Old Wine in New Bottles?
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
Parliamentary governments and coalition politics present challenges to governing which are alien to those more accustomed to traditional American styled democratic governance. Whilw historically this always has been true in Israel perhaps it is no more so than at the present moment where Netanyahu leads a Government with a margin of only two seats over the opposition, 61-59, in the Knesset. Bibi appears now to be maneuvering to expand this complicated and fragile coalition with all the political acumen that he can muster; but, as always in any similar situation, there is an enormous confrontation occurring not only over policy differences but over personal egos.
This Government can tolerate some give since the religious party members can essentially be bought off by Bibi with programmatic support and with minimal Government action on matters of religious pluralism. The two religious parties control thirteen seats and will follow Netanyahu’s lead as long as he does not disrupt their interests. The major portion of his coalition consists of members of his own Likud Party and the Jewish Home Party which is to his right and Kulanu which is more centralist—at least on security matters.
So now after a year in power, Netanyahu appears to want –and that is a critical factor—to broaden his coalition, even into a national unity government. The question apparently now is whether Bibi is serious about wanting to expand his coalition in order to make policy changes or merely wants to give the appearance that he wants to do so, especially since he clearly is being pressed by the international community to move more seriously now on the peace process. This jockeying about is occurring on the political stage just as the spring session on the Knesset is beginning.
In addition to discussions which Bibi has held with Avigdor Lieberman, the leader of the right wing Yisrael Beiteinu Party—which might well be merely a smoke screen to appease his right partners—the major focus of Netanyahu’s maneuvering has been with the head of the opposition Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog. To join this coalition, Herzog has made numerous demands in addition to receiving the vacant position of Foreign Minister. While Herzog no longer appears to be under a threat of a criminal indictment for campaign fraud irregularities, were he to join the coalition it would be a personal coup for him. One of the threatened consequences and benefits to Bibi would be that his Labor party faction would be dismissed from the Zionist Union amalgam which was formed during the run-up for this 20th Knesset election; thus weakening the Government opposition.
Underlying all of this internal Israeli political activity are clear regional events which affect the politics. There is a forthcoming meeting under the auspices of the French Government which seeks to reopen peace discussions between Israel and the Palestinians on a two state solution. There is EU and international pressure for a renewed Israeli settlement freeze. Before he leaves office, Obama is reported to plan to present an outline for his vision of a future arrangement between the Palestinians and the Israel to be delivered this fall, perhaps even at the U.N. General Assembly Meeting. The continued escalation of both anti-Semitic activity and the BDS movement both in Europe and now more actively in the States continues to force Israel into a politically defensive posture. The U.S. election is looming with many unknowns and the Iranian nuclear deal still hovers in the background.
These clouds hanging over Netanyahu provide sufficient rationale for him and for Herzog to consider joining together in a unity government. The problem will be, as is so often the case in Israel, that internal politics and sensitive egos may well trump a mature approach to addressing geopolitical exigencies.