Netanyahu scrambles to stabilize a narrow coalition after calling Bennett’s bluff

Early elections remain a likely scenario if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fails to stabilize his now-narrow coalition, following the resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and a threat by Education Minister Naftali Bennett to bring down the government if he didn’t receive the vacant defense post.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on Nov. 19, 2018. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on Nov. 19, 2018. Credit: Hadas Parush/Flash90.

The common consensus among Israeli political pundits and leading politicians was that Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (both from the Jewish Home Party) would follow last week’s actions by Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and announce their resignations from the fourth government led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—a year before the next scheduled elections.

The nation was quickly getting ready to transition into a short election cycle, with polls predicted to take place in late March, some eight months earlier than the pre-scheduled November date.

Yet the embattled Netanyahu has at least temporarily survived the scare, demonstrating once again before his opponents, his strength and cunning at the top of Israel’s complex parliamentary political system.

Israel’s political pundits were proven wrong when the right-wing ministerial duo of Bennett and Shaked made a surprise announcement that they would backtrack on their threat and remain in the government. Bennett announced that Jewish Home was “withdrawing all of our political demands,” and that they would continue to back the prime minister.

Israeli Minister of Education Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked deliver a statement during a press conference in the Israeli parliament, on Nov. 19, 2018. Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90.

Backing down from the brink

The specter of early elections was sprung on the nation on Nov. 14 when Lieberman dropped his bombshell announcement that he was resigning from the government.  Calling for elections as soon as possible, he aired his disagreement with Netanyahu’s acceptance of a ceasefire with Hamas, following major clashes that included a barrage of more than 450 rockets fired on southern Israel. Lieberman’s departure, along with his six-member Yisrael Beiteinu Party, meant that the coalition was reduced from  67 to 61 Knesset members—the bare minimum needed to maintain a majority in the 120-member parliament.

Shortly after Lieberman’s resignation, Bennett gave a public ultimatum insisting on becoming defense minister in the narrow government. Bennett was counting on having considerable leverage over Netanyahu, who was struggling to keep his coalition intact.

Netanyahu firmly rejected Bennett’s demand. In a dramatic speech on Saturday night, he told the nation, including its political leaders, that it was essential that Israel “prevent unnecessary elections during a military campaign.” Imploring coalition partners to back him, the prime minister said it would be “irresponsible” to bring down the government and force new elections during “one of our most difficult security periods.” Taking a shot at both Lieberman and Bennett, he warned: “During a military campaign, you don’t play politics. The security of the state is above all else.”

Bennett backed off his ultimatum, keeping the current government intact for now. Netanyahu says he is “pleased the efforts bore fruit,” adding that “we have a whole year until the election.”

A coalition worth saving, and a prime minister in it for keeps

The current 61-member coalition now consists of Netanyahu’s Likud (30), United Torah Judaism (six), Shas (seven), Kulanu (10) and the Jewish Home (8). The government began its term with the same 61-member coalition following the previous elections in March 2015. Lieberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party joined the government more than a year later, in June 2016, when he took over the Defense Ministry, replacing Likud’s Moshe Ya’alon.

The most obvious problem for a 61-member coalition is that a faction within a larger party or even any individual coalition Knesset member can make demands and/or threats to bring down the government. There remains a slim possibility that the coalition may be able to be able to convince two opposition Knesset members—Levy Abuksis and the Zionist Union’s rebellious Robert Tiviaev—to leave the opposition, strengthening the coalition from 61 to 63.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the 10-member Kulanu Party, remains unconvinced that the narrow coalition can survive and continues to predict that the election will be in March 2019. A party spokesman explained that a one-seat majority destabilizes the coalition and leaves it open to extortion and “anti-fiscal bills” from backbenchers. The two leaders will meet in the coming days. Netanyahu will argue that the government can bring “more success to Israel” in its final year and will try to convince Kahlon that a 61-seat coalition is worth saving and can survive for another year.

In the coming days and weeks, Netanyahu is likely to make changes to his cabinet to appease the members of his coalition. He already holds the coveted Foreign Ministry portfolio and has now named himself Defense Minister. He will almost certainly fill one and possibly both of those positions with members of the coalition, and is likely make additional ministerial appointments in the coming days or weeks.

Netanyahu now optimistically predicts that his government can survive its full term until legally mandated elections in November 2019.

There is still some speculation that Netanyahu himself may ultimately call early elections for the spring of 2019 in an attempt to be re-elected before Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit decides whether to indict him on looming corruption charges.  Netanyahu has vocally indicated that he plans to stay in Israel’s top job even if indicted, as Israeli law does not require an indicted prime minister to step down.

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