March 14, 2013
‘Rivals’? Certainly. A ‘Team’? That’s Yet to be Determined: Notes on a New Israeli Government
The "team of rivals" cliché is becoming common as writers around the world struggle to explain the new Israeli government, a coalition made of five parts: Likud (Netanyahu), Israel Beiteinu (Liberman), Yesh Atid (Lapid), Habait Hayehudi (Bennet), and Hatnua (Livni). The fact that these are all rivals is obvious, but can they be a "team"? I very much doubt that. Israel's new coalition is problematic, and its chances for long-term survival seem slim. A new election cycle in two or two and a half years would not be a surprise.
Why problematic? Because the people running this coalition have many conflicting interests. Netanyahu knows that his partners want to replace him. He has an interest in belittling them while they are his coalition members. They will resist such attempts and are going to try and undermine Netanyahu while he is nominally their boss. This is not a recipe for a healthy work environment.
Netanyahu didn't get the coalition he wanted. He had to break with the Haredis, and had to accept Lapid and Bennet playing a much larger role than he'd ideally give them. He will also have to deal with an unhappy party in which people will soon be talking about the "next leader", surely making Netanyahu even more paranoid than he already is.
Don't envy the Prime Minister- he still has one of the toughest jobs on earth. He has to deal with all of the following: his most trusted advisers are leaving one by one; his party is grumbling; he got a Defense Minister that he didn't exactly want; he doesn't have a Foreign Minister he can trust; his coalition members are plotting against him; they have also dictated an agenda he did not choose; and if this agenda makes this government a success they will get most of the credit; his old partners are angry with him for abandoning them.
Liberman is on trial. If acquitted, he will also come back wanting to be a Prime Minister. If he is found guilty and cannot be a minister, he has little interest in keeping this government alive (especially if the verdict says that he can't be a minister in the current Knesset).
Lapid should be happy with the outcome of coalition negotiations, except for two little things: He is Finance Minister in tough economic times. Traditionally, that is a job that makes a politician less popular, not more so (as Netanyahu, a very good Finance Minister, could tell Lapid). He also – by dictating terms to Netanyahu – owns the agenda of the new government. If the government doesn't deliver, it is his government that doesn't deliver (unless he can put the blame on Netanyahu – which he'd surely try to do).
Bennet handled the coalition talks masterfully. He was humiliated by Netanyahu at first, but soon made lemonade out of this lemon-like reception. The problem for him is different from that of Lapid: if there's any movement on the peace front, he'll have to make some tough choices and will have to deal with a party that can be unruly. In fact, one of Netanyahu's best options for unraveling the annoying alliance (annoying for him, that is) between Lapid and Bennet is to make friends with Mahmud Abbas.
Livni wanted to be Netanyahu's second in command, but now she's not the third but rather the fifth wheel of this coalition. Netanyahu still needs her though, for one of two options: if he can get rid of Lapid and get the Haredis back Livni will be his centrist cover; if he wants to get rid of Bennet, he'd do it by advancing a peace process – and Livni is his tool for that too.
A paragraph on the Lapid-Bennet alliance- the most surprising, revolutionary and positive result of the last elections. If these two camps of Tel Avivian bourgeois and settler ideologues can come together to make this country a better place, a lot can happen. As I've written many times in recent weeks, the division of Israel into a right-wing camp and a left-wing camp is outdated (see some discussion of "blocs" in the fifth part of my exchange with pollster Prof. Camil Fuchs). Lapid and Bennet make it seem even more outdated, almost irrelevant. By adopting a domestic agenda, and by demonstrating that two camps that still differ somewhat on the "Palestinian question" can cooperate on many other issues, these two leaders have created an Israeli agenda that the majority of voters seem to like. Of course, there's a possible problem with such an agenda: the 'region' might not want to cooperate with it and might force the Israeli government to focus on other issues.