Israel's Fragile Coalition Government

05/08/2015 04:38 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016

Despite embarking on an historic fourth term, and en route to becoming Israel's longest serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu is in the weakest possible position after a lengthy political career marked by impressive resilience and survival skills. With a parliamentary majority of just one vote, his government will struggle to defy historical precedent and endure an entire term. Despite the new coalition's solid right-wing credentials, it remains inherently flawed as differences will inevitably surface between Israel's secular and religious right.

Since Israel's creation in 1948, coalition governments have been the norm. With a 3 per cent threshold for parties to enter government, it is difficult for any to win an outright majority and fairly easy for single-digit minority parties to hold larger ones hostage to their narrow agendas.

With less than a third into his term as prime minister, Netanyahu took a huge gamble in December 2014 by calling a snap election due to differences with coalition partners. After confounding polls and emerging victorious in March 2015, it appeared his wager paid off. However, after seven weeks of arduous negotiations, he finally formed a coalition government just two hours before a midnight deadline.

Now heading an extraordinarily fragile coalition, Netanyahu's strategy proved a gross miscalculation. At this point, the biggest winner in coalition horse-trading appears to be Naftali Bennett and his Jewish Home party. Nethanyahu was left wrong-footed when foreign minister Avigdor Lierberman suddenly exited negotiations two days before the deadline for government formation. Only with Bennett's support of eight parliamentary seats could Netanyahu secure the desperately needed one seat majority. Netanyahu had no option but concede to Bennett's demands for the justice, education and agricultural ministries.

After a poor electoral performance, Lieberman may have made a strategic calculation to remain outside government. With a one-vote majority, Netanyahu is vulnerable to collapse at any given moment. Lieberman's party could attempt to leverage its six parliamentary votes to extract concessions during critical votes.

On the Israel-Palestine peace process, there are no expectations for progress at this stage. For some it lies in suspended animation, for others it is completely dead. Israel's new hard-right coalition is clearly pro-settlement expansion and generally against the creation of a Palestinian state based on the internationally advocated two-state solution. With a one-state solution, Israel would risk international isolation and pariah status. It would undermine Israel's status as a Jewish state as Palestinians can eventually outnumber Jews. Furthermore, Israel's status as a democratic state would be seriously questioned. Assuming full and direct control over Palestinians in the occupied territories would carry responsibilities. Their treatment as second-class citizens would inevitably subject Israel to charges of racial apartheid.

For now, the U.S. will cautiously take and wait-and-see approach on Israel's new coalition government. Relations are clearly at one of their lowest points ever. The U.S. and other states unequivocally condemned Netanyahu's public rejection of a two-state solution just before the March 17 election to garner last-minute votes from the right. Additional denunciations by the U.S. and others followed Netanyahu's racially-charged declarations implying Israeli Arab citizens were fifth-columnists attempting to undermine the Israeli state through the voting.

Despite Netanyahu's apologies and backtracking, the U.S. promised to "re-evalute" its position with Israel. Apart from the occasional condemnations, the U.S. will not take any direct actions against Israel. For now, Netanyahu will determine the course of any peace talks. in 2014, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry injected enormous diplomatic capital into the process and failed to achieve anything concrete. At most, the U.S. may support a United Nations Security Council resolution that sets out the broad parameters of a two-state solution without imposing any binding commitments on Israel.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration is mainly focused on successfully concluding a nuclear agreement with Iran by the end of June 2015. Netanyahu remains firmly against it and the U.S. Congress is highly skeptical. A recently approved U.S. Senate resolution further narrows the scope of President Obama's negotiating room with Iran. The last thing the Obama administration wants is a confrontation with Netanyahu over the Palestinians that would inevitably trigger a reaction from a hostile Congress at a highly critical time in Iran nuclear talks.

In coming weeks and months, more European parliaments may take votes, either symbolic or binding, recognizing a Palestinian state. Barring any unexpected ground-breaking diplomatic developments, no considerable progress on peace talks or real pressure on Israel is likely in the immediate future. Ultimately, the greatest threats to Netanyahu's survival emanate from within Israel.