Coalition Partners Kahlon, Bennett Teach Netanyahu a Lesson in the Limits of Power

Expanding the coalition seemed like a walk in the park, but the PM's coalition partners made it rain on his parade.

Moshe Kahlon and Naftali Bennett in the Knesset, 2015.
Olivieh Fitoussi

One could say that like in that old joke, the heroes of the coalition negotiations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s present and future partners, may not want to kill him but certainly enjoy driving him crazy en route to the “broad government” he so desires. The coalition hookup between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, which on Thursday looked to be a walk in the park, a mere formality, on Monday appeared to be a more challenging hike.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon made it clear to Netanyahu that he will not be a rubber stamp or an ATM for realizing the prime minister’s political dreams. That prompted Avigdor Lieberman to call a press conference and declare that the talks had reached a dead end. Since the problem is (only) money, one can assume that the crisis will be resolved and the 66-member coalition will be established speedily in our days.

But Netanyahu was taught yet another lesson about the limitations of power, from Kahlon, guardian of the public purse, and from educator Naftali Bennett, whose seemingly justified demands to give the inner cabinet the tools it need to do its job were repeatedly brushed off by the prime minister.

What was the argument over? After Lieberman conceded most of his demands (over conversion, civil unions, the draft, the death penalty for terrorists, the nation-state bill and more), he was left with only the pension reform aimed at improving the situation of immigrants from the former Soviet Union whose pensions were left behind in Mother Russia.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, May 22, 2016.
Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

Kahlon, for his part, was only prepared to allocate the necessary billions to improve the pensions of all Israelis. “My father was a manual laborer who came home exhausted and saved lira upon lira to give his children an education. Why is he any less than the immigrants?” he told the coalition party heads on Sunday. That’s where the deal got stuck, but on Monday the talks between the treasury and the Yisrael Beiteinu negotiation team resumed, and it seems a compromise is in the works.

The more interesting move is the one by Habayit Hayehudi chairman Bennett. He did not interfere in Netanyahu’s talks with Isaac Herzog. Bennett stressed to Netanyahu that as long as his “red lines” weren’t crossed, he would not be an obstacle to Zionist Union’s joining the coalition.

But then Herzog was kicked to the curb and Lieberman waltzed in — at first with six Knesset members, now with five — as the presumed next defense minister. Yet Bennett, with eight MKs and a promise from Netanyahu during last year’s election campaign of the defense post, held back. He agreed to let Lieberman circumvent him, even though in his heart and gut he is pretty annoyed by the appointment and its possible ramifications.

But on one thing he decided to remain firm: implementing the harsh conclusions of the State Comptroller’s Report on the inner cabinet’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge. Bennett on Monday demanded the appointment of a military secretary with a rank of colonel to advise the inexperienced, unskilled and inexpert ministers in the security cabinet, making this an ultimatum to which he bound his entire faction.

In theory there is no more justified demand than this. It isn’t clear why Netanyahu refused it when the education minister made it in private when they met on Sunday. Out of masculine pride, presumably, and perhaps a desire to leave most of the ministers in the security cabinet in the dark, so they won’t ask difficult questions.

One can assume that this hurdle will also be overcome, since Netanyahu really has no choice. His call Monday to Herzog in the Knesset to resume negotiations because the door was still open was ridiculed by the Zionist Union MKs. Most absurd was his explanation that he wanted “unity” and “national reconciliation.” For that there’s no need to generously distribute portfolios and deputy minister positions. For that he just has to stop being Bibi, who divides, incites and instigates. Reconciliation will follow on its own.