The average American reader could be forgiven for believing that, with the much ballyhooed Likud victory in the Israeli Knesset election in March, Benjamin Netanyahu had already been reconfirmed as prime minister and all was right in Zion. But the election was only the beginning of the process of government formation. Welcome to the wonderfully democratic world of proportional representation.
In the 66 years since the first Knesset election was held in the modern state of Israel, a single party has never won an outright majority of the 120 seats such that it could govern in its own right. This year was no exception. When the dust settled, the box score read as follows:
Likud – 30 seats
HaMachane haTzioni – 24 seats
United Arab List – 13 seats
Yesh Atid – 11 seats
Kulanu – 10 seats
HaBayit haYehudi – 8 seats
Shas – 7 seats
Yahadut haTorah – 6 seats
Yisrael Beytenu – 6 seats
Meretz – 5 seats
Likud had not scored the “landslide” victory which some pundits claimed; in fact, 30 seats is somewhat anemic for the leading party by historical standards.
The next step was for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to hold meetings with all the parties which had passed the threshold to receive their recommendations as to who should be the next prime minister. Sixty-seven members of the next Knesset (MKs) voted for Bibi. That led President Rivlin to charge Bibi with forming a governing coalition, and thus begin the horse-trading.
In the last Knesset, a law had been passed limiting the total number of government ministries to 18, with four deputy ministers and no ministers without portfolio (specifically prohibited under the new law). Those 22 plum positions will be awarded to 22 MKs sprinkled among the parties joining the coalition.
After President Rivlin charged Netanyahu with forming the next government, a 28-day clock started ticking within which time the coalition was to be formed. Having the Passover season in the middle of the period slowed the process some; the coalition had not gelled by the end of the period. By law, Netanyahu could (and did) request a two-week extension to hammer out his coalition, and the extension was granted. He now has until May 6 to put it together.
If he fails, President Rivlin will then have the option of naming any MK he thinks can form a coalition to the task.
So a Prime Minister Herzog, the head of HaMachane haTzioni, is — still — a possibility.
That prospect ought to concentrate the minds of those on the political “right” in Israel, one would think. It does not appear to have done so yet.
Despite rumors to the contrary, no party has yet signed a coalition agreement. The current state of play, a survey of the Israeli press reveals, is roughly as follows.
As the leading party of the coalition, Likud should retain the majority of the ministries, particularly the Defense Ministry, which Moshe Ya’alon will probably continue to lead. After that, things get trickier.
Kulanu head Moshe Kachlon, who ran on a platform of lowering the cost of living and especially the cost of housing in Israel, has demanded that all the government economic “tools” be placed in his hands to enable him to accomplish those goals. After much wrangling, it appears that he will be the finance minister, and also that his party will have control over the Israel Lands Administration and a planning commission which traditionally has been part of another ministry.
The sticking point? Kachlon is objecting to measures being pushed by HaBayit haYehudi to reform selection of justices for the rather Left-leaning Israeli Supreme Court. Kachlon had sponsored this legislation in 2007 when he was a member of Likud, but he has now “changed his mind.”
HaBayit haYehudi’s leader, Naftali Bennett, insists that he was promised one of the “top three” ministries: Defense, Foreign Affairs, or Finance. Likud disputes the word “promised.”
Whatever the truth, his party’s underperformance in the election (dropping from 12 to 8 seats) has forced Bennett to lower his sights a bit. It now seems that HaBayit haYehudi has been promised three ministries, but which ones? Netanyahu is offering such influential venues as the Ministry of Culture and Sports; Bennett wants Education and Religious Affairs to be two of them. Other people are objecting, particularly Gilad Erdan, Bibi’s second in command, who wants a ministry himself. Bennett also wants his party to have the chairmanship of the important Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which Bibi does not wish to give him.
Shas and Yahadut haTorah are functioning as an effective bloc of 13 seats; even so, their wishes are relatively modest. Shas leader Arye Deri has been promised the Ministry of the Interior (less the planning commission mentioned above), and at least one other ministry, which Deri would like to be either Education or Religious Affairs, neither of which he is likely to get. However, latest reports state that this could change.
Yahadut haTorah’s leader, Yaakov Litzman, will become deputy minister of health, and veteran MK Moshe Gafni will again head the Knesset Finance Committee, which he ran very ably from 2009-2013. This had originally been one of Kachlon’s demands, but Gafni’s re-appointment was a sine qua non for the two religious parties.
Also a sine qua non is the roll–back of certain legislation which had been pushed by Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, now in the opposition, whom the religious sector viewed as having declared war on them. (For slashing subsidies for child-support, for instance, among the reasons the parties insist on Gafni again being head of the Finance Committee, and in particular for drafting yeshiva students into the military.) It appeared that Netanyahu had agreed to modify these highly unpopular and divisive laws as part of the coalition. He then backtracked somewhat under pressure from Avigdor Lieberman, making this a sticking point.
Finally, Yisrael Beytenu’s Lieberman wants to remain foreign minister. Given the choice between Bennett and Lieberman, Bibi seems to prefer Lieberman (though there are Likud MKs who would like the job). Lieberman is the primary wrench in the works concerning the legislation which Shas and Yahadut haTorah want repealed or modified, and is also insisting on a new law mandating the death sentence for terrorists (which has little chance of passing and less of passing a Supreme Court review).
In breaking news, as of April 29 Likud signed the first coalition agreements with Kulanu and Yahadut haTorah. According to these agreements, Moshe Kachlon will become the finance minister, and two other members of his party will be the ministers of construction and the environment. He has also been promised one deputy ministry, but precisely which one is dependent on further negotiations with HaBayit haYehudi, Shas, and Yisrael Beytenu.
Yahadut haTorah head Ya’akov Litzman will head the Health Ministry as a deputy minister, and Moshe Gafni will chair the Knesset Finance Committee.
These agreements give a Likud-led coalition 46 seats toward the minimum of 61 needed to govern. If the negotiations with the remaining three parties are successfully concluded, the coalition will have 67 seats. Despite persistent rumors, Likud has again denied that there is any intent to pursue any other parties for the coalition, including the oft-rumored “unity government” with HaMachane haTziyoni, which will lead the opposition in the Knesset. The deadline for announcing the formation of the new government is May 6.