(May 26, 2019 / JNS) On April 9, the Israeli electorate made a clear choice: to empower Benjamin Netanyahu to remain Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu received more Knesset mandates than ever before, five more than in the previous election, and the right wing received 20 more mandates than the left-wing opposition.
Yet in the seven weeks since the election, Netanyahu has struggled to form a government with the very parties on the right that recommended him to be prime minister. It appears that only Netanyahu’s Likud Party clearly understands the will of the voters.
Just days before an extended deadline to form a legislative coalition, not one of the smaller religious and right-wing parties have signed a coalition agreement. If Netanyahu fails to establish a parliamentary majority, his mandate could be handed to another Knesset member, or the country could be forced into a second snap election.
Each of the parties is making coalition demands that are out of line with the election results. Moshe Kahlon, whose Kulanu received four seats, down from 10 in the previous government, is demanding to remain finance minister. Avigdor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu Party received five seats, down from six, is demanding to be defense minister, even though it was his resignation from the same post this past November that sent the country into elections several months before they were originally scheduled.
Betzalel Smotrich, whose United Right Party won five seats, down from eight in the previous government, is demanding to be justice minister, even though he is not even the leader of his party.
The finance, defense, justice and foreign-affairs portfolios are among the most coveted senior government posts. None of the parties demanding these posts is large enough to make such demands. By all rights, and by coalition math, each of those senior portfolios should stay with the Likud, which won a resounding 35 seats.
Netanyahu appears willing to hand out the senior portfolios to keep his prospective coalition partners happy, even at the risk of angering colleagues in his own Likud who covet those posts. Yet despite Netanyahu’s apparent largesse, some of the parties are making additional demands, recognizing that the prime minister simply cannot govern without them.
The United Right, for example, is demanding the coveted education portfolio, while Yisrael Beiteinu is demanding passage of a law to increase the number of religious males that must be drafted into the military.
The challenge with the draft law is that the religious parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas, which together account for 16 Knesset mandates and therefore represent the senior partners in Netanyahu’s next government, don’t want the number of military conscripts increased.
The result is a coalition crisis before the coalition has even been formed. The crisis is ironic for several reasons. First is the simple fact that the issue of how many religious men serve in the military is by no means a national emergency. Major, immediate security concerns, including Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the global rise of anti-Semitism, an impending “deal of the century” that could alter the delicate status quo with Palestinians, and serious domestic economic issues all seemingly rank higher on the national priority scale.
The second reason the issue is ironic is because the government is being forced to deal with it at this time by Israel’s High Court. The court, which is currently undergoing severe scrutiny from Israel’s right wing for its homogenous left-wing composition and outsized authority to overturn legislation, cancelled an old law granting religious men army exemptions and has mandated that a new law be passed immediately.
Coalition negotiations are also centering on judicial reform, which is setting the stage for a showdown between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the balance of power among that remains fluid due to Israel’s lack of a formal constitution. The government has been discussing the passage of an override law that would give a legislative majority the power to overturn court rulings.
The government seeks to pass the reforms just as the judicial system, together with Israel’s attorney general, are working to indict the prime minister on multiple counts of breach of trust—the details of which were broadcast to the public well in advance of April’s election.
The election itself was nothing more or less than a referendum on whether Netanyahu should continue to lead despite the questionable criminal allegations against him, which currently amount to receiving approximately $280,000 in expensive gifts from friends and using his leverage as prime minister to secure better coverage in the media.
By expressing confidence in Netanyahu at the polls in the face of possible indictments (pending hearings later this year), the Israeli electorate sent a clear message: They want Netanyahu to be prime minister, even if the judicial system and Israel’s political opposition don’t.
While tens of thousands protested against Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, it is reasonable to assume that all of the protest participants and leaders, including opposition MKs Benny Gantz, Yair Lapid and Moshe Ya’alon, who opposed Netanyahu in elections, did not vote for the prime minister. In other words, the will of the voters has not changed.
Those who voted for Netanyahu and the religious and right-wing parties want and expect the prime minister to govern, while those who voted against him would like him replaced.
It is time for Netanyahu’s potential coalition partners, as well as his political opponents, to realize that nothing has changed in Israel in the past seven weeks since Israelis re-elected their 10-year prime minister. It is time for the negotiations to conclude gracefully and for the government to start working on the real priorities facing the world’s only Jewish state.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.