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.
Indeed, three of this coalition’s five parties are totally or mainly Orthodox Jewish in makeup, accounting for 21 of its 61 seats. These are people who believe in God, have large families, and feel a religious connection to Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) — traits that will not endear them to latte-sipping liberals who are sure they know what’s best for Israel and have the lowdown on the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s Likud has, of course, long been a Western whipping boy because it sees the West Bank as important to Israel for security and religious-historical reasons — though Netanyahu, in his previous term, took a flexible stance accommodating a Palestinian state if it met certain conditions.
The only coalition party on which the foreign media has gone somewhat easy so far is Moshe Kahlon’s barely right-of-center Kulanu. Kahlon himself will be finance minister and looks serious and determined about freeing up Israel’s mostly-vibrant economy from the cartels and wealth concentrations that still bedevil it.
The basic, ritual accusation against this government, though — if it lasts, and particularly if Herzog doesn’t join it — is that it will perpetuate the “occupation” and prevent “peace” with the Palestinians.
The Palestinians’ own role in pushing the Israeli electorate to the right — by rejecting all previous peace offers and continuing to engage in virulent anti-Israeli incitement and terror — will be neatly filtered out of this picture.
Meanwhile most of Israeli punditry is saying — with relish, since, as elsewhere, most of Israeli punditry is on the left — that this government is virtually dead at birth, so small, weak, and vulnerable to internal strains that it’s doomed to totter and fall as soon as it tries to stand.
They could be right. On the other hand, they might not be.
Israel is a thriving, successful country constantly on the upswing, but it faces major challenges. The security threat, particularly from Iran and its proxies, is only likely to grow if President Obama signs a deal with the mullahs that entails freeing up billions of dollars for their use while letting their nuclear program continue. At home, Israel needs to overcome those longstanding distortions in its economy, open up the road to prosperity for all population groups, and heal rifts.
The members of the current minimal, 61-seat coalition are patriotic Jews whether mainly from religious or nationalist standpoints. If they can manage to stick together, work out their differences, and at last overcome fractious politics for the sake of the country’s overriding interests, they could just pull off a surprise.