Late Wednesday evening before the clock struck midnight Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needed to finalize a coalition of parties willing to endorse him in order to secure his fourth term as Israel’s leader. Two hours before his deadline he struck a deal with the hardline pro-settler group Bayit Yehudi, headed by the charismatic Naftali Bennett. Even with the deal, Netanyahu position hangs by a thread. His coalition includes scant 61 out of 120 parliament members, down from the 67 votes he thought were in his pocket.
The government will convene with a cabinet full of Netanyahu’s political rivals and a weak coalition—one of the weakest in Israel’s history. If Netanyahu cannot appease every member of his ruling government, he will need to seek support from his opposition, led by the Zionist Camp’s Issac Herzog in order to survive.
Netanyahu’s coalition-building process was thrown into disarray when Netanyahu’s chief political ally, Avigdor Liberman, announced that his group and their 6 votes were out the door. The two split last year over social benefits Lieberman wanted for his secular-nationalist constituents, but Netanyahu gave them to religious right-wing groups instead.
The deal Netanyahu cut with Bennett means the Likud party is headed even further to the right.
The Likud negotiating team dispatched Ze’ev Elkin to lock in the last minute agreement with Bennett’s camp that saved Netanyahu. Elkin is a settler and Knesset chair of the foreign affairs and defense committees. He comes from the far-right strand of Likud. As an unabashed annexationist, he wants to formally incorporate the West Bank into Israel. He does not support any form of Palestinian sovereignty. His leadership in bringing in Bennett signals an even steeper hardline turn.
The full contents of the agreement will be revealed by next week when the new cabinet members are announced and sworn in. Already Israeli correspondents are reporting on the horse trading that took place for Bennett’s votes. Haaretz newspaper wrote: “The education budget will be raised by 630 million shekels ($163.4 million), 1 billion shekel ($250 million dollars) will be allocated for raising the salaries of soldiers in their third year, and the Ariel University budget will be raised. In addition, the NGO bill will likely be passed, a focus will be made on improving accessibility for disabled in educational institution, on security measures for transportation in the West Bank, and on strengthening missions in the periphery.”
Some cabinet positions were made public immediately. Although Bennett heads the fourth smallest party in the government (eight seats), he ruefully exploited Netanyahu’s desperation. A top minister position was reserved for Ayelet Shaked who is best known outside of Israel for her frequent and repeated xenophobic remarks.
Another leadership spot went to Bayit Yehudi’s Uri Ariel. The current housing minister was upgraded to run the Ministry of Agriculture, a powerful position because it presides over the World Zionist Organization’s Settlement Division, a pool of millions of dollars of dark funds used for construct settlements. Bayit Yehudi will get the position of Deputy Defense Minister, according to Haaretz.
Netanyahu and Likud have not made any statements on the coalition or the deal with Bennett other than a few ceremonial words to President Reuven Rivlin. “I am honored to inform you that I have been successful in forming a government, which I will request is brought before the Knesset for its approval as soon as possible,” he said.
Herzog who came in second in the 2015 elections winning 24 seats to Netanyahu’s 30, and Palestinian leaders have come out with full forced rejections of Israel’s nosedive to the right. Herzog wrote on Facebook that Shaked’s appointment “threatened the rule of law” and the deal with Bennett was a state-run “fire sale.”
“Netanyahu has once again proven survival is more important than improving the welfare and quality of life for all citizens of Israel who are yearning for change and hope,” said Herzog.
Head of Israel’s third largest party and leader of the Joint Arab List Ayman Odeh told Mondoweiss “The Netanyahu-Bennett coalition is a social disaster and danger for democracy. This coalition buries down all hope for a peace agreement and solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” He said the new government would cause deep rifts between Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel, promoting “racist laws which will harm the most the Arab citizens in the country.”
With such a thin margin of support, Netanyahu cannot afford any moves that would cause his coalition to crumble. Although in the wake of his silence on the coalition deal, some commentators speculated it is Netanyahu who is playing Bennett.
Aaron David Miller suggested in an article in The Wall Street Journal that Netanyahu accepted Bennett’s terms in bad faith, writing that the prime minister could have made the agreement with plans to later swap out Bennett’s party for the center-left Zionist Union, headed by opposition leader Issac Herzog.
There is logic to this ploy. By signing a truce with Bennett, even one that leaves Netanyahu (temporarily) powerless, Netanyahu gets to keep his mandate as prime minister. If he had dropped Bennett and forged a more stable coalition with Herzog straight out of the gate, Herzog was thought to demand sharing the prime minister position on a two-year rotation. “A national unity government with Mr. Herzog would solve some of Mr. Netanyahu’s problems and leave him in the center, “ wrote Miller, “But Mr. Netanyahu won’t agree to rotate.”
This all means that in a matter of weeks Bennett could be out and Herzog, or someone else, could be in. Although Herzog has not given any indication this might happen, Netanyahu does at least have an opportunity to surface with strength yet again. When elections were called for last year he was initially regarded a clear front-runner, although the race proved tight. He did clear 6 seats above Herzog in the final ballot count. Then when the polls closed it was obvious that Netanyahu faced major hurdles in coalition building. He has political enemies. And his friends in his coalition are not friends with each other. Still, if Netanyahu can keep his government together and complete his full four-year term, he will surpass David Ben-Gurion’s time in office and become Israel’s longest serving prime minister.
This article by Allison Deger was originally published by Mondoweiss