With less than two hours to go until his time ran out at midnight on May 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally cobbled together the narrowest possible governing coalition following the March 17 election.
With the support of parties representing just 61 of the 120 Knesset seats, Netanyahu desperately needs to broaden his coalition or remain at risk of the government falling if it loses the support of just one or two MKs – a very real possibility given the hard feelings that linger after his election eve comments designed to draw support to his Likud Party at the expense of the other right wing parties. I wrote about Netanyahu’s comments in my column in the March 30 issue of the Bulletin.
After those comments, Likud did increase its seat count, thus keeping Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office, despite the surge of Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union in the pre-election polls. However, total support for all right wing parties was about the same as it was in the 2013 election, so the other right wing parties did lose seats and thus their hard feelings.
Among those with the hardest feelings is former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, who decided to take his six seats and sit in opposition.
In pulling together this minimalist coalition, Netanyahu made several Cabinet choices seen as worrisome by many. Firstly, there is not one minister envisaged as an advocate for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.
If Israel is perceived as intransigent on this issue, relations with the United States and the European Union will be further damaged. Even the Canadian government – Israel’s strongest supporter among Western governments – stressed the importance of the two-state solution in offering congratulations to Netanyahu on the swearing-in of his government in a statement issued by Foreign Affairs Minister Rob Nicholson on May 14.
“Canada has a warm and long-standing friendship with Israel, which is based on a shared commitment to the principles of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
“Our government will continue to strongly support Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself, by itself. Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered this message to the Israeli people in his historic address before the Israeli Knesset in January 2014. We also continue to support a bilaterally negotiated two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians based on a commitment to peace and mutual security,” said Nicholson.
Secondly, the religious parties – Shas and United Torah Judaism – are back in Cabinet after being left out of the previous government. This means that recent reforms regarding haredi service in the Israel Defense Forces will surely be dialled back, religious affairs in Israel will remain in the unyielding control of the haredi Chief Rabbinate, and progress toward Judaic religious pluralism will be next to impossible.
The most polarizing of Netanyahu’s Cabinet appointments is surely that of Ayelet Shaked of Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party as justice minister.
The new justice minister has no training in law – her academic background is in electrical engineering and computer science – but she has an agenda that includes scaling back the power of the judiciary and limiting the power of Israel’s Supreme Court. And, while Israel’s previous justice minister, Tzipi Livni, led Israel’s negotiations aimed at a two-state solution with the Palestinians, Shaked is deeply opposed to the proposition.
According to reports, Netanyahu did not want Shaked in his Cabinet – let alone in such an important position – but her appointment was a last-minute concession to Bennett. If Bennett, who is now the education minister, had withdrawn the support of Jewish Home’s eight seats, Netanyahu could not have formed a government.
With a history of personal animosity between Shaked and Netanyahu, things may not go well. Between 2006 and 2008, while Netanyahu was opposition leader, Shaked was his office director. She quit in 2008, saying the once and future prime minister was impossible to work with. And, at the ceremony announcing his new Cabinet, Netanyahu reportedly refused to shake his new justice minister’s hand.
Unless Netanyahu can somehow broaden his coalition, we may well be watching another Israeli election campaign sooner than later. For now, he’s hanging onto the foreign minister’s portfolio as bait, hoping to lure in Herzog or Lieberman and their parties. So far, neither is biting.