Netanyahu's New Israeli Government Faces A World Of Problems

05/09/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015
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Each week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. This week, we spoke with Moaz Rosenthal, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel's Herzliya, about Israel's new coalition government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week finally clinched a deal to form a new coalition government after his Likud party won elections last month.

It was a dramatic final week of coalition negotiations. First, Avigdor Lieberman, formerly a close ally of Netanyahu, stunned political observers by announcing that his secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party would not join the coalition. As the clock ticked down to the deadline at midnight Wednesday, Netanyahu forged alliances with the nationalist Jewish Home party, the centrist Kulanu party, and several ultra-Orthodox parties. He pulled off another term in power, but his coalition has the narrowest of parliamentary majorities -- just one vote.

The WorldPost spoke to Israeli political scientist Moaz Rosenthal about the main players and priorities of the new government, due to be sworn in next week.

How long do you think this coalition government will survive with such a slim majority?

People underestimate Netanyahu’s ability to do nothing for a long period of time. He can just do nothing and not agitate his coalition partners. The coalition partners also don’t want to go into another election.

It might survive with just a lot of talk, living one drama to the next. This is how Netanyahu made it through his previous terms as premier. But it won’t last more than a couple of years at most.

Can Netanyahu add more coalition partners later on?

Legally he can add more partners, but the question is whether people will want to join.

It's more likely that Netanyahu will find a way to add Lieberman’s party, either as part of a formal coalition or informally cooperating over specific votes.

I don’t think the center-left Zionist Union have anything to gain from joining the coalition. It’s better for [Zionist Union leader Isaac] Herzog to wait for Netanyahu to crumble.

Why did Lieberman decide not to join the opposition?

Lieberman wanted several specific posts. Most people think it’s a personal problem between Netanyahu and Lieberman, but I think it’s based on Lieberman trying to best serve his interests.

As well as keeping his own position of foreign minister, Lieberman wanted another key role for one of his party members -- head of the welfare committee in the Knesset. Lieberman is trying to reframe his Yisrael Beiteinu party as a rightist but pro-social welfare party, a bit like the European right-wing populist parties. But Netanyahu blocked the position.

Lieberman’s career is not over. He’s a survivor.

Lieberman also sees an opportunity here. This right-wing coalition will function under huge pressure, especially from the U.S. and Europe, to do something for the Palestinians. In opposition, Lieberman will be able to attack them if they do.

He’s playing a game of chess, looking several steps down the road. He lost votes in the last election because centrist voters were turned off by a slew of corruption scandals in his party, and demographic trends are depleting his core base of former Soviet Union immigrants. He’s looking for new constituencies. Lieberman’s career is not over. He’s a survivor.

Have Netanyahu and Likud emerged from these elections stronger or weaker than before? Did Netanyahu miscalculate by calling this election?

Netanyahu lives from one decision to the next. He did make a mistake by calling early elections. He was playing a game of chicken. But, he wasn’t able to get the coalition he wanted because Lieberman vetoed it.

Netanyahu's problem is that he veered right during the campaign to get more votes. You can’t call the center-left traitors and then form a coalition with them five minutes later. You at least have to wait a while.

What will this coalition government's priorities be?

Their first priority is to decrease the cost of living and solve the housing crisis. Mostly, this is just implementing policies that are already in place. The coalition is in agreement on that point.

Below the radar, the settlements will expand and funding for settlements will increase. Naftali Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home party took all the key positions to make this happen.

The ultra-Orthodox parties will pursue their priorities, which include removing the threat of criminal charges for ultra-Orthodox youth you don’t sign up to the army or go to Yeshiva [religious seminary], increasing funding for the ultra-Orthodox education system and maintaining control of the national body that regulates personal status issues in Israel, like marriage and divorce.

All the economic reforms that Netanyahu promised during the election campaign cannot happen. As soon as he does something a coalition partner doesn’t like, they can threaten to bring down the coalition.

What do you see as the main sources of tension within the coalition?

A battle is brewing over the role of the Israeli Supreme Court, which is one of the most interventionist in the world after the U.S. Supreme Court. The Jewish Home party wants to decrease the power of the Israeli Supreme Court to intervene in government decisions, and now a senior member of the party will become the justice minister. Yet some Likud members and another coalition partner -- the Kulanu party -- are opposed to curbing the Supreme Court.

Like the Titanic, the ship seems to be sailing forward, but it’s heading toward an iceberg.

While the Palestinian territories were not a big electoral issue, pressure from the White House can strain U.S.-Israel relations and bring public pressure on the government to make at least symbolic measures toward peace. The government may come under pressure to freeze settlement construction for a while, but a large part of the current coalition would not accept that.

Another source of tension is the ultra-Orthodox policies. Almost any issue could become a controversy, but Netanyahu can still survive it all.

What does this election indicate about the health of Israeli democracy?

This election casts a huge shadow over Israel. It highlights how Israeli democracy is highly representative, but these institutions keep producing governments that can’t govern.

Israel is not a two-party system, nor should it be, as Israel is a highly cleavaged society. But there needs to be a dominant party in government that can actually govern and be accountable to Israeli voters.

The politicians find a way to make it through the day, but the public sector is dysfunctional. Like the Titanic, the ship seems to be sailing forward, but it’s heading toward an iceberg. The Israeli system is not equipped to deal with a huge crisis, whether it's a economic, social or diplomatic crisis.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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