Analysts: How Netanyahu’s coalition weathered the storm

Political pundits who were already counting the days until early elections and the end of the Likud-led government are now left pondering the resolved coalition crisis.

By Steve Leibowitz, World Israel News

What a difference a day makes. On Tuesday morning, leading political experts in Israel and most Knesset members willing to speak to the media were all predicting that the Netanyahu coalition government’s days were over and all that was left to agree upon was a date for early elections.

By Tuesday evening the crisis was over, the government was back on track and the ultra-Orthodox conscription bill that initially caused the upheaval was placed on a back burner.

Coalition governments in Israel never complete their full five-year term, and chances are slim that Netanyahu can keep his government together all the way to November, 2019. But for now, the prime minister’s 66-member coalition is back to business as usual.

So what has changed?

The road to new elections had already been paved. The ultra-Orthodox parties were pushing forward with threats to bolt the coalition if a government-endorsed conscription bill they were pushing was not passed into law before the Knesset recess at the end of the week. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was adamantly declaring that his Yisrael Beyteinu party, including Minister Sofa Landver, would vote against the bill. That would force Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire the minister, bringing about an end to the coalition, followed by dissolution of the Knesset and new elections within three-to-five months.

Political Science Professor Avraham Diskin of the Hebrew University was one of the few experts to maintain throughout the crisis that Netanyahu had enough wiggle room to avoid a collapse of his coalition, and he did not predict new elections. Diskin told World Israel News (WIN), “I am quite proud that I believed Netanyahu would survive this crisis because there was never any real interest in elections. The ultra-Orthodox and Liberman took hardline, intractable positions, but both had much too much to lose is the government fell.”

According to pollster Mitchell Barak from Keevoon Strategies, “The biggest winner is the Israeli people, who do not have to go through the election process. In my view this whole crisis was started and ended by Netanyahu. In the end, Netanyahu managed to demonstrate for all to see that he is still the right man to be prime minister and he has no real challengers.”

Netanyahu’s plan from the start?

Only days ago, Netanyahu seemed resigned to new elections, with a June 2018 election date his clear preference. Some pundits claimed this was Netanyahu’s plan from the start and that he had allowed the “fake” crisis to get out of hand so that he could receive a fresh mandate from the voters before possible indictments in several corruption investigations.

Then came the Monday night polls.

On Monday evening two television stations released straw polls. Liberman was shaken by the results indicating that his Yisrael Beyteinu party could fail to pass the minimum threshold to enter the Knesset. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s Shas party fared no better. The polls also showed Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party losing almost half of its current seats and Netanyahu’s Likud maintaining its popularity and finishing first. While Likud maintained its strength, it became clear to the prime minister that several of his coalition partners had lost ground, and cobbling together a new coalition after elections could very well be a daunting, if not impossible, task.

“Likud MKs did not want June elections because the election would have been a personal campaign of Netanyahu versus the police,” Barak told WIN. “In the end, Netanyahu understood that he had little to gain and much to lose in an election. An election to receive a new mandate from the people is nice, but it doesn’t make indictments any less likely, and there were no guarantees of his ability to form a new coalition after the election.”

More seats or more power?

Diskin told WIN, “Netanyahu was tempted by early elections before an expected indictment in order to bring a fresh mandate from the people. But he also saw that his coalition partners were weak and that forming as strong a coalition after the elections might not be possible. He knew that Likud would be the biggest party, but he still needs enough partners to get to the required majority. More seats do not necessarily mean more power.”

Liberman subtly softened his position, giving Netanyahu some wiggle room to find a solution that would keep his coalition intact. According to unnamed Likud MKs, Netanyahu continued favoring early elections until lawmakers from his own party threatened to revolt against the move by opposing the prime minister’s preferred election date.

Netanyahu moved on the option of keeping the coalition together, and was able to give “a victory speech” in the Knesset as the leader who managed to successfully resolve the crisis. He proudly told the Knesset plenum, “I promised to continue the existence of the government and I delivered. I am grateful to my partners in the coalition who demonstrated responsibility so that we can continue to lead with determination for the success of the State of Israel.”

Reaching a delicate balance

The prime minister’s coalition government had overcome the most serious internal challenge since its formation. In the end, the haredi-sponsored IDF draft bill passed its preliminary reading by the Ministerial Committee for legislation, and ministers and MKs were given a one-time pass to vote according to their conscience. This allowed Landver to vote against the bill without being fired, and the coalition was saved. According to the agreement, a delicate balance was reached ensuring that the conscription bill passed its preliminary reading at the Knesset plenum. After the bill is approved in its preliminary reading, the legislative process will continue after the Knesset recess, with the law eventually being incorporated into a Defense Ministry governmental bill agreed upon by all coalition factions and coordinated with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit. At least that is the plan.

The state budget is due to pass on Thursday in order to meet Kahlon’s demand, and the “Nationality bill” will also be passed to satisfy a recent demand raised by the Likud. The Netanyahu-led coalition is back in business, until the next crisis.