BICOM Analysis: Is Israel’s coalition over the hill?


Key points

  • As the current Knesset reaches its halfway stage, parties and personalities are starting to think about their positioning for future elections. The government is not about to collapse, but there are various indicators of growing instability.
  • There is pressure on the coalition from both left and right. Ministers from the centre-left Labour party are threatening to resign due to the lack of diplomatic progress with the Palestinians. However, without Labour, right-wing parties have the numbers to keep the government afloat for as long as they consider it to be in their interests.
  • Israel’s electoral volatility, and the strong capacity for new parties and individuals to change the political map, make the political future difficult to predict.

Introduction: The electoral wheel is turning

In another month the current Knesset will reach the midway point in its four year term. It is rare for Israeli governments to survive intact for the full four years. As the time left to run on the election clock decreases, so the value for coalition partners of remaining in government depreciates and parties become more concerned about positioning themselves for future elections. Attributed to Vice-Prime Minister Silvan Shalom is the rule that, “In the first year, the government is solid as a cement block, during the second year it fractures, and in the third year it collapses.”

From the outset, Netanyahu’s coalition has contained inherent tensions. The 74-member coalition comprises left and right-wing parties with contradicting agendas on a range of issues, from diplomacy and security to the status of religion in the state. Until now, Netanyahu has successfully balanced the different agendas. However, there are several signs that the political mood is shifting, and his balancing act becoming more difficult.

Last week the Prime Minister expanded a meeting of the carefully selected inner cabinet of seven ministers to a forum of nine. This is a key body through which Netanyahu has tried to steer the government and offset its internal conflicts. The change was to include veteran Labour Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who has been expressing his readiness to leave the government because of lack of progress in the peace process.

Another indication of instability is the increasing tension between the secular Yisrael Beitenu party and the religious Shas party. Several legislative initiatives have brought secular and religious interests into conflict, including a controversial bill that would amend the Jewish conversion processes in Israel, and changes to the allocation of stipends for Orthodox men studying in religious colleges.

In another sign that the integrity of the government is weakening, there has been a notable decrease in cabinet discipline. Ministers are increasingly ready to criticise Prime Minister Netanyahu in public.

Whilst tensions grow within the government, the possibility of Netanyahu joining forces with Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist opposition Kadima party, in an alternative unity coalition seem to be receding. In a high tempered Knesset debate last week, Livni declared that everyone knew that the campaign for the next election was already underway, and that all that remained was for the Prime Minister to fix a date.

Knesset rhetoric is not in itself an indicator of imminent elections. But the various signs of growing instability are being widely noted by political commentators in Israel. As the electoral wheel slowly turns, what are the forces and considerations that will determine the future of the government, and who are the up and coming political personalities that could shape the future of Israel’s dynamic political system?

Pressure from the left

In the past two weeks, it has been the centre-left Labour party that has looked most likely to join the opposition. Since negotiations with the Palestinian leadership stalled in October, Labour leader and Defence Minister Ehud Barak has faced mounting calls from within the party to leave the coalition. Barak has repeatedly made the case for staying in government on the basis that he can push Netanyahu in the direction of an agreement with the Palestinians. However, the credibility of this case has suffered with the breakdown in direct negotiations between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Most of the rest of Labour’s leadership, including Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and influential trade union leader Ofer Eini, believe that Labour should be preparing to quit. Ministers Isaac Herzog and Avishai Braverman, both of whom intend to challenge Barak for the leadership of Labour, are taking a similar line. With abysmal showing in recent polls, Labour faces a fierce leadership contest and urgently requires a period of ideological retooling if it is to remain a political force in the future.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is not oblivious to Labour’s discontent. Inviting Ben Eliezer to a meeting of the inner cabinet was one of a number of gestures intended to keep him on board.  The prime minister’s efforts to keep Labour may seem surprising. Labour has just 13 seats in the Knesset, and if it opts to leave the coalition, Netanyahu still maintains a parliamentary majority of 61. He could potentially secure additional support from the four members of the right-wing National Union party.

However, Labour’s departure would put Netanyahu at the head of an unambiguously right-wing coalition. This would increase the power of the right-wing parties, and erode the international legitimacy of his government. Netanyahu often dispatches Labour ministers to handle sensitive diplomatic missions, at times souring relations with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu. In particular, Barak has served as Netanyahu’s key contact during talks with the US administration. A narrow right-wing government without Labour will also be less popular with the Israeli public.

Previous threats by Labour to leave the government have not translated into action. A forthcoming Labour party convention may give indications of whether the threats are more serious this time.

Pressure from the right

Netanyahu also faces challenges from right-wing coalition partners. In particular Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, seeks to challenge Netanyahu as the authentic leader of the Israeli right.  Lieberman would be likely to leave the coalition if Netanyahu were to publicly propose far reaching concessions to the Palestinians. This would leave Netanyahu with a minority in the Knesset, and probably precipitate the government’s collapse. Netanyahu insists that coalition considerations would not deter him from advancing a deal with the Palestinians, if the Palestinians accepted his terms for a two-state solution. Since the Palestinians have resisted a return to direct talks, this has not been tested.

With the diplomatic process struggling, Lieberman seems content to slowly undermine the Prime Minister’s standing from within the coalition, and wait for the best moment to pull out of the government and challenge the Prime Minister in elections. However, there are external factors which could change the picture.

Lieberman faces a long running police investigation into his personal business dealings. The police recommended 18 months ago that he be indicted, and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein is said to be approaching a decision in the complex case. Should he be indicted, Lieberman has said he will resign. However, Lieberman will have the opportunity to present his case at a hearing before an indictment, and this process would delay the indictment by several months. 

Another external factor is US pressure on Netanyahu. If the US were to put a proposal for a framework agreement with the Palestinians on the table, it would force Netanyahu into a difficult decision. Were he to accept a US proposal, it would likely split not only the coalition, but the Likud party. Lieberman could use such a rift with Netanyahu to appeal to ideological right-wing Likud voters. 

The state of the opposition

The centrist Kadima party has, since the beginning of the coalition, offered Netanyahu a potential safety net. In a recent lengthy interview with the Jerusalem Post, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni claimed that she repeatedly offered to join Netanyahu’s coalition, were he to show willingness to pay the price for an accord with the Palestinians, and break with his right-wing coalition partners. It his unwillingness to risk his political base, Livni says, that prevents Netanyahu making a partnership with Kadima which would advance negotiations with the Palestinians. In a special Knesset debate last week, the tone of animosity between Netanyahu and Livni increased in pitch.

Kadima insiders claim that internal polling shows that Kadima has an impressive lead over Likud. A recent public poll indicated that Kadima would win 32 seats to Likud’s 29 in new elections. However, as the 2009 election showed, leading the biggest party is not enough to make Livni Prime Minister. She still lacks obvious coalition partners to help her form a government.

Wild cards that could change the picture

However, Israel’s electoral scene is volatile. New parties and personalities have proven in the past their ability to change the balance of power. Speculation is growing about various public figures that might debut on the political scene, or attempt a comeback. Retired senior figures from the military and security establishment often embark on political careers in Israel. Dan Halutz, who resigned as IDF chief of staff after the failures of the Second Lebanon War, is one of several retired senior security figures to recently join Kadima. Outgoing IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi is one of the most respected public figures in Israel, and has been linked with the Labour party. One poll indicated that were he to lead the party, its popularity would increase considerably. However, there are legal restrictions preventing former generals moving straight into the Knesset, which would complicate any attempt to enter politics before the next election.

Another ex-General, and former Labour leader Amram Mitzna, who was defeated by Ariel Sharon in elections in 2003, has said he is considering a return to top flight politics. Mitzna is admired for his work in local politics, but failed to make an impact in national politics first time around.

Popular TV political host Yair Lapid is widely expected to run for the Knesset, representing a mainstream, secular, centrist voice. It is not yet clear whether he will join Kadima, or form his own rival list.

Former Shas leader Aryeh Deri is also believed to seek a return to politics, after an enforced absence following a conviction on a corruption charge. He is considered more moderate than the current Shas leader Eli Yishai, and has wider public appeal. In his case also, it is not clear whether he will join an existing party, or try to form his own list.

Conclusions: A downward slope

The Israeli government does not appear in danger of immediate collapse, but this Knesset is on a downward slope, and the speed of the descent is difficult to predict. Even if Labour leaves, Netanyahu can survive as long as Lieberman considers it in his own interest to remain in the coalition. But as the term of the current Knesset gradually ebbs away, so the integrity of the coalition weakens. If Netanyahu wants to reshape his coalition with Kadima in place of Yisrael Beitenu, time is running out as the period to new elections decreases. In any case, such a development looks unlikely so long as Netanyahu fears ceding political position on the right to Lieberman. Whenever the next round of elections comes, new faces could yet change the political map in unexpected ways.

Further reading:

BICOM Analysis: Internal Likud opposition to PM Netanyahu – 16/12/2010

BICOM Spotlight: What Israelis Think