Netanyahu Squeaks Through with Tiny Coalition

netanyahu_aipac_3-2-15-1 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Last March 17th, Benjamin Netanyahu won big in the Israeli elections. His own right-of-center Likud Party came out well ahead of the pack with 30 Knesset seats (out of 120). The right-wing/religious bloc of parties came out with 67, compared to 40 seats for the left-wing parties (an Arab party that is unfriendly to Israel as a Jewish state rounded it out with 13 seats).

Yet, on Wednesday night, after 42 days of grueling coalition negotiations, Netanyahu squeaked through two hours before an extended deadline with a 61-member coalition -- that is, razor-thin and the smallest possible.

How did it happen?

For one thing, reportedly, Netanyahu offered a place in the coalition to his opposite number Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union that came in second in the elections with 24 seats, and was rebuffed.

And for another, on Monday, two days before the expiration of the coalition talks, Avigdor Lieberman -- head of a six-member right-of-center faction -- shocked Israel’s political world by announcing he wouldn’t join the coalition. It was that move that brought Netanyahu’s coalition -- without Herzog -- down to 61 from 67.

Speculations are rife as to why Lieberman bowed out. He himself claimed it was a matter of “principle” and that Netanyahu, in particular, had made too many concessions to two ultra-Orthodox Jewish (haredi) parties.

Lieberman, however, has a long record of ideological zigzagging and has sat in coalitions that included haredi parties and made the same sorts of concessions to them.

My own best conjecture is that Lieberman -- a politician burning with ambition who saw himself as a future prime minister -- is consumed with envy at Netanyahu’s repeated political successes and wanted, finally, to get back at him even though it may well mean Lieberman signed his own political death warrant.

Netanyahu, for his part, continues to exude confidence that he can get Herzog’s Zionist Union into the coalition -- which would make it truly broad and varied, a multiculturalist’s dream containing religious, secular, right, and left. Herzog, for his part, keeps denying that such a possibility exists.

All we know for now, apart from endless speculations and rumors from the Israeli political grapevine, is that Bibi is left with as small and -- presumably -- fragile a coalition as possible.

It’s also a coalition that Western political and media establishments, along with the left-wing opposition in Israel, are going to be bashing reflexively and relentlessly. You’re going to be hearing words like “hard-line,” “ultra,” and “radical nationalist” a lot.