It took the full 42 mandated days, but with just minutes to spare Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu informed Israeli President Reuven Rivlin that he had successfully formed a new government. In the 120-seat Israeli Knesset, 61 constitutes a majority, and Netanyahu cobbled together a coalition with just that number to enable him to make the constitutionally mandated phone call.
But nearly a week later, the 34th government of Israel has yet to be sworn in. Even as we go to press, its contours remain indistinct. Thus, with a whimper, Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth premiership is about to begin.
Six months ago, he took a calculated gamble on elections and forced the resignation of rebellious Treasury Minister Yair Lapid and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, proposing a “nation law” that would have altered the fabric of modern Israeli democracy by accentuating the Jewish character of the state while sacrificing its historic commitment to democratic principles.
To be sure, they were not the only cabinet members who irritated Netanyahu. During last summer’s 50-day war with Hamas, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett carped from the right, publicly calling for a full-scale ground invasion of the Gaza Strip. But the arguments over Operation Protective Edge were quickly forgotten, lost to the Iran cause célèbre.
It was the ongoing sabotage from the left, from Lapid and Livni, that Netanyahu could not tolerate. Lapid harassed him endlessly over budget matters, and openly challenged his competency. Livni gnawed at him over the negotiations with the Palestinians, which she oversaw as the result of an extra perk she had negotiated for herself. For Netanyahu, the purpose of new elections would be more competent meshilut (“governance”) – by which he meant a cabinet more in compliance with his designs for rule.
It took an expensive election, and the promise of over $2 billion in political payoffs to the institutions, schools, and bureaucracies of the newly signed coalition partners, but in the end he got what he wanted – a government free of Lapid and Livni. Israeli taxpayers will pay a heavy fee for the purchase of the allegiance of the ultra-Orthodox Shas and Yahadut ha-Torah parties.
Netanyahu also preserved for his Likud loyalists the most prestigious ministries – Defense and Foreign Affairs, though because of his intricate parliamentary maneuvers, we still do not know who will be their heads.
The only surprise was the last-minute departure of former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu party. This has left Netanyahu with an impossibly shaky edifice.
The departure of a single coalition Knesset member could bring the house of cards down.
Should Netanyahu make it to September 2018, he would become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, outlasting the iconic David Ben-Gurion. But unless he can expand his cushion of MKs, Bibi won’t make it till then, much less serve out the full four-year term. He might try to induce some individual members now in the opposition to defect to his coalition. Or court the Zionist Union (the reflagged home of the Labor party) to join a broad-based national unity government.
But the likelihood of either is slim.
What this likely means is a feeble government perpetually on the verge of dissolution. The national budget will become a domestic battleground, and the chances of a diplomatic breakthrough in either the long-faltering negotiations with Palestine or in the loud disagreement with the United States over Iran are effectively nil.
Since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin 20 years ago, the state of Israel has struggled through eight different governments. While we wish every government a long and successful tenure, there is reason to predict that this ninth government in 20 years, the fourth premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu, will be short-lived – and his last.