Road to New Netanyahu Government Passes Through Washington
In addition, Binyamin Netanyahu has been busy juggling the different demands of his presumed coalition partners
Israel’s former and presumed incoming prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, has been working hard this month to form his sixth government.
The country’s longest-serving prime minister, Netanyahu is a seasoned politician who has spent scores of hours in coalition negotiations.
This time, he leads a steadfast right-wing majority. Barring a major upset, Netanyahu will be the head of an ultra-right-wing government that includes extreme nationalists and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Since his victory in national elections at the beginning of this month, Netanyahu has been busy juggling the different demands of his presumed coalition partners.
“The current situation is supposed to coerce everyone into a coalition,” according to Maoz Rosenthal, senior lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at Reichman University. “They all agree on the same policy and the same leader. This creates a mutual dependence.”
Members of Netanyahu’s Likud party may have expected a swift coalition negotiation because of the clear victory at the polls. Yet, reports emerging from the negotiating table paint a more complex picture.
The Likud lawmakers are concerned they will be handed the political leftovers, after their party leader pays back the politicians who secured his victory.
“Netanyahu has complete control over his party, it is clear to everyone. This means even senior party members do not have any leverage to use against him,” Rosenthal said.
Further complicating matters is concern from the United States over the extreme elements of the incoming government.
Several of Netanyahu’s coalition partners have vowed to change the way Israel handles its conflict with the Palestinians, and also to change how the country’s large Arab minority is treated.
Netanyahu’s main consideration is who gives him less of a headache
Itamar Ben-Gvir, one of the leaders of the Religious Zionist party, said an “iron fist” is needed in order to clamp down on Palestinian attackers. Frequently referring to Arabs as “terrorists,” Ben-Gvir is touted to be named minister of public security. Another leader of the party, Bezalel Smotrich was clamoring to be named defense minister. The option appears to have been tabled, perhaps because of Netanyahu’s attempt to avoid confrontation with the White House.
“Netanyahu’s main consideration is who gives him less of a headache,” said Dr. Ilana Shpaizman of the Department of Political Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “It is a matter of how much he can control any problems, even in terms of foreign relations. He is most certainly taking this into consideration.”
Smotrich is now poised to become finance minister. His right-wing economic ideology has Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners on edge. The majority of their constituents bank on increased state subsidies, while Smotrich champions a highly non-socialist economy.
“This will be a major headache for Netanyahu,” said Shpaizman. Previously transport minister, Smotrich is considered a strong-minded, active politician who may be a contrarian to the incoming prime minister. Still, Netanyahu apparently prefers butting heads with Smotrich on the economy, rather than on contentious issues that may put him at odds with the White House.
US officials have voiced their concern over the policies expressed by Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, according to reports in Israeli media. Ben-Gvir has been convicted in Israel of racist incitement against Arabs and has been a staunch supporter of the Kach movement, which appeared on the US terrorist organization blacklist. In the run up to the current election, Ben-Gvir tried to soften his image. Smotrich, on the other hand, has remained steadfast in his positions. Arrested for allegedly planning violent protests against Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, he was not charged. Yet, his extreme views are worrisome to the current US administration. Smotrich also has been a vociferous opponent of gay pride parades and in 2006 organized a so-called beast parade to march in parallel as a protest.
“We hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups. We have certain interests and values of ours,” Ned Price, a US State Department spokesperson, said the day after Israel’s November 1 election. It was meant as a subtle hint to Netanyahu.
The Religious Zionist party has also promised its supporters that it will drastically reform the judicial system, restricting its authority.
“If Israel is heading in a direction which erodes its democracy, the ideological connection between Israel and the US will also erode and could create a distance between the two,” Rosenthal said. “Netanyahu is well aware of this and understood how this looks on the outside.”
Since the election, Netanyahu has adopted a more moderate tone. Last week, as parliament members were sworn in, he vowed to work for all sides of Israel’s public, even those who did not vote for right-wing parties.
“We have serious disagreements, but they too have to be handled with responsibility and consideration,” he said days after the election.
One of the portfolios still being negotiated is the foreign ministry. Netanyahu is reported to prefer Ron Dermer, Israel’s former ambassador to the US and a confidant of the incumbent premier. Dermer was envoy to Washington at times of heightened tension between Netanyahu and the Obama administration. He is believed to be behind Netanyahu’s address to Congress in 2015 in which he tried to sway public opinion against the Iran nuclear deal which Obama was working on. It was a major breach of protocol on the part of the Israeli leader, which led to a further souring of relations between Jerusalem and Washington.
Israeli media reports on Monday suggested Dermer is off the list of candidates for the portfolio, however.
“It is not over until the coalition agreements are final and even after that, we may see surprises,” said Rosenthal. “This is especially true for Netanyahu.”
If Israel is heading in a direction which erodes its democracy, the ideological connection between Israel and the US will also erode and could create a distance between the two
The reports are not only indicative of the fluidity of the negotiations, but also testament to Netanyahu’s predicament. The current name being floated to serve as foreign minister, the openly gay Amir Ohana, might help Netanyahu present a more liberal image to Israel’s allies abroad.
Negotiations are not only underway to determine the personalities who will fill the positions and serve as the face of the Israeli government. There is also a debate on the guidelines of the incoming government. From increasing construction in the West Bank to introducing the death penalty for those convicted of terrorism, there are a range of hot topics which could cause internal friction and tensions with the US.
Another one of those issues could be the Law of Return, under which people with one Jewish grandparent can acquire Israeli citizenship. The plan by Netanyahu’s right-wing partners to amend the law to remove the grandchildren clause and thus limit the number of people eligible for citizenship could put the government at odds with the large Jewish community in the US.
“I expect Netanyahu will stop this, knowing the price to pay may be very heavy,” said Shpaizman.
Both Netanyahu and his partners in the right-wing bloc do not have better options. The battered opposition is too fragmented to pose an alternative and any elements which could cooperate with Netanyahu have ruled such cooperation out. Even though Netanyahu’s current partners could threaten him with yet another election, it is highly unlikely they will risk doing so.
“The road for Netanyahu back to power is paved,” Shpaizman said. “It takes time to formulate the agreements, the disagreements are not that deep and there are no real bumps along the way.”