Israeli government coalition, after twists and turns, ‘determined by the negotiators’

By Alex Traiman/JNS.org

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has finally assembled a governing coalition following nearly six weeks of negotiations, the maximum time allowed under Israeli law.

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Israeli President Simon Peres on March 16 in Jerusalem to inform Peres that he has formed an Israeli government coalition with the Yesh Atid, Jewish Home and Movement parties. Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO/FLASH90.

The Israeli government coalition includes Netanyahu’s ruling Likud-Beiteinu party—an alignment between Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party, 31 seats; Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a centrist party led by television celebrity Yair Lapid, 19 seats; HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) led by hi-tech magnate Naftali Bennett, 12 seats; and Hatnuah (The Movement) led by former Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni, six seats. 

The 68-member strong parliamentary majority is now tasked with tackling Israel’s vast diplomatic, security and socioeconomic challenges for as long as they can agree to remain together in the Israeli government.

“This is not the government that Prime Minister Netanyahu preferred to form, however, the end of the negotiation process was determined by the negotiators,” Dr. Dan Avnon, Professor of Political Science at Hebrew University, told JNS.org.

Click photo to download. Caption: Israeli President Shimon Peres (C, seated) sits next to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L, seated) as they pose for a group photo together with the ministers of the new Israeli government, in Jerusalem, on March 18, 2013. The new government comprises four parties: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu alliance, Naftali Bennett's Jewish Home, Yair Laipd' Yesh Atid, and Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah. Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

It is widely known, according to Avnon, that Netanyahu preferred to form an Israeli government together with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. But an alliance between Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi—that proved to be the largest surprise of the Israeli elections season—forced Netanyahu to take both parties into the Israeli government coalition to the exclusion of the ultra-Orthodox, or go to new elections. And while the alliance was created shortly after the Israeli elections, Netanyahu waited until the final moments to form the Israeli government.

“The coalition process seems to reveal a great deal about the Prime Minister’s thought process,” said Avnon. “He has a tendency to postpone decisions until the last possible second. And in the end, his decisions under pressure seem to be based on pragmatism rather than principles.

“If domestic and international actors will take note of this pattern, that could have an affect on the outcomes of future negotiations, and could be particularly relevant vis-à-vis the Palestinian Authority and the peace process,” Avnon added.

Advancing the peace process may be the major sticking point of the Israeli government coalition. While Yesh Atid and HaBayit HaYehudi appear to share many socioeconomic values—including easing the cost of housing, wanting all Israeli citizens to serve in the military regardless of Torah study, and efficient governance—the two parties appear to differ sharply on the issue of furthering a Palestinian state.

HaBayit HaYehudi chairman Bennett has come out staunchly against the creation of such a state, offering instead a plan to formally annex most of the territories of Judea and Samaria, commonly referred to as the West Bank. 

Lapid has spoken openly about a desire to divorce Israel from the Palestinians. Added into the political mix is Tzipi Livni, who actively campaigned for the immediate resumption of negotiations with Palestinians, and was placed in charge of such processes in the upcoming government under the direction of the Prime Minister.

According to Avnon, this could be the most difficult of all the issues facing the incoming Israeli government coalition. “There are very deep differences on this issue due to the pressures these leaders face within their own parties,” he said.

While the differences between the parties are well understood by their party leaders, Lapid and Bennett appear ready to prioritize domestic issues in the absence of a credible peace partner.

“Both Lapid and Bennett have campaigned to represent the interests of Israel’s middle class,” Dr. Ofer Kenig, head of the political parties’ research group of Israel Democracy Institute’s Forum for Political Reform in Israel, told JNS.org.

“The two have formed a surprising alliance, that appear to be a result of the social protests during the summer of 2011,” Kenig said.

Kenig called the alliance “a tactical alliance against Netanyahu and Lieberman, who have their own strategic alliance.”

“Whether the [Lapid-Bennett] alliance will hold is another story,” he said. “Yet the assumption is the alliance can hold.”

Kenig said there have been “stranger conditions for coalition governments than this one.”

“Four years ago, then Labor chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had to sit with hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as the ultra-orthodox parties,” he said. “Internal contradictions are not new to Israeli governments.”

According to Kenig, this Israeli government coalition may hold specifically because the parties can find common ground on key issues, and the length of time it took to form the coalition is no indication on how the Israeli government can function together.

“Everybody is impatient due to the fast news cycle,” Kenig said. “People quickly forget that the process of the formation of this government was only three days longer than the coalition formed in 2009. It is not dramatically longer than any previous coalition formation in the past 10 years.

“Leaders going into a coalition need to make tough compromises to get into workable agreements. So this takes time. Psychologically, the laws guiding the [coalition formation] process are wise. In Europe, coalitions can take much longer.”

According to the Israeli government coalition framework, the parties will work to amend the system of Israeli government, by decreasing the number of cabinet portfolios and eliminating smaller parties from the legislature, in addition to drafting laws to severely limit the number of ultra-orthodox exemptions for serving in the army.

“These appear to be the main issues the parties will work on,” Kenig said. “But this is the Middle East, so we never know what is going to happen.  Who knows what will happen in Egypt in two months, or Syria in two weeks, or what President Obama’s visit will bring.”

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Posted on March 18, 2013 and filed under Israel, News.