For the 65-year-old known to his country by his nickname ‘Bogie,’ however, last week also marked the end of three years as Israel’s defense minister, pushed aside to make room for Avigdor Lieberman, a hard-line nationalist with no military experience.
It’s no secret that prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been, for some time, looking to build out his governing coalition, which until today, amounted to a bare majority — just 61 of the 120 members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset (הַכְּנֶסֶת). As it stands, the coalition already includes five parties:
- Netanyahu’s own center-right Likud (הַלִּיכּוּד), the largest party in the Knesset with 30 MKs.
- Kulanu (כולנו), a newly formed party in late 2014 under centrist Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud MK and a former popular communications minister who now serves as the country’s finance minister. The party has 10 MKs.
- The Jewish Home (הַבַּיִת הַיְהוּדִי, Bayit Yehudi), with 8 MKs, the pro-settler, right-wing Zionist party led by the hawkish Naftali Bennett, formerly a Netanyahu chief of staff, and now Israel’s education minister.
- The two major religious parties that represent the two ultraorthodox groups in Israeli society that, together, hold 13 seats.
For weeks, Netanyahu was engaged in negotiations with Isaac Herzog, the leader of the center-left Zionist Union (המחנה הציוני), a coalition of the Israeli Labor Party (הָעֲבוֹדָה) and the followers of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni that formed shortly before the most recent Israeli elections in 2015. For a lot of reasons, a ‘grand coalition’ among Likud, its current members and the Zionist Union would have made a lot of sense. The Zionist Union holds 24 seats in the Knesset, so it would reduce the uncertainty that Netanyahu would be forced to hold early elections anytime soon, and it would have given him a cushion to pursue unpopular policies.
Urged on by US secretary of state John Kerry and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi behind the scenes, such a coalition would have also transformed a very conservative Israeli government with a narrow margin of error into a steadier coalition that spans the mainstream political spectrum. In turn, it was hoped (most of all by Sisi, Kerry and other regional partners), that such a coalition would have the cover to pursue another round of peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Instead, late last week, Netanyahu turned to a familiar partner in Lieberman, as much of a ‘frenemy’ as Netanyahu has among Israel’s growing list of party and faction leaders. Breaking off coalition talks with the Zionist Union, Netanyahu quickly turned to a coalition deal with Yisrael Beiteinu (יִשְׂרָאֵל בֵּיתֵנוּ) and its 6 MKs, the party that Lieberman leads and that appeals to much of Israel’s Russian-speaking population. Though secular, Yisrael Beiteinu embraces a very conservative nationalism that’s made it a coalition partner with Netanyahu in all of his past governments. In the 2013 election, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu even ran together on the same electoral alliance. Morevoer, Lieberman has been subject to corruption investigations in the past.
When it became clear that Lieberman, formerly a foreign minister in several Netanyahu governments, wanted the defense portfolio — widely regarded as the most important position in Israel after prime minister (and perhaps even more important) — it was clear that Ya’alon would have to go.
Despite rumors that Netanyahu would try to shift the former general to the foreign affairs ministry, Ya’alon angrily resigned last Friday, denouncing the state of Israeli politics in harsh terms:
“Our moral compass for basic questions has been lost,” Ya’alon said during a meeting with the heads of Israel’s youth movements at the army’s Tel Aviv headquarters. “What is leadership? Going along with the worship of the Golden Calf?” he asked rhetorically. “There are a ton of incidents in history like that, so if I have to give a piece of golden advice, it’s don’t allow a Golden Calf.”
So where does this leave the political landscape?
To say the least, Netanyahu certainly knows how to scramble everyone’s hand in a country where post-election coalition-making has become far more important than elections themselves. He’s now ended up leading a coalition that’s far more right-wing than the smaller coalition with which he began (certainly much to the dismay of Kerry and others who hoped to revamp peace talks in 2016).
But to what end? What is Netanyahu up to?
The easiest answer is that he wants to serve out his full term through November 2019, making him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s (still relatively short) history. But while Netanyahu served a brief stint as prime minister from 1996 to 1999 (after defeating Shimon Peres in one of the closest ballots in political memory), he only recently returned to the premiership in 2009. That means that he could easily see a future beyond 2019 as well — if Angela Merkel wants to keep running for reelection well into her second decade as chancellor, why not Netanyahu? If so, the artificiality of the Knesset’s current term would matter little to Netanyahu.
Instead, look to the polls: Likud is down, and the party that’s within striking distance is Yesh Atid (יֵשׁ עָתִיד, There is a Future), whose leader, Yair Lapid, served as Netanyahu’s finance minister between 2013 and 2015, and who has proved a far more popular opposition leader than Herzog. Shunning Netanyahu after the 2015 election, Lapid, a former television news reporter, has become an eloquent critic of Netanyahu’s handling of both domestic and foreign policy. Though it holds just 11 seats in the Knesset, current polls show that it could win as many as 24 if elections were held today, putting it in the same band of territory as Likud.
With just the narrowest of majorities, it wouldn’t take much to force snap elections — all it would take is for a contentious issue to rip the hard-right Bennett or the centrist Kahlon to break ranks with Netanyahu. The new coalition with Lieberman gives Netanyahu a total of 67 MKs, so a much larger margin of error. Whether Netanyahu wants to retire in 2019 or not, he certainly doesn’t want to face voters with such a weak standing in the current polls. The maneuver has also had the added bonus of scrambling the internal politics of the Zionist Union and of the Labor Party. No one ever accused Herzog of having too much charisma, and his failure to secure a coalition agreement will, perhaps fatally, weaken Herzog. He could soon be forced to step down or, alternatively, face a leadership vote, where left-wing critic and former Labor leader Sheila Yachimovich, a proponent of more progressive economic policies, is waiting for a fresh chance at the leadership.
Score one for Netanyahu, zero for Herzog and, possibly zero for Labor and the Zionist Union, which, as an electoral coalition, has no guarantee of sticking together through to the next election. At any point, Netanyahu could offer a better deal to Livni, a one-time protégé of Ariel Sharon, in a Yachimovich-led Zionist Union. Livni, though generally a realistic dove on the peace process, is very much a conservative when it comes to economic and fiscal matters.
It might be too smart by half.
Netanyahu’s gambit comes at the sever cost of making an enemy out of yet another of Likud’s most prominent officials, something that Netanyahu has done several times in his career. He unsuccessfully tried to disrupt the Knesset’s election of Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and another powerful former Likud official, Gideon Sa’ar, a one-time interior minister, is expected to reenter politics as well after leaving office on bad terms with Netanyahu in October 2014.
Ya’alon could reemerge in Israeli politics at the next election, perhaps even as a leader of the Labor Party or of the Zionist Union. It would not be out of character for Israeli politics to see Lapid and Ya’alon join forces. Ya’alon, the former three-year chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces ended his military career in 2005, at odds then with the government’s decision to withdraw and disengage from Gaza. After a stint in Washington, he joined Likud in 2008 and was elected to the Knesset in 2009, becoming minister of defense under Netanyahu three years ago.
Netanyahu has shown once again that he’s a master of the coalition deal. But he’s quickly amassing enemies both within and outside Likud who could one day disrupt him talismanic grip on Israeli politics.