Analysis

Netanyahu's Coalition-building Efforts Are Guided by Suspicion and Skepticism

Benjamin Netanyahu is trying, so far without success, to find a coalition recipe that will allow him to mix most of the Knesset ingredients into a stew fit for human consumption.

Six days into the coalition negotiations, none of the lead actors have a clue as to what Israel’s 33rd government will finally look like. And that includes Benjamin Netanyahu. He has a wish (some would say a pipe dream): to form a coalition with an enormous wingspan incorporating Habayit Hayehudi on the right, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima, all the way to Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah on the left, representing between 80 and 86 MKs under which he can take shelter from a storm of malicious intentions.

Netanyahu is like a participant on the reality show “MasterChef.” He’s trying to find a magical culinary coalition recipe that will allow him to mix most of the Knesset ingredients into a stew fit for human consumption, and get immunity from being toppled as dessert. He has a time frame. The clock is ticking. He has 36 more days, including (to change the metaphor) overtime and penalty time.

In conversations with Likud ministers, Netanyahu is not ruling out a government of 69 MKs, as reported in this space last week. The visit of President Barack Obama next month and the likely renewal of the peace process are paving the way for Livni and Mofaz into the government. Naftali Bennett has already said he has no objections to peace negotiations, because they won’t lead to anything anyway. Shas and United Torah Judaism have been transmitting messages to the effect that they will support any agreement Netanyahu puts on the table only please-please-please meet them halfway on the issue of drafting yeshiva students.

Some senior members of Likud are intimating to Netanyahu that he should avail himself of the current opportunity to dump the ultra-Orthodox, connect with the center, pass a law of “sharing the burden equally,” change the electoral system and system of government, and renew peace talks with the Palestinians.

“For four years he told the world he is itching to move ahead with the Palestinians but, alas and alack, he is stymied by the coalition ‘math,’ and if he tries to move ahead he will be brought down,” say the advocates of this approach. “But not even the president of Micronesia will buy those used goods. No one will believe him. After all, the makeup of the next coalition is entirely in his hands. If there is one conclusion arising from the election, it’s that the nation is fed up with Netanyahu as a politician. He will not be elected again unless he takes action and persuades the public that he is bent on achieving a settlement with the Palestinians.”

But people closest to his other ear offer a word of caution. “Look at the last four years: a whole term without jolts, without a coalition crisis, without anyone threatening to bolt,” they say. “Stability of that order is obtained only by hooking up with allies who have nowhere else to turn. If you rile the Haredim today, you will find them in league with Ehud Olmert tomorrow.”

Good cop, bad cop

Netanyahu hears the word “Olmert” and his level of suspiciousness, which is always on the edge of the upper red line anyway, leaps to the
highest reaches of the Azrieli Towers.

Netanyahu himself is managing the talks to form his third government. This is an encore to his management of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu’s oh-so-impressive and productive election campaign. Attorney David Shimron, who heads the negotiating team, has neither the authority nor the authorization to decide anything.

The prime minister’s sidekick in the coalition talks again, as in the campaign is Avigdor Leiberman. The latter sent two representatives to the team, Moshe Leon and Yoav Mani, who report back to him every evening. He may just as well send two tape recorders and have someone pick them up at the end of the day.

Netanyahu and Lieberman are playing good cop, bad cop. In the first joint meeting of their two factions (in the Knesset, on Tuesday morning), the prime minister-designate talked about the need for a broad government, and for unity of ranks in the face of the challenges and threats. His second-in-command flayed Lapid: “This is the first time I’ve seen people who aren’t thinking about the good of the country, but on the day after the election are already talking about how they will become prime minister. They are no longer asking where the money is, but only how one gets that job.”

Netanyahu smiled.

It’s not entirely clear whether the two are agreed on the composition of the next government. At the outset, Lieberman spoke about a coalition with Lapid and without the ultra-Orthodox. Afterward, he supported the continuation of the alliance with Shas.

There’s one subject about which the premier and Lieberman are not in dispute: the fate of the foreign affairs portfolio. Lieberman dreams of returning to the Foreign Ministry after his trial, on the assumption he will be acquitted. He is perturbed by certain reports. And with good reason. Sources close to Lapid are talking about the Foreign Ministry as their leader’s preferred cabinet post. Netanyahu promised Lieberman that he himself would retain the portfolio until the end of the judicial process. Now he is frightened of the possibility that he will be forced to give the appointment to Lapid.

“It’s a portfolio that prepares and forges prime ministers,” he told one of his ministers this week. “As far as I am concerned, let him take the Finance Ministry.”

One needn’t be the always-worried and suspicious Netanyahu in order to show signs of fright. Lapid’s bluster hasn’t relented for a moment since the election: Both in the media and in private conversations, he is saying he will give Netanyahu the boot from the Prime Minister’s Bureau in no time. Someone close to Lapid said this week, “The only thing that interests Yair is the next election.”

But mutual suspicion is also brewing between Lieberman and Netanyahu. The former is keeping a close eye on the latter to make sure he doesn’t buckle under pressure and end up selling off the Foreign Ministry to Lapid. The latter is wondering what kind of response the former will come up with if he discovers that the ministry has been wrenched from him.

This week the coalition chairman, MK Zeev Elkin (Likud), distributed rooms to the Knesset factions. On orders from on high, he left Yisrael Beiteinu its former room, separate from that of Likud, as though no union had ever taken place between the two parties.

If Lapid does not request the Foreign Ministry, he will not get it; the ministry will remain leaderless for the time being. A political observer this week put forward an original idea: to appoint Tzipi Livni as acting foreign minister. Her relations with Lieberman have been good to very good since 1996 when, in his capacity as director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, he appointed her head of the Government Companies Authority.

Lieberman could agree to that appointment, provided it’s clear that it’s only temporary. Livni will also agree if she’s promised that, if Lieberman returns, she will have some sort of role in the negotiations with the Palestinians. In any event, Lieberman has previously declared that he is not interested in being involved in such talks, and that he has a conflict of interest to boot (as the resident of a West Bank settlement).

It’s true that, during the election campaign, Netanyahu promised that Livni would have nothing to do with the peace negotiations. But that’s okay: In 2009, he promised to lower taxes and eradicate the Hamas government.

The sting

It’s not pleasant being Naftali Bennett these days. Of all the potentially eligible party leaders, he is the only one who hasn’t yet been invited (as of Thursday evening) to a meeting with the husband of the fighter from their joint course on terrorism. Netanyahu has met twice with Lapid; at least once with Livni (word is it was a good meeting; obviously there is no rivalry so great that six seats can’t heal it); and, of course, with Eli Yishai and Yaakov Litzman, even with Shelly Yacimovich and Zahava Gal-On.

Raviv Drucker’s investigative program on Channel 10, “The Source,” this week dealt with the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom and revealed Netanyahu’s diary of meetings from 2006-2007 (the period when Bennett was his chief of staff). This is not the first time logs and documents from Netanyahu’s bureau have starred in Drucker’s investigations. The first time was in the “Bibi Tours” affair, when the PM faced allegations over improper funding of overseas excursions.

The word from Bennett’s close circle is that until two weeks ago, when the election campaign concluded, he had no idea about the intensity of the hostility which the Netanyahu family feels toward him. The picture only became clear when he met people who told him they had heard Netanyahu assert with loathing that the only way “that man” (Bennett) would see the inside of the cabinet room would be during TV newscasts on Sunday evenings.

In desperation, Bennett turned to Lapid. In the meantime, as far as is known, Netanyahu has realized there is no choice but to bring Bennett into the coalition. He will call him to set up a meeting, but only when all else has failed. Until then, Netanyahu is meanwhile dispatching his special-ops man, Natan (Natke) Eshel, to rabbis of the religious-Zionist movement to persuade them to act to dismantle the Lapid-Bennett alliance and to create cracks within Bennett’s Knesset faction, which consists of Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union.

In its campaign, Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu went out of its way to depict the rabbis in a negative light, as nationalists (which they are), in order to taint Bennett and show him as a dogmatic rightist in the guise of a nice high-tech kid. Now they are running after the same rabbis and asking for their help.

Bennett knows Netanyahu. He suspects that the Prime Minister’s Bureau is concocting a sting operation: They will make him a good offer to separate him from Lapid. After he accepts, they will go to Lapid, who will no longer be part of a bloc of 31 seats (Yesh Atid plus Habayit Hayehudi) and offer him an inferior package.

Then, after the Yesh Atid leader has signed a coalition agreement, Netanyahu’s people will go to Bennett and tell him what Yitzhak Shamir told Yuval Ne’eman (head of Tehiya) in 1984. Shamir had signed an agreement with Ne’eman, but at the last moment signed a national unity agreement with Shimon Peres. “What should I do with the coalition agreement we signed?” Prof. Ne’eman asked Shamir who replied, “For my part, you can hang it on the wall.”

Final notes

1. The visit by President Obama, probably on March 20, creates a diplomatic-political agenda. The visit will serve Netanyahu in the Iranian and Syrian context, but is problematic for him in the Palestinian context. The imminent arrival of Air Force One helps the person forming the government in Israel. It might help make the rigid opening positions of Yesh Atid more flexible. It also entangles the prime minister, because he will be committed to the success of the visit and a successful visit means meeting Obama with a moderate government in place.

2. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported yesterday that Lapid called MK Ahmed Tibi, the chairman of the United Arab List-Ta’al, to explain that his remark two weeks ago about not joining forces with “the Hanin Zuabis” (in the plural) to block the formation of a right-wing coalition did not refer to the entire Arab population. A good thing he didn’t tell Tibi that he also reads a sutra from the Koran every day.

Perhaps Lapid got feedback from the President’s Residence, where Shimon Peres and others were stunned to hear from the three Arab parties (not only from Balad, to which Zuabi belongs) how offended they were by Lapid’s remark. Even after the call to Tibi, Lapid can forget about being the next leader of the opposition (if he doesn’t enter the government), even though he will be the head of the largest party. The Arab MKs and Meretz’s Gal-On will both back Yacimovich.

3. Just before forming a government, Netanyahu is talking peace. The word appeared explicitly in his Knesset speech this week five times in different contexts though he did not utter it in the election campaign. We will likely be hearing a lot about “kick-starting the peace process” in the days ahead, and about how he will surprise us all by his readiness to move forward.

It’s worth going back to the newspapers of February-March 2009 and their reports of coalition talks. There you can read about how Ehud Barak, Isaac Herzog, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shalom Simhon the leading figures of the Labor Party at the time heard Netanyahu say the exact same things in the context of his vision for his new term. Peres, too, was convinced, and sold Netanyahu to the world as a peacemaker. Until he had had enough.

4. Barring a last-minute change, the outgoing cabinet secretary, Zvi Hauser, will come to the offices of Yesh Atid this morning at 9:30 and meet with the party’s 19 novice MKs. Hauser was invited to give the newcomers a talk about “the workings of the government.” Five of them, at least, are slated to become ministers in the next government.

Even if they end up in the opposition, there is no one better suited than Hauser to tell them a thing or two about what goes on in the dark recesses of the parliament and the Prime Minister’s Bureau, to which he will bid adieu in another month.

Amos Biderman
Reuters