Guest Post by Arieh Kovler
The state of play
Yesterday, Yisrael Beiteinu rejected the offer of joining the next Israeli Government. Likud immediately signed a coalition agreement with Shas, leaving them with 53 coalition members and only one open negotiation – with Naftali Bennett and Jewish Home.
A couple of weeks ago, Bennett announced that handing over the Religious Affairs Ministry to Shas would mean the end of negotiations with Jewish Home. Well, that’s happened. Shas has the Ministry, and even got a control of the appointment of judges to the Rabbinic courts via the Justice Ministry.
Jewish Home was offered the Education Ministry and Diaspora Ministry for Bennett, the Culture and Sport Ministry for Ayelet Shaked, Agriculture and the settlement affairs division for Uri Ariel and (I think) a deputy defence minister. Then Liberman’s resignation shook things up. Suddenly there’s an extra senior role – Foreign Minister – up for grabs. Jewish Home was already unhappy with the coalition offer, but is now also insulted that the Foreign Minister role, originally denied to Naftali Bennett partly because Benjamin Netanyahu needed to keep Liberman on-board, is not being offered to Jewish Home.
Last night Likud gave Jewish Home’s negotiators an ultimatum – take our offer or leave it. After midnight, the Jewish Home faction meeting instructed Naftali Bennett to take over negotiating personally, also implying that they were calling Likud’s bluff. Jewish Home is now demanding either that Bennett becomes either Foreign or Defence Minister or that Shaked is made Justice Minister.
Since then, apparently, Naftali Bennett is unreachable and has turned off his phone. Now, with 28 hours left until the expiry of the deadline to form a government, a major disagreement has still not been resolved and time is running out.
Most likely, someone will compromise and a deal will be done. I suspect that Likud is in a stronger position than Jewish Home, but we’ll see. But what if there isn’t a deal by Midnight on Thursday?
The law is simple, clear – and widely misunderstood.
By midnight on Wednesday, Netanyahu will have to do one of three things:
- Call President Reuven Rivlin and tell him that he has failed to form a Government that can win the confidence of the Knesset. If this happens, the Preisdent would ask someone else — almost certainly Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog — to try and form a coalition. This would almost certainly fail because the numbers aren’t there. There are provisions for a third MK to have a try, but if that doesn’t work then there are automatic new elections 90 days or so after the end of the road. New elections would mean new primaries, especially for Likud and Labour/Zionist Union. Both parties might face leadership challenges. Things could get very interesting and very messy, or nothing much could change.
- Do nothing. If Netanyahu doesn’t call Rivlin at all it’s considered that he failed to form a government and things proceed exactly as at point 1.
- Tell the President that he has formed government.
If Mr Netanyahu tells Rubi Rivlin that he has formed a government, then a new timer starts – 7 days. The Speaker of the Knesset (Likud MK Yuli Edelstein) must schedule a vote on the new government within 7 days of the announcement. However, Netanyahu doesn’t have to announce the full make-up of the Government to Rivlin, and Rivlin doesn’t have to check that it’s true, meaning that negotiations could continue for another week.
Those negotiations could be aimed at bringing either Jewish Home into a 61-seat coalition or the Zionist Union into a National Unity Government. But they could also theoretically be aimed at seeking support for the 53-member coalition as it stands today.
It works like this: The new government is presented to the Knesset. This is the actual government, the list of ministers and deputy-ministers, not the coalition: a government of twenty-something MKs. That list must be passed by a simple majority of the Knesset. It doesn’t need 61 votes. It just needs more MKs to vote for it than vote against it.
Could Netanyahu win support for a minority government? It’s possible. Jewish Home might be able to stay out of the coalition but I’m not sure they can directly vote to bring down Bibi and give Herzog a chance without damaging themselves in a second election. The same logic applies to Yisrael Beiteinu.
That would leave things exactly balanced: 17 MKs abstaining, 53 MKs voting for the government and 53 (from the ZU, Meretz, Yesh Atid and the Joint List) who would probably vote against.
If Likud can convince one extra MK to abstain then he has a Government. It’d be a dysfunctional, weak government that wouldn’t last very long until it needed more parties to join and support it. But so’s the 61-seat coalition deal with Jewish Home.
In those circumstances, the Zionist Union or (more likely) Yesh Atid might decide to allow Netanyahu to form a weak minority government in the hope of bringing him down later. Or they might just vote the government down, sending us back to Step 1 above.
Most likely, of course, is the 61-seat deal with Bennett sooner or later. It should all become clear by tomorrow night. Or in a week. Or so.
Arieh Kovler is a political consultant and analyst living in Jerusalem.