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Et Tu, Naftali?
Will Netanyahu finally fall? And was Bennett's truly the unkindest cut of all?
Having failed to cobble together a majority coalition by midnight in Jerusalem, Benjamin Netanyahu has returned the mandate to form a government to Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin. The next opportunity will likely go to Yair Lapid of the centrist liberal Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, who got the second most votes from MKs to receive the mandate and whose party has the second most seats. But “second most” means less than 15% of the Knesset. Assuming an anti-Netanyahu government coalesces, it will be cobbled together from a truly extraordinary range of small parties, representing an amazing diversity of irreconcilable ideological stances.
The most important thing to realize, though, is that the truly irreconcilable differences proved to be on the right. Four right-wing parties—Likud, Yamina (“Right”), Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) and New Hope—that are broadly well-aligned on ideological matters between them garnered 50 seats. Potential partners that such a coalition could have reached out to range from the centrist Blue and White party, to the extreme-right Religious Zionist party, to the ultra-Orthodox parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism that are Likud’s traditional partners. Negotiations would have been complex, as they always are, but there would be multiple paths to more than 61 seats and a stable government. And if Netanyahu were a normal political leader, that’s what would have happened.
No such government could be formed because the other three right-wing parties—all headed by former Netanyahu protégés—very sensibly refused to join with him. They would all rather form a more ideologically diverse coalition than join a right-wing coalition in which Netanyahu would predominate—and he would predominate, regardless of what their coalition agreement might say.
The only one of those parties willing to consider joining Netanyahu’s coalition was Naftali Bennett’s Yamina, which is ideologically even further right than Likud and which, with only seven seats, managed to extract a promise to rotate into the prime ministers’s office before saying no thank you. But even had they said yes, it’s unclear that Netanyahu could have formed a government, because even with Yamina and the Religious Zionists, his coalition would only have had 59 seats. They needed two defectors from other parties, none of which were in the offing, or they needed the support of the four-seat moderate Islamist Ra’am party. But the Religious Zionists refused to sit in a coalition with an Arab party. There’s a delicious irony in that fact, given that Netanyahu labored to birth both of those factional parties, encouraging Ra’am to chart a path independent of the Arab-dominated Joint List and encouraging the Religious Zionists to form despite an explicitly racist leadership, in both cases so as to strengthen his own coalition against likely rivals. Now their own irreconcilable differences were the nail in his coalition’s coffin.
So now, the anti-Bibi right has a challenge before them. They have 20 seats between them. With the centrist Yesh Atid and Blue and White parties, a center-right coalition has 45 seats. Add the left-wing Labour and the even more left-wing Meretz, who are anathema to a party like Yamina, and the broad unity coalition has . . . 58 seats. Still not enough—indeed, one fewer than the right-wing bloc would have been with Yamina included. Lapid would have to reach out to the ultra-Orthodox parties—who are diametrically opposed to the liberal views on religious matters held by Yesh Atid (and Yisrael Beiteinu as well)—or to the Arab parties, either Ra’am or the more left-wing Joint List—which would incense the right-wing voters of Yamina (and New Hope as well).
How will the right-wing parties respond? Yamina in particular will once again demand the moon, and they’ll probably get it. Lapid has already promised Bennett first crack at the Prime Minister’s chair, and even the most left-wing parties in the coalition will probably be too elated at the prospect of finally getting rid of Netanyahu to object. But what happens the day after the government is formed? Broad governments of national unity can function in times of emergency, but the only real emergency operative is Netanyahu’s continued presence on the political scene, and fear of his return is all that holds the opposition coalition together. It’s hard to imagine such a coalition as anything but a continuous exercise in brinkmanship, of how far the prime minister could push or be pushed by his coalition partners before someone gets fed up and calls a new election.
Here are the three truths that underwrite the instability Israel has been living with through four elections. Israel has a right-wing super-majority—with its own internal disagreements and its own range of views, yes, but still, a clear super-majority. However, it also has an anti-Netanyahu majority, reflected in the fact that the opposition has considerably more seats than pro-Netanyahu parties do. But further, a majority of right-wing voters support Netanyahu, reflected in the fact that the right-wing parties that refused to join his coalition have fewer than half the seats of Likud and its ultra-Orthodox partners. Regardless of whether Lapid is able to form a government or not, there can be no stability until one of those three statements ceases to be true.
I leave it to my readers to consider whether a similarly contradictory trifecta afflicts any of the other countries that have taken a turn to the populist, personalist right in the past decade or two. Israel was a trailblazer in making that turn. They may also prove a trailblazer in showing just how hard it is to turn back.