The Big Winners and Losers of the Israeli Election’s Final Episode

Five and a half months after calling early elections, Netanyahu's fourth government barely scraped in with a 61-59 majority. Here are the unexpected winners and losers.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Netanyahu speaks to Dery in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 13, 2015.
Netanyahu speaks to Dery in the Knesset, Jerusalem, May 13, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

In the last hour of the 67th anniversary of Israel’s independence, a bare majority of 61 Knesset members voted in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government. Fifty-one days after the general elections and five and half months after the fall of his previous government, Netanyahu finally dragged himself over the finish line.

The anti-climax of this ongoing farce of coalition-building was the last 24 hours, in which Likud ministers-to-be were forced to bicker and squabble over the scraps of portfolios left on Netanyahu’s cabinet floor. This final episode of the elections for the 20th Knesset had some unexpected winners and losers.

The winners

Isaac Herzog – Although he is already a veteran parliamentarian, the speech he made on Thursday night after Netanyahu presented his new government ministers could have been his maiden. It was almost Churchillian in its cries to arms of an "entire camp" to defend minorities, the Supreme Court and an independent press from the clutches of the "circus" of a government. True, he had been quietly dealing with Netanyahu through back-channels to form a unity government, but all this is now in the past. "Give the foreign ministry you're keeping ("for me," he should have added) to one of your friends," Herzog cried. Perhaps if he had given similar speeches on the campaign trail he would have been the one now forming a government. Never the less, Herzog is now establishing himself as an effective leader of the opposition with the power to constantly keep the tiniest possible coalition on its toes. He will need to keep this fighting spirit to see off challengers in the Labor leadership primaries next year. Going on Thursday's performance, he's got a good chance of holding on to his seat.

Arye Dery - Twenty-two years ago he was forced to resign his ministerial post in Yitzhak Rabin's government following his controversial indictment for bribe-taking. Then came the sentencing, his humiliating deposal from Shas' leadership and prison. Finally, the undisputed leader of the party is back, with no Rabbi Ovadia Yosef around to tell him what to do and with rival Eli Yishai consigned to the political wilderness. So what if Shas has fallen on hard times with only seven seats in Knesset and the attorney general frowning at his cabinet appointment; no matter what he achieves as economy minister, for him, Thursday night was historical vindication.

Gideon Saar - Three months ago Saar was still mulling a last moment challenge for Likud leadership. Instead, the party's star performer kept his promise and he stay home to watch his son from his second marriage learn to walk and talk. On Thursday night he was tweeting cryptic and sarcastic messages. Saar, who this week was announced a fellow of the Institute for National Security Studies, isn't about to be a homebody. He'll be back before too long to lead what is beginning to look like a budding insurrection against Netanyahu within Likud.

Moshe Ya'alon - Good old "Bogie." He has now established himself as the government's responsible adult. Lacking a power base in Likud (he came only sixth in the primaries), he seemed unthreatening enough to Netanyahu to be granted an assurance that he would retain his post as defense minister. Unlike his colleagues, he didn't have to beg, scrape and threaten for a senior cabinet position. Who knows, if something happens and Netanyahu is forced to resign, Ya'alon may just be the consensus figure that Likudniks rally around to prevent the party from being torn apart on the day after Bibi.

Danny Danon – Netanyahu’s principle in forming his coalition was "keep your enemies close." Danon was his main Likud right-wing challenger and only nine months ago was fired from his previous job as deputy defense minister after accusing the prime minister of defeatism at the height of the fighting in Gaza. Now he’s a full minister and even though it’s one of the most junior portfolios – the Science and Space Ministry - it’s a significant promotion. Another junior Likud minister who can feel like a winner is a second critic of Netanyahu within Likud, Miri Regev, the new culture minister, who Netanyahu had little choice but to promote after her achievement in the Likud primary, where she came in fourth. Another new Likud minister who is feeling very fortunate is Yariv Levin. Not only he received the Tourism Ministry, but he is no longer Likud and coalition whip, a job that will be living hell with the coalition's paper-thin majority.

Sheldon Adelson – Unlike in 2009, when he attended the ceremony at the President's Residence after Netanyahu's re-election, this time he didn't arrive in person. But it’s safe to say that he was watching the Knesset session from his Las Vegas office, raising a cup of frozen yoghurt as his protégé pledged allegiance. Not only is Netanyahu still in office, but the so-called Yisrael Hayom bill, which would have prevented his pro-Bibi freebie from being distributed for free, is now dead and buried. Not a single one of the new ministers had voted in favor of the bill, which would have rendered the multi-million investment ineffective. And if that's not enough, all of the parties in the coalition have signed a commitment not to support any bill concerning the media without the authorization of the new communications minister, Mr. Netanyahu.

The losers

Benjamin Netanyahu - What more can be said? Nothing that Netanyahu could have done, or that could have been done to him, could have made his astonishing election victory turn so sour, so quickly. Yes, he's back in power. But the coalition that has been forced upon him will soon turn into a daily nightmare of blackmail by his partners and ambushes by the opposition. And we haven't even mentioned the international community - from Washington to Brussels - waiting to come down on him like a ton of bricks. Was it worth disbanding his previous, relatively stable government, just because he didn't like Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni as partners?

Moshe Kahlon – On Sunday, Kahlon will enter the Finance Ministry, with unprecedented powers to make wide sweeping reforms to Israel’s economy, on paper at least. But these kinds of reforms need two things to work: the backing of the prime minister, and serious legislation work in the Knesset plenum and committees. Netanyahu has promised support, but even if he wants to give it (which is doubtful) he is now heading a weak administration full of suspicious rivals. His notoriously short attention span will hardly be directed at helping out the man who very recently was rubbishing him during election campaign. And with a coalition of only 61 members (over a third of them ministers and deputy-ministers) the opposition will have a relatively easier time obstructing any government legislation in the committees (while the poor coalition backbenchers will have to rush from vote to vote like rats in a trap). Good luck with those reforms.

Gilad Erdan – No one was as loyal to Netanyahu in his darkest hours, perhaps with the exception of the new energy minister Yuval Steinitz, as Gilad Erdan. He rushed from one TV studio to the next, attempting to defend his boss' greatest embarrassments and was well due a promotion. But despite having the Foreign Ministry to give him, all Netanyahu was prepared to award his efforts was the depleted Interior Ministry or the Public Security Ministry, which is responsible of the scandal-ridden police. Erdan's sin is that he is too popular within Likud. His coming first in the primary positions him as second only to the prime minister and as a future leader himself. Netanyahu has never looked kindly on heir apparents, no matter how slavishly loyal they have been. Erdan for the first time is showing independence, preferring the backbenches to no promotion. Other losers who swallowed their pride are Ofir Akunis, another of Netanyahu's staunch defenders, who goes back, along with Erdan, to the team of young acolytes around Netanyahu in his first ill-fated term as prime minister in 1996. Akunis was appointed a minister without portfolio, filling some undefined role as bulldog against the media. And Benny Begin, the son of the Likud's founder, agreed to return to politics and lend a bit of credibility to the lack-lustre party ticket, only to find out he was to become a minister without portfolio when Netanyahu announced his cabinet in Knesset Thursday evening. He hadn't even been notified in advance. Few will be surprised if Begin chooses retirement soon, this time for good.

Avigdor Lieberman - He delivered another short and scathing speech Thursday night, lambasting the new government which he decided at the last minute not to join (many believe he was storing up the surprise for Netanyahu). But after the initial shock has passed and Netanyahu managed to form a coalition of sorts without him and his faction, you've got to ask whether Lieberman has what it takes to spend this term on the opposition benches. He never was an adroit committee man. He was the first to leave the plenum on Thursday, as soon as he voted against the coalition. He didn't stick around to see the new ministers sworn in. Without a ministry or seat in the inner cabinet, few believe Lieberman will stick around. He's unloved and untrusted by the other parties in the opposition and he can't be bothered cooperating with them anyway. Anxious to broaden his coalition, Netanyahu now sees the five other Yisrael Beitenu lawmakers as prime targets. They can expect significant rewards for crossing the lines to a government, which as it is, they totally identify with ideologically. How long before Lieberman resigns to go back to his murky but very lucrative private businesses?

Tzipi Livni – This was Herzog’s night. Until Thursday they were partners in the leadership of the Zionist Union, but in his speech Herzog spoke once again of Labor, not of the artificial alliance the two formed before the elections. The opposition doesn’t get much attention as it is and there is room for only one leader. Besides, Livni was never at her best outside the cabinet, to say the least. She’s not much of a parliamentarian and without the trappings of office and her role as negotiator with the Palestinians, diplomats and foreign correspondents will no longer be beating a path to her door. This looks like the start of the twilight of her political career.



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