What you need to know: Israel’s Coalition Government
“I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum; “but it isn’t so, nohow.”
“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
From Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll
Pundits and amateur Israel watchers alike were caught by surprise last week when negotiations between Isaac “Bougie” Herzog, leader of the Opposition and the Zionist Union joint list, and the Netanyahu government did not produce a national unity government. Instead, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and four other members of the Yisrael Beitenu party will join the government (MK Orly Levy-Abekasis announced that she will quit the party and remain in the opposition).
Netanyahu has governed for the past year with a right-wing coalition that holds a bare majority (61-59) in the Knesset. Many assumed that Yisrael Beitenu would join the government and give Netanyahu a more decisive mandate, but Lieberman surprised almost everyone by publically attacking Netanyahu’s leadership and remaining in the opposition. At the time, there were rumors that the Zionist Union joint list, created by a merger between Herzog’s Labor party and HaTnua, led by Tzipi Livni, would agree to a national unity government, but nothing ever materialized.
If Herzog and Netanyahu had come to an agreement last week, there is little doubt that the Zionist Union bloc would have split. Herzog already faced dissent from those in the Labor party, like former party chief Shelly Yacimovich. Livni, who was marginalized in her earlier attempt to manage the peace process while acting as justice minister and chief negotiator with the Palestinians in the previous Netanyahu government, threatened to abrogate her partnership agreement with the Labor Party if Herzog joined the coalition. And, in the aftermath of the failed talks with Netanyahu, MKs from the liberal wing of the Labor party, such as Stav Shaffir, have called for him to step down.
All of this quickly became irrelevant, though, when the agreement with Lieberman, who was promised the powerful post of defense minister, was announced. Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, the current defense minister and former IDF chief of staff, resigned from both the cabinet and Knesset when the news became public, angrily denouncing the rise of “extremism” in the country and in the Likud party. Ya’alon will remain in the Likud party, and some speculate that he may either try to challenge Netanyahu for control of the party or form his own center-right party. In the meantime, Ya’alon will be replaced in the Knesset by Yehuda Glick, an American-born activist who advocates for enhanced Jewish rights to pray on the Temple Mount.
Much of the international response from the mainstream media to Lieberman’s return to the cabinet has been unfavorable, citing his inflammatory comments on Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel. There are some, though, who describe him as a pragmatic politician who is willing to compromise to advance the peace process and also stress his surprisingly strong ties with potential partners among the Sunni Arab states.
All of this jockeying for position raises a number of salient questions:
- With Ya’alon out of the government, is Netanyahu setting up a clash between the increasingly hardline tenor of his coalition and the traditional values of the IDF? Vehement reactions to a speech by Major General Yair Golan, IDF deputy chief of staff, during a Yom HaShoah ceremony suggest that the country is divided on this issue.
- Many alleged that joining forces with Herzog and the Zionist Union would have given the Israeli government a more moderate face to placate the international community and perhaps allow Israel some breathing room on the subject of resurrecting the peace process. How will the addition of Lieberman complicate the issue, particularly with a Paris-sponsored effort to resurrect negotiations beginning in early June and a potential United Nations Security Council resolution on a peace agreement in the offing?
- If the Zionist Union bloc falls apart, is Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party ready to move into the lead opposition role and, eventually, mount a centrist challenge to Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition?
By adding Yisrael Beitenu to the coalition, Netanyahu will placate the political right wing and supporters of settlements but will probably anger the two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties. How will this change the dynamics of the coalition?