Thwarted by Two Rising Stars, Israel’s Netanyahu Gets More Time to Form Coalition

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Gali Tibbon / Pool / Reuters

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on March 3, 2013

Five weeks after managing only a thin victory in an election he was expected to dominate, and four weeks after being formally asked to assemble a government, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked for a final extension on what’s turning out to be an exceedingly challenging assignment. The two weeks he was granted by Israel’s President on Saturday night are all the time there is. Never mind that President Obama is scheduled to arrive four days later. The privilege could pass to another candidate. Or new elections would slip onto the calendar.

Why the delay? Netanyahu has been stymied by a steadfast alliance between the two newcomers who dominated the campaign: Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party finished a surprising second in the Jan. 22 balloting, has formed an iron compact with Naftali Bennett, head of the prosettlement Jewish Home. Both men are young, articulate and acutely aware they hold the balance of power after standing for office for their very first time. In fact, in what amounts to a generational shift in Israeli politics, their power appears to flow from their very incipience. Both campaigned promising a “new kind of politics” and in the postelection wrangling have grown only stronger by conspicuously resisting Netanyahu’s old-school enticements — offers of specific ministries or other self-promoting options, provided one will simply agree to break with the other.

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Neither has. The rookies, who appear to get along well personally, both campaigned saying they wanted to be part of the next Netanyahu government, but in the wake of their strong electoral showings are at least giving the appearance of holding fast to the issues that resonated with Israeli voters. The centerpiece of Lapid’s campaign was insistence that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox males be required to “share the burden” of national life, by being required to serve in the army and go to work, rather than receiving state subsidies to study the Torah for much of their lives. Those subsidies have accumulated over the decades because the ultra-Orthodox, haredim, parties have almost always found a place in the governing coalition. They make wonderfully pliant partners on other issues; last year, Netanyahu blew up his largest coalition rather than alienate them on this very issue.

But if Lapid (and Bennett) have their way the ultra-Orthodox will be in the opposition — a fate that a head of the religious Shas party this week professed he was preparing to embrace. Keeping them out not only makes it easier to write legislation intended to change their lives, it also sends a signal to middle-class voters that the new breed intends to address the economic issues that drove the campaign. On his Facebook page last night, Lapid, a former journalist, interviewed himself:

So what was really discussed during yesterday’s coalition negotiation?

We talked about the need for a revolution in housing that will bring down the prices to a level that people can actually afford, we talked about education, we talked about our commitment to easing the burden on the middle class. In other words, we talked about issues that aren’t just spin, issues that don’t grab the headlines, issues that don’t lead to people getting angry with each other and hating each other.

So why is it that the only thing that was published out of yesterday’s session was the Likud’s declaration that we reject the haredim? Excellent question!

Netanyahu called the resistance to the ulta-Orthodox parties a “boycott” by Lapid and Bennett against a segment of Israeli society, one frustrating his effort to assemble a “broad-based government.” So far, however, only one party has joined the joint list of Netanyahu’s Likud and the indicted former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu in the nascent coalition: the Movement party of Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign Minister who campaigned on the need to renew peace negotiations with the Palestinians, agreed to take the post of Justice Minister and head any peace talks. But there were reports on Friday that her deal may be revisited because its terms imply a larger government — that is, more ministries — than the 18 Lapid maintains should be the absolute maximum. Bennett, who opposes peace negotiations, had his own problems with Livni’s pact.

(MORE: Netanyahu Weakened by Elections)

The longer it all goes on, the weaker Netanyahu appears. Polls taken when coalition talks appeared to be at a standstill last month indicated that the Prime Minister’s party would win even fewer Knesset seats than the 31 it shares with Lieberman’s ultranationalist party. The surveys showed Bennett and, especially, Lapid, growing stronger — the former anchorman even winning outright in one recent poll. That will matter if March 16 arrives without a government. The alternative then becomes new elections, presumably by summer.

Almost no analysts are predicting that. But many expect the deal to come only at the 11th hour. As prominent columnist Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday: “There are five stages of grief in the classic Kübler-Ross psychological model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Netanyahu has decided to go through them all.”