Israel Pulse

Will Netanyahu’s coalition collapse?

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Article Summary
Facing the danger of a negative vote, the narrow coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to withdraw two bills that were set to be approved this week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition decided on Nov. 26 to delay the Knesset vote over the loyalty in culture bill that would allow cuts to government funding for institutions not showing "loyalty" to the state. The coalition didn't have sufficient votes to guarantee its adoption. By delaying the vote, Netanyahu’s floundering coalition was forced to lower a major banner. Still, he chose to ignore the raucous commotion taking place all around him.

On that day, just two hours before the Likud’s Knesset faction was scheduled to convene for its weekly meeting, a new fight broke out among two prominent figures in his coalition: Culture Minister Miri Regev (Likud), and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon (Kulanu chairman). The two of them seemed to have been cooperating recently, but then Kahlon decided to grant the members of his party the freedom to vote according to their conscience on the loyalty in culture bill, which was proposed and advanced by Regev. This controversial piece of legislation had become a paradigm of the aggressive tactics being taken by the most right-wing nationalist government in Israel’s history. Then, in the blink of an eye, the chances of it passing seemed to disintegrate. Former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s resignation left a narrow coalition of just 61 members so that Kahlon’s decision meant that the law didn’t really have a chance. Having estimated that the coalition would soon fall apart anyway, Kahlon was determined to prove his independent spirit by distinguishing himself from the Likud.

Regev responded by calling a press conference in the Knesset, though it ended up being more of a horror show than a conference of any kind. She used the opportunity to hint that Kahlon is collaborating with terrorism by authorizing funds for institutions that allegedly glorify Palestinian assailants, and she claimed that he was aiding the enemy by helping to bring down the government. All that anyone there could do was to rub their eyes and gape in awe as she carried on with a litany of ridiculous rhetoric.

Another target of Regev’s attacks was Liberman. He may have supported her law when he was part of the coalition, but since he switched to the opposition benches, he has made it quite clear that he no longer works for the current government. The chairman of Yisrael Beitenu declared that he can no longer support the bill because the coalition bundled it together with the Gideon Saar Law (on tasking the formation of a government only to heads of parties), which he claims is personal (Netanyahu uses this bill against former Likud Minister Saar) rather than ideological. According to Regev, Liberman is also aiding and abetting terrorism.

Still, Netanyahu seemed to be in high spirits when he entered the Likud faction meeting accompanied by his retinue. While he spoke about the challenges faced by his narrow coalition, he made no mention of the collapse of Regev’s proposed legislation. Instead, he preferred to talk about his recent diplomatic successes — particularly the state visits to Israel by Chad’s President Idriss Déby and Czech Republic President Milos Zeman. The surprise visit by Déby — the leader of a Muslim nation in Africa — was a major diplomatic achievement for Netanyahu, and he used it to its full advantage.

In case anyone forgot that he is also minister of defense, Netanyahu also informed the members of his party that he found time to visit new recruits that very morning at the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Induction Center. He said he had lunch with the new soldiers and even initiated a spontaneous phone call to the mother of one of them to assure her that her son was in good hands. He then posted a video of it on his Facebook page, which has long been one of his most prominent mouthpieces with over 2.3 million followers.

Anyone watching the prime minister’s self-laudatory display from the sidelines might come away thinking that “It’s all paradise,” to borrow a phrase from Liberman. Netanyahu’s friend and rival of the past 30 years will frequently repeat that phrase when asked how he is doing.

But of course, that’s hardly an accurate account of the situation, certainly not on the day that Netanyahu learned that his coalition had spun out of control and that the heads of all the parties were already busy with their own election campaigns. The fact that he stabilized his government last week and prevented HaBayit HaYehudi’s ministers from quitting the coalition still hasn’t kept the election train from rumbling down the track.

The loyalty in culture bill is one thing. He could live without it. What really irks Netanyahu is the Conscription Law, which he advanced together with the IDF and Liberman when Liberman was still defense minister. This is a vital piece of legislation, written in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling ordering that the issue be resolved by December 2018. The coalition will fall apart and new elections will be called if the law is not approved by then, but it now looks like Netanyahu will be hard-pressed to get majority support for this law.

On one hand, Netanyahu can no longer be assured that he will get the automatic support of Liberman and his party. At the same time, however, he has no assurance that the opposition Yesh Atid faction, which voted for the law in its first reading, will support it now either. He is afraid that Liberman will try to get back at him and that he is conspiring with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid to bring down the government. At the same time, the ultra-Orthodox parties tend not to support the law either, which explains why the law was not brought up for a vote this week. The government now plans to ask the Supreme Court for an extension.

What all this chaos means is that the coalition has effectively stopped functioning properly and is only surviving in the most basic sense of the term. Coalition Chairman David Amsalem offered a fair account of the situation in an interview with Army Radio on Nov. 27. As he put it, “All it would take is for one member of Knesset to go to the restroom during a vote or to disagree with a single aspect of the law in order to keep it from passing.”

But Amsalem remains optimistic and believes that the coalition can survive intact. On the other hand, even if he is right for now and given everything that happened over the past few days, it doesn’t look like it can survive much longer. Squabbles between the various parties’ leaderships are not expected to die down when every party member and certainly every party leader is facing a tough election campaign. Kahlon’s position in the polls is hardly optimal, while Regev needs Likud members' support and votes in order to be ranked high on the party list.

Floating at the top of this seething brew is the prime minister himself. His actions seem to prove that he has no interest in early elections, but at the same time, he certainly realizes that the chaos in his coalition will eventually tarnish his image. That is why he decided to separate himself from Monday’s commotion, preferring to focus on himself and his achievements since that is what will apparently feature at the center of the Likud’s election campaign. This will be the seventh time that Netanyahu has run as head of the Likud (he won four elections and lost two), and it seems like he himself will decide when it is the right time to dismantle the current coalition.

One conclusion can be drawn from everything that happened this week. Netanyahu may have regained a modicum of control over the country’s political agenda and kept his coalition intact, but we are still in the midst of a de facto election campaign.

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Found in: coalition, idf, yisrael beitenu, moshe kahlon, benjamin netanyahu, likud, knesset, avigdor liberman

Mazal Mualem is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Israel Pulse and formerly the senior political correspondent for Maariv and Haaretz. She also presents a weekly TV show covering social issues on the Knesset channel. On Twitter: @mazalm3

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