Immediately after his electoral victory, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Likud party’s negotiating team that three ministries were sacred: communications, public security and justice. Each of them, in his view, represents a dangerous vulnerability. Thus this time around, he wants each of them staffed by a loyalist from his own party – one who will carry out his wishes on everything from reforms to senior appointments like those of the attorney general and police commissioner.
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Consequently, Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett’s demand on Tuesday that his party get the Justice Ministry alongside the education, agriculture and culture portfolios put Netanyahu into a real bind, slightly more than 24 hours before his deadline for forming a government expires at midnight on Wednesday.
Bennett and his candidate for justice minister, MK Ayelet Shaked, both worked in Netanyahu’s bureau when he was opposition leader, about eight years ago. They may be his natural partners, but in the eyes of Netanyahu and his wife Sara, they are also potential hangmen. The Netanyahus will always suspect them of having a hand in leaking information about Netanyahu’s overseas trips during those years, information that created a public scandal. Neither has ever set foot in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, and neither ever will, as long as Sara Netanyahu lives there.
So is it conceivable for the Netanyahus that Shaked should lead the process of choosing the next attorney general, instead of the loyal MK Yuval Steinitz? Is it conceivable that she should head the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which will approve or nix bills on, say, the media? And we haven’t even mentioned the revolutions Bennett and Shaked are planning for the Supreme Court, which would turn the prime minister into the enemy of the entire legal system.
Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman’s decision to quit the coalition talks has increased Bennett’s self-confidence. From his permanent position as the rejected, ostracized coalition partner, who waited for weeks for the prime minister to call, he has overnight become the person who will decide whether or not Netanyahu forms a government.
Netanyahu’s decision to give the Religious Services Ministry to Shas on Monday, before any agreement was reached on dividing its powers between the ultra-Orthodox party and the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi, was the last straw for Bennett. He decided to play a game of chicken. He and Netanyahu are now rushing toward a head-on collision, and if one doesn’t swerve, both will die.
Death, in this case, means Netanyahu’s failure to form a government by Thursday at 12 A.M. If that happens, Netanyahu’s political career will be over, and Bennett will be accused by his voters of having thwarted the establishment of a rightist government with his own two hands.
Since that is what’s at stake, one can assume the crisis will be solved by Wednesday night. Likud and Habayit Hayehudi will sign an agreement, and Netanyahu and Bennett will fake smiles for the cameras. Netanyahu’s 61-MK coalition will be on its way, though how long it will last remains unclear.
What is clear is that Netanyahu will reach this longed-for moment panting from exhaustion, having been forced to sell off many coalition assets to his hungry partners. That isn’t what he expected to happen when he celebrated his victory on March 17. But, as he would say, there’s no help for it; this is “life itself.”