Israel's New Coalition: A Winner's Alliance, a Loser's Grudge

The new government isn't the one Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted, and the Finance Ministry isn't the one Yair Lapid dreamed of. Both are starting out with quite a bit of mutual resentment.

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Just two days before the extension granted him by the president is due to expire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected on Thursday to complete the task of forming Israel’s 33rd government. The final note in the strangest, if not the most bizarre coalition negotiations ever conducted here, was sounded by yet another concession by the prime minister to the leader of the least experienced Knesset faction, who is slated to become finance minister.

This is not the government Netanyahu wanted. This is not the ministry Yair Lapid dreamed of. The two of them are going under the canopy with no joy, sour-faced, and with quite a bit of mutual resentment. The clash of the titans over the education portfolio ended with a victory for Lapid. It was yet another victory, after he had forced Netanyahu to part from his Haredi partners and imposed a painful reduction in the number of government ministers – painful for the Likud, that is.

On the other hand, Netanyahu can also boast some victories in the negotiations: The foreign and defense ministries remained in Likud's hands and he retains a majority in the cabinet, with 12 Likud-Beiteinu ministers serving alongside 10 from Yesh Atid, Habayit Hayehudi and Hatnuah.

Losing the education portfolio, which Netanyahu fought tooth and nail to keep, was a knock-out blow. The man who mediated between Netanyahu and Lapid in this whole saga was none other than the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, Naftali Bennett. On the one hand, this young politician managed to maintain his alliance with Lapid and didn't break his word. On the other hand, he knew when it was time to bang his fists on the table and tell Lapid to stop messing about and risking a constitutional crisis (and possibly even the need for new elections) so close to the arrival here of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Unlike Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, who bore their grudge against him like a tattoo and whose loathing of him seeped from every pore, our brother Bennett was able to put emotion to one side, to swallow his pride and to traverse the minefield between his two clients. On Wednesday afternoon he was at Lapid's home in Ramat Aviv. "If you're planning on blowing the whole deal up," he said, "tell me. If you're going to compromise sometime, do it now. Not on Friday morning. That would be too dangerous."

Lapid heard the warning, weighed his options and accepted the compromise that Bennett was proposing: Yesh Atid would get the Education Ministry and Rabbi Shai Piron would become a minister. The Interior Ministry, which Lapid also coveted, would go to Likud and Gideon Sa'ar the outgoing education minister who heard on television that his boss had given away his portfolio, will become interior minister. The hugely influential chairmanship of the Finance Committee  another position Lapid had demanded  will go to Habayit Hayehudi. 

Bennett plans on rotating chairmanship of the committee between Nissan Slomiansky and Ayelet Shaked. The Housing and Construction Ministry will go to Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Ariel. 

Bennett himself will take one of the positions with the most power, authority and influence: the Trade, Industry and Employment Ministry, which will be renamed the Finance and Trade Ministry.

If Netanyahu had not kept Bennett at arm's length after the election and had instead made sure that Habayit Hayehudi was the first party to join the coalition, he could have formed whatever coalition he wanted, including one with the ultra-Orthodox parties of which he is so fond. Bennett would have been happy with his lot, even if he'd got nothing more than the Energy and Water Ministry. But the prime minister's emotional response pushed Bennett into Lapid's arms. The alliance between them, which started off as a tactical move, became a true friendship. Netanyahu did not believe it would last. After all, he's never been very good at keeping alliances himself. But the alliance survived and Bennett got the deal of his life. For the defunct National Religious Party and for the whole national religious camp, the housing portfolio is a dream come true. 

Problems at home

On Wednesday and Thursday the Likud MKs will be making the ceremonial pilgrimage to their leader, who will tell them what position he has in mind for them. This will be a rather gloomy ceremony. Aside from Moshe Ya’alon, who won the big prize, the defense portfolio, Yisrael Katz, who is apparently staying at the Transportation Ministry, Sa’ar, who is slated to get the interior portfolio and Yuli Edelstein, who will apparently be named Knesset speaker at Reuven Rivlin’s expense, everyone else has reason to be concerned.

Gilad Erdan and Silvan Shalom had hoped for an upgrade in their government status but there isn’t much left to offer them except for the communications, health, and home front defense portfolios. Outgoing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz had been dreaming of one of the most senior posts, like foreign affairs or defense, while Limor Livnat would have been happy to keep her current portfolio, culture and sports. Tzachi Hanegbi very much hoped to return to the cabinet table, while younger MKs like Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely, Ze’ev Elkin, Ofir Akunis, Yariv Levin and Haim Katz had hoped to be ministers. Some will be deputy ministers, while others will head Knesset committees.

Incidentally, the most desirable deputy minister’s post is that of deputy defense minister. Last night MK Faina Kirshenbaum was suggested as a candidate for the post. In general, Lieberman is the big winner in this whole story. He has retained five portfolios for his faction: the foreign affairs portfolio will wait for him until his trial is over, and until then he will chair the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. In addition, his people will serve as tourism, agriculture, public security and immigrant absorption ministers. 

It’s as if no one is allowed to touch him. Actually, why “as if?” Without Lieberman, Netanyahu has no government.

The land of decrees

During the night between Saturday night and Sunday, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s phone woke him. It was the prime minister calling, asking to speak with the Haredi MK about the 55 option.

For readers who are not keeping up with the ins and outs of the coalition negotiations, that number probably doesn’t mean anything. But in the political arena it’s a known code for the number of MKs who would be in a Likud-Beiteinu-Shas-United Torah Judaism-Hatnuah government. 

This was meant to be Plan B, the emergency alternative if, at the last minute, the negotiations with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid had fallen apart. The idea was to sign quick agreements with the two Haredi parties, to present a minority government to the Knesset as constituted above, and hope and pray that Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi joined at the last minute – or at the very least wouldn’t vote no-confidence in the government and drag the country into new elections in 90 days. 
The experienced Litzman responded warily. He asked Netanyahu if this was some kind of trick aimed at threatening Lapid. Netanyahu was offended. “No, no,” he responded.

The truth is that at that moment, and in during the three days that followed, all the way up until Wednesday afternoon, Netanyahu was convinced that Lapid wasn’t planning to enter the government. He thought Lapid was dragging his feet and toughening his demands because he regretted being forced into accepting the burdensome finance portfolio, the portfolio that is a land of decrees and fraught with risks. 

Netanyahu’s fear was based on intelligence information that had reached him, to the effect that Lapid had begun to regret accepting the Finance Ministry within a day of agreeing to it last Friday afternoon. People who had spoken to the presumed finance minister and his close confidants were saying that the Yesh Atid leader foresees a dark future for himself in the treasury. He’s afraid of becoming the most hated man in Israel, the decrees minister, the minister of budget cuts. He is frightened that the down-and-out will start demonstrating in front of his house. This is no simple prospect for someone who spent many years successfully cultivating his image as the national sweetheart, the man at the center of the consensus.

Based on what occurred on Wednesday, though, it seems as if Lapid wasn’t really seeking to be in the opposition. He might have considered pushing for new elections, but Bennett made it clear to him that he had no partner for such an adventure. So Lapid will be finance minister, may God be with him. Incidentally, he still regrets being pushed into giving up the foreign affairs portfolio to Lieberman, who chairs a faction of 11 MKs, and he is still upset that he relinquished the interior portfolio. The weight of the world is on his shoulders. 

Netanyahu and Lapid. Credit: Archive

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