Netanyahu’s Coalition Dilemma: Bennett or Herzog

The decision the prime minister makes about his coalition partner will make clear how he wishes to govern in the next term: as a revolutionary or as a conservative.

Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 25, 2015.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, March 25, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman
Aluf Benn
Aluf Benn

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is signaling that he has not decided on the composition of his fourth government. He has two options: a right-wing and ultra-Orthodox government that includes Habayit Hayehudi; or a centrist and ultra-Orthodox government that includes Zionist Union. In other words, a government with either Naftali Bennett or Isaac Herzog.

A “Bennett government” could make Netanyahu’s old dream come true – the dream of smashing the “old elites” and perpetuating the rightist regime. The “Jewish nation-state bill” would be passed easily. The Supreme Court would become a branch of the Likud Central Committee, in the spirit of MK Yariv Levin’s proposal to change the procedure by which justices are appointed and Habayit Hayehudi’s demand to weaken the court and its ability to intervene in the legislative process.

The leftist and human rights organizations would face mounting obstacles to raising funds, if not to operating in the first place. Academic faculty promotions, state funding for culture and the awarding of the Israel Prize would all be conditional to swearing allegiance to Zionism.

Channel 10 Television would be shuttered, or purged, and journalists critical of the regime would be fired from channels 1 and 2, as well as from Army Radio.

Criticism of the Israel Defense Forces and claims that its soldiers violated international laws of war would be prohibited by statute and defined as libel. And with a little more effort, the system of government could be changed into a presidential government headed by Netanyahu.

If he chooses Bennett, Netanyahu will return to the position of the revolutionary who seeks to change Israeli society fundamentally and leave a meaningful legacy behind.

A right-wing government would face serious international criticism and incur boycott threats if it were to expand the settlements. But “the world” will not interfere if Israel grows increasingly to resemble Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and curtails freedom of expression and the independence of the judicial system.

If Netanyahu demonstrates relative moderation beyond the Green Line, he will enjoy wide freedom to act within it. A Bennett government would bide its time for a year and a half, until the next U.S. election, after which Barack Obama will be succeeded by either a Republican president who will adopt Likud’s positions, or by Hillary Clinton, who would be more comfortable than the current occupant of the White House for Netanyahu.

If Netanyahu goes with Herzog’s Zionist Union instead, he would radiate a conservative foreign policy focused on maintaining “stability” from within and stopping pressure from without. Such a unity government would be hard-put to foment revolution, since its components would cancel each other out.

Zionist Union would block constitutional changes à la the Jewish nation-state bill and Levin’s proposals, while moderating the economic reforms planned by the presumed new finance minister, Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu). It will be incapable of reaching peace with the Palestinians, in the absence of a majority in the Knesset for such an arrangement, but it would take action to restore relations with the U.S. administration, to receive compensation for the nuclear agreement between Iran and the world powers in the form of military support, and the blocking of Palestinian initiatives in the United Nations in exchange for a partial freeze on settlement construction. If it doesn’t go crazy, Israel could continue the occupation at a reasonable cost internationally.

Netanyahu’s personal relations with his possible coalition parties are less important than the goals he hopes to achieve. Netanyahu cannot stand, and does not respect, the heads of Zionist Union, Kulanu, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi, with varying degrees of fear, loathing and contempt. He knows all would be happy to see him retired, rather than serving another term as prime minister. But that’s coalition politics – what the Americans call a “team of rivals.” As an experienced politician, Netanyahu knows how to get along, one way or another.

For that reason, the decision that Netanyahu makes – Herzog or Bennett – will mainly make clear how he wishes to govern in the next term: as a revolutionary or as a conservative. That is his dilemma.

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