusions from the Knesset’s summer session regarding the government’s ability to survive and function, its policies and the general direction in which the Israeli political system is moving.
Netanyahu has no real option to expand his narrow coalition
The unity government with Herzog, which many speculated might form at some point during the Knesset’s summer session, is simply not a realistic option. Herzog is too weak within his own party to be able to lead it into the coalition without Netanyahu first making a significant policy shift on the Palestinian issue. If anyone still had any lingering doubts about Netanyahu’s intentions vis-a-vis the Palestinians they need look no further than his decision yesterday to promote the zoning and planning of hundreds of housing units in the West Bank to understand that he has no intention of making any such shift.
Yesterday’s decision came mere hours after the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of two houses in the Beit El settlement and clearly demonstrated that Netanyahu has no intention of abandoning his political base. While Netanyahu would prefer not to approve any new construction in the West Bank right now due to international pressure, when it comes to his survivability he will not risk a revolt by the Jewish Home on this matter. Without a formal announcement of a freeze on settlement construction and the Jewish Home being pushed out of the coalition as a result, Herzog will be unable to pass any motion to join the coalition through Labor’s internal institutions. Clearly, Netanyahu is not there.
Netanyahu’s other option, to bring Lieberman into the coalition, does not seem any more feasible, at least for now. To be sure, Lieberman is still cooperating with the coalition on various issues. Yesterday, Lieberman and his faction joined the coalition in support of the so-called “Norwegian law” which allows a minister (or deputy minister) from each coalition party to resign from the Knesset (in order to allow the next member of his or her party list to enter the Knesset) but return to it if he or she leaves the cabinet. The week before, Netanyahu and Lieberman cooperated in the vote for selecting the Knesset representatives to the judicial selection committee. And Lieberman publicly pledged this week to support the compromise with the gas companies, if and when it will be brought to the Knesset for approval.
But while Lieberman is willing to consider cooperation with the prime minister on specific issues, he seems adamant that he will not join the coalition (thereby increasing its stability) likely in the hopes that it will soon fall. Furthermore, Lieberman’s criticism of Netanyahu is only exacerbating. Last Friday, in an interview with Yediot Ahronot, Lieberman said that Netanyahu is not up to tackling the Iranian challenge and that the issue is “too big for him.” This week, in a Facebook post, he outmaneuvered Netanyahu from the right when he called on Bennett to resign from the government and join him in the opposition in order to topple Netanyahu, so that they will be able to establish a “real” national coalition after new elections that will build extensively in the West Bank and not only demolish housing units, as Netanyahu was forced to do this past week. While Lieberman is definitely the most unpredictable politician in Israel, it is extremely hard to see him joining the coalition anytime soon, even if he is willing to cooperate with Netanyahu on specific issues. On the other hand, the “Norwegian law” which Lieberman supported applies only to the current Knesset. One may wonder why Lieberman agreed to support it if he intends to remain in the opposition for the entire term.
If there is a window of opportunity for Lieberman’s joining the coalition, it will open only if and when Netanyahu manages to pass the budget in mid-November. If he succeeds in doing so, thus avoiding the automatic collapse of the coalition and triggering early elections, then he will essentially buy himself another year in power and Lieberman’s calculations may well change.
Netanyahu’s last option, at least on paper, is Lapid. But Lapid is too busy building himself up as the main alternative to Netanyahu and the future head of the center-left camp at the expense of Herzog that he cannot afford to join the coalition before the next elections. Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox veto against Lapid’s joining the coalition is still in place (more on Lapid’s relationship with the ultra-Orthodox below).
Netanyahu dependent on the hardcore right more than on any other element in his coalition
Outside of Likud, the coalition consists of an additional four parties – the Jewish Home, Kahlon’s Kulanu, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Of these, only the first poses any real risk to the integrity or stability of the coalition. Indeed, Kahlon’s decision not to participate in the procedural vote on the gas compromise a few weeks ago complicated matters for Netanyahu, but Kahlon did not act in such a manner in order to get back at Netanyahu. He was simply afraid of public criticism due to a potential conflict of interest given his close relationship with one of the gas tycoons. While these parties may well have demands from Netanyahu, they will not act in a manner that will put the coalition at risk, and Netanyahu can count on them that they will vote en bloc in all the important votes. After all, Kahlon needs time to prove himself as finance minister and the ultra-Orthodox who returned to the coalition after two years in the opposition are keen to bring benefits to their constituency.
The Jewish Home, however, is a different story, at least when it comes to the radical Tkuma faction which has two representatives in the Knesset, Minister Uri Ariel and MK Bezalel Smotrich. These two may well challenge Netanyahu if he does not live up to yesterday’s announcement and actually allow for construction of the units that were mentioned in his announcement to commence soon. For Bennett, Shaked and the other members of the Jewish Home, however, the mere announcement was more than enough. Even though the announcement on the construction of 300 housing units in Beit El was simply a repetition of a promise Netanyahu made three years ago – one that came in the midst of a previous crisis over the demolition of houses in that settlement, and a promise that has so far remained unfulfilled – Bennett rushed to declare it a victory. In other words, Bennett only requires a good pretext to remain in the coalition, while Ariel and Smotrich may demand to see actual construction. If no construction materializes in the coming months, this unfulfilled promise may serve as a good enough reason for them to act against the coalition.
To be sure, Ariel and Smotrich will not act to topple the government. But given the 61:59 balance of power in the Knesset between the coalition and opposition, it is enough that the two of them will not show up to important votes to cause the coalition to lose its majority. They do not need to actually vote against it – and at this stage, they have no intention of actually doing so – in order to pose a serious threat to Netanyahu and the stability of the coalition.
What this means for Netanyahu is that he is effectively held hostage by the extreme right within his own coalition. This is the reason why even if he was willing to make gestures (other than economic ones) to the Palestinians in order to try and resume negotiations – and he by no means is – he would not be able to do so. In this sense, any suggestion that it is possible to promote the two-state solution during the term of the current government is baseless. At best, international pressure can prevent Netanyahu from taking additional steps to undermine it. A coalition that is unable to demolish two unauthorized houses without feeling compelled to follow the demolition with the announcement of an additional 800 housing units is clearly not a viable partner in the realization of the two-state solution.
The coalition all but unable to pass major decisions
There was only one vote during the Knesset’s summer session in which Netanyahu was personally invested and in which he placed great importance. That was the procedural vote on the transfer of authorities from the Minister of Economy to the entire government in order to enable the finalization and implementation of the compromise with the gas companies. Eventually, after realizing that he did not have the required majority – three coalition members decided not to participate in the vote due to possible conflicts of interest – he withdrew the resolution from the Knesset’s agenda.
Netanyahu did not, however, give up. He will bring the issue to the Knesset again, probably as early as September. This time, he will ask for Knesset approval of the content of the compromise, hoping that by going down this path (rather than the procedural one) he will enable Lieberman to support it. In other words, Netanyahu is totally dependent on Lieberman to pass the reform that is most important to him. Lieberman has already said that he supports the compromise in principle, now the question is whether he will actually agree to vote for it and save the prime minister from a major policy failure and personal embarrassment.
The more complicated and crucial vote for Netanyahu – that on the state budget – should be paradoxically easier for Netanyahu to pass. This is not only because there will be no abstentions on the part of the coalition this time due to alleged conflicts of interest, but mainly because of the implications of failure. As we have noted in the past, if the coalition fails to pass the budget by November 19, the Knesset will be dissolved, the government will fall, and early elections will be called.
Netanyahu will easily move approval of the budget through his cabinet next week. His main concern should be whether all coalition MKs will actually show up for the budget vote in the Knesset. As we explained above, even if only two members of the coalition decide not to show up, Netanyahu will not have the necessary majority to pass the budget. In practice, this means that he cannot afford for any MK in the coalition to be angry or frustrated with him, otherwise the prime minister risks that this MK will not show up for the vote. As the main candidates for such a stunt are the radical right-wing MKs of the Jewish Home, we should expect Netanyahu to promote very friendly policies toward the settlers in the next three and a half months until the final vote on the budget.
Netanyahu may also attempt to close some kind of a deal with Lieberman that would at the very least secure the abstention of Lieberman and the other five members of his faction during the budget vote. However, such a deal would clearly undermine Lieberman’s case that Netanyahu needs to be toppled and there is no better way to topple the prime minister than to block his attempts to pass the budget.
New trends in Israeli Politics
There are at least three new trends that emerged over the last Knesset session that are noteworthy due to their potential long-term impact on Israeli society and the country’s political landscape.
First, the ultra-Orthodox parties, particularly UTJ, who have traditionally been the most sectoral party in the Knesset have gained substantial positive recognition within the larger Israeli public over the past month. This was the result of two reforms that they either initiated or helped to promote: the decision to sell medical marijuana in pharmacies and the increase in child allowances that will also be used to create saving plans for all Israeli children. These reforms are very popular across large swaths of Israeli society, and may mark a new era of closer cooperation between the ultra-Orthodox community and secular Israelis.
Second, in an attempt to increase the Labor party’s popularity, a growing number of MKs, including Herzog, the party’s leader, are trying to push the party back to the center, at least when it comes to its security profile. Over the past 30 years, the only times Labor defeated Likud was when it was headed by former IDF Chiefs of Staff – Rabin in 1992 and Barak in 1999. In both instances, the public believed that Labor under a former Chief of Staff would protect Israel’s security better than Likud. Labor is attempting to revive this party image once more, yet with Herzog as its head they are unlikely to succeed.
Finally, Lapid has been working very hard in order to mend his relations with the ultra-Orthodox. To be sure, he has no expectations that ultra-Orthodox voters will vote for him, but he wants to remove the ultra-Orthodox veto which has prevented him from joining any coalition in which they sit. To his credit, Lapid has been able to cultivate the beginnings of some kind of a relationship with the majority of the ultra-Orthodox MKs, with the exception of Deputy Minister Litzman, one of the two most important Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Knesset (the other is Gafni). If he is able to complete this process during the current term, it is possible that the ultra-Orthodox will remove their objections to his sitting as a member of Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving it to Lapid to decide whether or not to join. Netanyahu will most certainly welcome him if this will enable him to increase his coalition majority in the Knesset. Though this is an unlikely scenario, it is one that should not be completely ruled out if the coalition is able to pass the budget and Lapid fails to build himself as the main alternative to Netanyahu in the opposition. In any event, it is all but certain that we will see Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox sitting in the same coalition after the next elections, regardless of who will head it.