I wanted to update you on a weird turn of events in the Israeli election over the last couple days. Now you’re probably saying, what Israeli election? That happened going on two months ago. Well, pretty much … but not quite. The voting and distribution of Knesset seats is always followed by the ‘winner’ – usually the leader of the largest party – forming a coalition with smaller parties. That process has now been going on for almost six weeks, with Netanyahu taking his time, playing parties off each other, making his future coalition members sweat and trying to build a coalition with as much freedom and flexibility for himself as he can manage. The entire time it’s seemed virtually certain that he would assemble a government with a 67 seat majority (out of 120) made up of rightist parties, religious parties and one center-left party, Kulanu. That was until Monday when Avigdor Lieberman, head of the now greatly diminished Yisrael Beiteinu party said F’it – and more specifically F’you to Netanyahu – and took his party’s six seats into opposition.
From all the reports I have seen, no one seems to believe Lieberman is bluffing. There’s intense bad blood between the two men, which seems to have been aggravated over recent weeks. And there’s a decent argument that Lieberman’s and his party’s chances of revival are better served outside the government than in it. Regardless, it seems clear Lieberman is out. And that means that the maximum size of a Netanyahu government is now the same as the minimum number of seats he needs to form a majority, 61 seats.
He has zero margin for error.
Netanyahu has already used up the month he has to form a government and the statutory extension he can get from the President. The deadline for the extension is tomorrow night. If he can’t seal a deal by then, President Rivlin has to give someone else a chance to form a government.
Now, I would not bet any money on Netanyahu’s managing to throw away his incredibly hard fought election victory. But the options he’s left with are not good ones. The most immediate of these is that he now has 53 seats taken care of and he needs Naftali Bennett’s 8 seats to get to 61. That means Bennett – who has a similarly strained or acrimonious relationship with Netanyahu – holds Netanyahu’s fate almost totally in his hands and can demand almost anything of him. The main demands seem to be the foreign ministry and/or the Justice ministry. But both of those are tough asks because Bennett’s party is radioactive to the international community on his total rejection of a two state solution and dismal stance on civil rights and minority rights. You may say, who cares? What do they care? Well, Netanyahu cares a lot because as we’ve discussed in the past, his angle has always been to form governments which are a) substantially right wing b) give him personally a maximally free hand and c) have some figleaf of moderation to placate the US and Europe.
Having Bennett as his foreign minister does not help.
But again, he probably has no choice.
There are a couple other longshot possibilities. Netanyahu could shift course entirely and try to bring the Zionist Camp/Labor into his government. There is extreme opposition to this among Labor voters and personally I think this would be a tragic turn of events. But it could happen if Netanyahu offered up enough. Maybe. He might also try to split off some members of Yesh Atid.
We should have a clearer idea of what is happening by tomorrow afternoon US time. But suffice it to say for now that Lieberman, for whatever reason, just really screwed Netanyahu and made his life at a minimum a lot less fun.