Tel Aviv Diary: How Long Will Netanyahu's Frail Coalition Last?

Benjamin Netanyahu
At the eleventh hour, Netanyahu cobbles together just enough votes to form a government. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Tonight, with 90 minutes to spare, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he had reached an agreement with enough coalition partners to form a new government.

Six months ago—for reasons that have never been truly clear—Netanyahu fired his key coalition partners and precipitated new elections. At the time, his explanation was that he could not govern effectively with the coalition that he had. He contended he needed a new election, after which his party would be stronger, and thus he would be better able to govern.

Netanyahu received half of what he wished for. He was indeed re-elected with a much larger Likud party as his base, but that did not help him form a stronger, broader government. In the days immediately following the election, the headlines were all about the victory that Netanyahu achieved.

Under Israeli law, the newly elected prime minister designate has four weeks (with a two-week extension, if needed) to put together a coalition. As has been his habit, Netanyahu moved slowly, using nearly every hour of the time allotted to form a coalition. Going into the last day of negotiations for creating a coalition, it was not clear Netanyahu would get support from the requisite 61 members of Knesset.

Forty-eight hours ago—in what in retrospect seems like preplanned move to inflict the maximum pain on Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced he was resigning and going into the opposition. This left Netanyahu no time to try to create a larger government with the Zionist camp led by Isaac Herzog, and, in the best case, gave him a government of 61 seats—with just a one-seat majority.

Two weeks ago, Israeli political observers were saying Netanyahu would never form a government with only a one seat advantage, since that would create a situation where any one Knesset member would be able to bring down the government (but more on that later).

However, faced with the option of forming a government of 61 or losing power, Netanyahu chose a government of 61. Though, even to achieve that, Netanyahu had one last gauntlet to run through—getting the HaBayit Hayehudi, the Nationalist Religious Party of Naftali Bennett, to agree to join the government (after Netanyahu, in his haste to get the Shas party to agree to join, gave the Shas party full control of the Religious Affairs Ministry; a ministry that has always been very important to Bennett's party.)

In retaliation, Bennett cut off negotiations with the Likud and made it clear that unless his party's his second in command, MK Ayelet Shaked, became Justice Minister, he would not join the coalition, thereby dooming Netanyahu's efforts.

This afternoon Netanyahu caved and agreed to give the Justice Ministry to Shaked, who has been one of the leading critics of Israel's justice system.

So, with just 90 minutes to spare, Netanyahu has achieved his coalition of 61. That coalition will be nearly impossible to hold together. The government will need every vote to pass legislation.

If a single member is upset or calls in "sick," it would undermine the passing of legislation and even force the government to fall. This is especially true in this current Knesset, where there is no love lost between the prime minister and his coalition members or between the different parts of the coalition.

Furthermore, since in the Israeli system cabinet members are also members of the parliament, every minister (including the prime minister) will be constantly on call to ensure the government's bills are passed and those of the opposition are not. With a single member majority, this seems like a Herculean task.

Observers are claiming tonight that as soon as the government is sworn in, Netanyahu will turn to the leader of the opposition, Yitzhak Herzog, and ask him to join the government (in return for allowing Herzog a rotation to serve as prime minister at the end of the current Knesset term).

Whether that happens, and whether Herzog would accept that offer, are open questions. What is clear is that Netanyahu will be presenting his new government to the Knesset next week. The new government will be very far from the government he hoped to create. Indeed, it is one of the most unstable governments ever to be established in Israel's long history.

Marc Schulman is the editor of historycentral.com.