De­spite win, Is­rael PM still strug­gling to form coali­tion


With a re­sound­ing elec­tion victory last month, Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Benjamin Ne­tanyahu seemed to have an easy path to­ward quickly es­tab­lish­ing a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with his tra­di­tional na­tion­al­ist, re­li­gious and ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jewish al­lies.

But af­ter weeks of ne­go­ti­a­tions with po­ten­tial part­ners, Ne­tanyahu is find­ing the task harder than ex­pected and is flirt­ing with the idea of reach­ing out to his main dovish ri­vals to form a unity gov­ern­ment. As he de­cides which path to take, he will seek an ad­di­tional twoweek ex­ten­sion to put his coali­tion to­gether.

Which way Ne­tanyahu goes will have broad im­pli­ca­tions. If he sides with the hard-line al­lies that he of­ten calls his “nat­u­ral” part­ners, Ne­tanyahu will have a solid par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity of like-minded par­ties that could avoid much of the in­fight­ing that plagued the out­go­ing gov­ern­ment and pro­vide some wel­come po­lit­i­cal sta­bil­ity at home.

But such a coali­tion — averse to peace moves with the Pales­tini­ans and in fa­vor of ex­panded set­tle­ment con­struc­tion in the West Bank — quickly would find it­self on a col­li­sion course with the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity at a time when Ne­tanyahu is al­ready feud­ing with his al­lies over the mori­bund peace process and a nu­clear deal with Iran that he loathes. A unity gov­ern­ment that in­cludes his left­ist ri­vals would help blunt that loom­ing in­ter­na­tional iso­la­tion.

Through­out the heated cam­paign, Ne­tanyahu ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity of join­ing forces with Isaac Her­zog and his cen­ter-left Zion­ist Union and vowed to rule from the right.

Elec­tion re­sults gave his Likud Party 30 seats and se­cured him a po­ten­tial 67-seat ma­jor­ity of the 120-seat Knes­set along with his tra­di­tional al­lies. In ne­go­ti­a­tions, how­ever, th­ese al­lies have made de­mands to head pow­er­ful gov­ern­ment min­istries, and an ini­tial four-week win­dow to form a new gov­ern­ment is now set to ex­pire.

On Mon­day, he is sched­uled to meet Is­rael’s largely cer­e­mo­nial pres­i­dent, Reuven Rivlin, and seek a two-week ex­ten­sion. Un­der Is­raeli elec­tion rules, if he fails to form a coali­tion dur­ing that time Rivlin then can as­sign some­one else the task of do­ing so.

Few ex­pect it to come to that, and the 67-seat right-wing gov­ern­ment seems to be the most likely out­come.

Ne­tanyahu looks close to fi­nal­iz­ing deals with two ul­tra-Or­tho­dox par­ties, Shas and Ya­hadut Ha­torah, who are seek­ing min­istries and par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tees with large bud­gets cater­ing to their con­stituents. He also ap­pears to be close to a deal with the cen­trist, eco­nomics-fo­cused Ku­lanu party.

But large gaps re­main with the two other pieces needed to com­plete the puz­zle, the na­tion­al­ist Jewish Home and Yis­rael Beit­einu par­ties, both of whom are led by long-time Ne­tanyahu as­so­ciates who have a tu­mul­tuous re­la­tion­ship with the boss.

De­spite dis­ap­point­ing elec­tion re­sults, both par­ties are de­mand­ing top Cabi­net posts and ma­jor in­flu­ence that are dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their num­bers. Ne­tanyahu has yet to budge and has sig­naled he may leave them out, “stub­bornly re­fus­ing to show flex­i­bil­ity.”

Tsahi Hanegbi, the deputy for- eign min­is­ter from Ne­tanyahu’s Likud Party, said the prospect of Her­zog join­ing the coali­tion only was be­com­ing a pos­si­bil­ity due to the hard-ball ap­proach of the rightwing par­ties.

“It is ris­ing only as an ex­treme sce­nario whose chances of com­ing true are a re­sult of the Jewish Home or Yis­rael Beit­enu, ei­ther both of them or one of them, stub­bornly re­fus­ing to show flex­i­bil­ity,” he told Is­rael’s Army Ra­dio Sun­day.

While the threat may be a pres­sure tac­tic, there are large is­sues at stake. De­spite his rhetoric, aides ac­knowl­edge that Ne­tanyahu is con­cerned about clashes with his al­lies in the U.S. and West­ern Europe.

In­creased set­tle­ment con­struc­tion, a pro­longed ab­sence of Pales­tinian peace talks and na­tion­al­ist leg­is­la­tion that un­der­mines Is­rael’s demo­cratic na­ture would surely draw a strong re­buke and per­haps even calls for sanc­tions and boy­cotts. With his re­la­tions with Pres­i­dent Barack Obama at a low point fol­low­ing clashes over Mideast peace and the Ira­nian nu­clear talks, there is a real fear that Is­rael’s top ally may re­scind its au­to­matic pro­tec­tion of Is­rael at the United Na­tions and other in­ter­na­tional bod­ies.

Ne­tanyahu has part­nered with his ad­ver­saries in the past to shield him­self from sim­i­lar fall­out.

In 2009, he added La­bor Party leader Ehud Barak as his de­fense min­is­ter and point man to the West. And in his last gov­ern­ment, he brought in dovish ex-for­eign min­is­ter Tzipi Livni to be his chief peace ne­go­tia­tor.

Her­zog is un­der heavy pres­sure from his fol­low­ers not to of­fer Ne­tanyahu that po­lit­i­cal cover again. Both men have de­nied re­ports of a se­cret meet­ing. Over the week­end, Her­zog vowed to go to the op­po­si­tion.

“Sit­ting in the op­po­si­tion is not a de­fault choice but a pref­er­ence,” he said. “Our place is in the op­po­si­tion. We will re­place the Likud gov­ern­ment.”

But Her­zog’s La­bor Party, the main part­ner in the Zion­ist Union, has a long his­tory of oust­ing its de­feated lead­ers, so Her­zog also may be tempted to jump at a chance to gain some in­flu­ence and job se­cu­rity — most likely as Ne­tanyahu’s for­eign min­is­ter. Her­zog is the sev­enth leader of the party since it last won a na­tional elec­tion in 1999.

Her­zog’s only hint of com­mon ground with Ne­tanyahu was a po­si­tion pa­per is­sued by his party that backed Ne­tanyahu’s op­po­si­tion to the re­cent U.S.-led frame­work nu­clear deal with Iran. On this cru­cial mat­ter, it said “there is no coali­tion or op­po­si­tion” in Is­rael.

So far, Her­zog’s party rankand-file seems to op­pose join­ing Ne­tanyahu and ap­pears ea­ger to watch a hard-line gov­ern­ment fail. But there are also grow­ing voices in Is­rael say­ing that Her­zog’s Zion­ist Union does not have the luxury to make that kind of cold po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tion.

“Its pres­ence in the coali­tion is crit­i­cal to pre­serv­ing Is­rael as a lib­eral democ­racy,” lib­eral colum­nist Carlo Strenger wrote in the Haaretz daily news­pa­per. “Ul­ti­mately, the idea of stay­ing in the op­po­si­tion is based on a deep illusion: It is that the lib­eral cen­ter-left is likely to re­gain power in the fore­see­able fu­ture, and that Is­rael’s elec­torate just has to re­al­ize how de­struc­tive the po­lit­i­cal right’s poli­cies are.”

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