The Cinderella story of Israel’s post-election coalition negotiations has finally reached an eleventh hour conclusion. After seven weeks of tortuous negotiations filled with more backflips than an Olympic diving competition, Prime Minister Netanyahu managed to cobble together a coalition supported by the barest of bare minimums required to govern – 61 seats. Yet while Netanyahu barely managed avoid turning into a political pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, it remains to be seen whether he left behind a proverbial glass slipper that will haunt his government later down the track.
One of the most unexpected twists in the negotiation process was the last minute decision by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman to resign as Foreign Minister and take his party into opposition. As one of the more hawkishly inclined leaders in the Israeli political firmament, it was widely expected that Lieberman would be a perfect fit within a Netanyahu government. But Yisrael Beiteinu took a serious beating at this year’s election, dropping from a strength of 11 seats in the 19th Knesset (2013 – 15) to a mere six in the 20th (2015 – ) This dismal result was due – like everything in politics – to a confluence of factors. These included lingering allegations of impropriety against Lieberman as well as the fact that Yisrael Beiteinu ran independently in 2015 as opposed to in coalition with Likud a la 2013.
In the view of Israeli political commentator Haviv Rettig Gur, Yisrael Beiteinu’s poor showing at the ballot box was the real reason behind Lieberman’s decision to bolt negotiations with Netanyahu. Rettig Gur argues that Lieberman opted to reject the role of minor player in a larger coalition who would have no power to fulfil various election commitments he had made, such as enacting capital punishment for terrorists. Turning Lyndon Baines Johnson’s famously crude political aphorism on its head, Lieberman thought it would be more advantageous to stand outside the political tent and tinkle in. After all, it’s always easier to pontificate about policy from the purity of opposition than to be in government with the responsibility to deliver results.
Lieberman’s disappearance from the scene opened the way for the Jewish Home party’s Naftali Bennett to play hardball by making a series of final hour ambit demands that placed Netanyahu between a political rock and hard place. In the end Bennett received some of what he wanted, most notably the appointment of Ayelet Shaked to the post of Justice Minister. This should provide more of its share of political entertainment in light of Shaked’s open hostility towards the Israeli Supreme Court’s penchant for judicial activism.
But the task of wooing coalition partners has created a new set of problems for Netanyahu within Likud. The problem is that existing law limits the number of ministerial positions to 18. And that means ambitious Likud MKs are feeling hard-done-by as they watch the finite number of slices to the ministerial pie being doled to their allied parties. So what did Netanyahu do? He found a political fix to a political problem. In one its final acts in power, the outgoing 33rd cabinet approved legislation to increase the number of ministers in an Israeli government to 20. This cabinet-expansion bill will be one of the first pieces of legislation to be debated – and inevitably approved – by the incoming 34th Knesset. And it’s expected that these extra two seats at the cabinet table will suffice to satisfy the expectations of the Likud parliamentary caucus.
Needless to say, the opposition parties are less than impressed, with Yesh Atid leader Ya’ir Lapid requesting an injunction from the Supreme Court to prevent the cabinet expansion bill from proceeding. The jury’s still out on that episode.
These are just a few of the more interesting twists and turns in the ‘Home and Away – Jerusalem Edition’ soap opera otherwise known as Israel’s coalition negotiations. Not all ministerial appointments have yet been announced because the arm wrestling within Likud has yet to determine a final list of winners and losers. But I’ll conclude with a cheat sheet detailing what we know so far about who got what in the 34th Government of Israel.
Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) – Prime Minister & Minister of Foreign Affairs
Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) – Minister of Defence
Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu) – Minister of Finance
Yoav Galant (Kulanu) – Minister of Housing & Construction
Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) – Minister of Education & Minister of Diaspora Affairs
Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) – Minister of Justice
Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) – Minister of Agriculture
Aryeh Deri (Shas) – Minister of Economy & Minister of the Interior
Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) – Deputy Minister of Finance
Ya’akov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) – Deputy Minister of Health
Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism) – Deputy Minister of Education