Benjamin Netanyahu is back in the driver’s seat of Israeli politics, having been chosen Tuesday by a plainly unhappy President Reuven Rivlin for the task of constructing the next coalition.
An uphill task it certainly is, and one the president declaredly did not want to give him.
Rivlin expressed “moral and ethical” concerns about a man who is on trial for corruption putting together a government, and went so far as to say that he fears for the country. But the law gave him no choice, he noted: Netanyahu was recommended by 52 of the 120 newly elected Knesset members, while his nearest challenger, Yair Lapid, had the backing of only 45. And there were no other factors, said Rivlin, that could outweigh this arithmetic.
The president also assessed that nobody in Israel’s riven and deadlocked politics has much chance of “winning the trust” of the Knesset, as the law puts it. But Netanyahu has faced that kind of near-impossible challenge before and overcome it; he did so a year ago, indeed, when he wooed Blue and White leader Benny Gantz into the last coalition.
In the 28 days he now has for the task, Netanyahu will seek to bring Naftali Bennett and his 7-seat Yamina into his coalition, and then to try to pry defectors from the ranks of the so-called “change camp” — more accurately, the anti-Netanyahu camp. If that fails, he may resort to breaking his oft-repeated pre-election pledge, and seek to ally with the Islamist conservative Ra’am party — not as a coalition partner, giving him a Knesset majority, but as an outside semi-ally, its four members abstaining or absenting themselves as a 59-seat minority coalition is put before the Knesset. That would first require him to persuade the far-right Religious Zionism party to remove its flat rejection of any such arrangement.
In normal political times, Netanyahu wooing Ra’am would be a beyond unthinkable development: The charter of the Southern Branch of the Islamic Movement, of which Ra’am is the political wing, rejects Zionism and demands a “right of return” to Israel for potentially millions of Palestinians, a process that would end Israel as a Jewish state. After four elections in less than two years, these are far from normal political times… and yet Netanyahu building a government reliant in any way on Ra’am remains almost inconceivable.
Netanyahu’s preferred tack will doubtless be to argue to right-wing rivals from the anti-Netanyahu camp that they owe it to the electorate to tamp down their hostility to him, and spare the country yet a fifth vote, while sweetening the pill with more of the kinds of offers of influence that ultimately won over Gantz last year.
Tuesday’s political drama could have played out very differently had Bennett and opposition leader Yair Lapid negotiated terms for a non-Netanyahu government. Lapid confirmed on Monday night that, although Yesh Atid has 17 seats to Yamina’s 7, he was ready for Bennett to take the first stint as prime minister in such a partnership. Bennett, though, held out for better terms — control of additional vital ministries, a double vote on issues of particular sensitivity to the right, and more.
Bennett, who campaigned to replace Netanyahu, and stressed that the Likud leader cannot be trusted, never actually ruled out partnering with Netanyahu. On Tuesday, after Rivlin’s announcement, he said he would negotiate with Netanyahu “in good faith,” and would do everything in his power to ensure a stable, right-wing government and avert fifth elections.
With the prompting of another right-wing anti-Netanyahu leader, Gideon Sa’ar of the six-seat New Hope, Bennett and Lapid may yet make further attempts in the coming days to agree terms on a coalition partnership. But they failed to do so in the two weeks since the March 23 elections — when the electorate voted in a Knesset with both a majority of right-wing lawmakers and a majority of lawmakers utterly or somewhat opposed to Netanyahu.
Lapid declared on Monday night that if he cannot oust Netanyahu this time, he will fight on until he can. For Bennett, the premiership was there for the taking, and he chose not to seize it. And thus, even as Netanyahu’s corruption trial gathers pace, and for all of the president’s reluctance, it is Israel’s longest-serving prime minister who again has the upper hand.