Netanyahu Finally Forms a Government, But It’s Nearly As Painful As The Election

The Prime Minister appears to have ceded a great deal of authority to two newcomers: Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.

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Bringing together a governing coalition took Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly as long as the campaign, and ended no better for him.  His party having finished first in the Jan. 22 ballot, Netanyahu will head the new government, his third since 1996. But the incumbent was shown up by a pair of newcomers delivering a message he apparently did not want to hear.

The message is that Israel’s middle class wants attention, and the zeal behind it carried the newly formed party of former anchorman Yair Lapid into a strong second place finish a month and a half ago, making him the new strongman of Israeli politics.  Lapid grew even stronger by forming a post-election alliance with right-winger Naftali Bennett, a fellow first-time candidate whose candid approach also struck a chord with voters, and together the novices bent Netanyahu to their will.   The coalition Netanyahu will present to Israeli president Shimon Peres on Saturday night is more of their making than the prime minister who heads it, even though  Netanyahu’s Likud party controls a majority of the cabinet in tandem with campaign partner Avigdor Lieberman’s ultranationalist Yisrael Beiteinu. But the very point that Lapid and Bennett championed is that governing is about more than handing out ministries.  They defined the battle to shape the next government as a question of principle, and won every battle they joined.

“At the end of the road, Netanyahu is probably going to be the prime minister of a government with two camps: old politicians versus new politicians,” Yoaz Hendel wrote in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth. “The old politicians know how to close a deal, to secure budgets, to get job opportunities for their cronies. The new politicians know nothing except that they need to radiate credibility. Their inexperience is their advantage. Instead of talking about portfolios and the trappings of government, the new politicians spoke about substance and the size of the government.”

The signal accomplishment of Israel’s Young Turks was maneuvering the ultra-Orthodox parties out of government.  The black-clad Haredi  lawmakers have grown expert at garnering government subsidies that allowed a majority of ultra-Orthodox men to avoid paying jobs, so they can instead devote workdays to the higher calling of studying religious texts. Their privilege created a structural distortion on Israel’s economy, and irked middle class Israelis whose taxes supported their preferred lifestyle. Lapid made “sharing the burden” the keystone of his campaign, and in an 11th hour showdown also managed to secure the Education Ministry from a Netanyahu appointment who had faithfully protected the ultra-Orthodox’s parallel school system.

Lapid, 49, teamed with Bennett, 40, also kept a campaign promise to reduce government bloat by eliminating the position of “minister without portfolio.” The new cabinet will drop from 28 ministries under Netnayahu’s last government to 22, including the prime minister.  Lapid will serve as Finance Minister, while Bennett will run trade. Formal announcement of the coalition, originally set for Thursday, was delayed a day, reportedly because Netanyahu’s wife objected to  Bennett being named a deputy prime minister; tension between the two dates to Bennett’s tenure as Netanyahu’s chief of staff a decade ago.

“I think Netanyahu has lost a great deal of political altitude in the wake of this election,” says Amotz Asa-El, a former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post, and fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute . “His wings are clipped. His mood seems to be not nearly as cheerful as it was several months ago. …I wouldn’t eulogize him, but I would say that he has arrived at a point in his biography that he certainly did not anticipate.”

If Netanyahu is out of his comfort zone, however, he will receive President Obama on Wednesday as head of a government more representative of Israel as a whole than the right-wing coalition he brought in 2009.  His own Likud remains center-right, though shifted further to right after a controversial party primary was dominated by candidates heavily invested in West Bank settlements. In government, as in the campaign, he remains allied to the ultra-nationalist party of Soviet immigrant Lieberman (for whom Netanyahu is holding the foreign minister’s job, while Lieberman goes to trial on fraud charges).

But Lapid aimed his newly formed Yesh Atid (There Is a Future) party for the center of the electorate, and the other two new coalition members flank it to the left and right: Bennett’s net-savvy campaign refurbished the Jewish Home party from a narrowly pro-settler party to a vessel for the broader ambitions of Israel’s national religious population. And  Tzipi Livni brought her Hatnua (Movement) party into the coalition on a promise that, besides serving as Justice minister, she will head a renewed effort to negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Not that anyone in Israel has high hopes of a peace deal any time soon. Lieberman opposes the framework of the Oslo Accord, and Netanyahu’s choice for the center-left Ehud Barak’s successor as defense minister, Moshe Ya’alon, speaks defiantly about maintaining Israel’s occupation of the West Bank indefinitely.  In any event, talks have been frozen since 2008, and analysts reckon the regional turmoil following the Arab Spring augurs against any dramatic moves. “Nobody even knows the names of the countries that will be neighboring Israel,” says Asa-El. “The Israeli voter said plainly he wants a domestic agenda, because he sees no prospect at all for a diplomatic breakthrough.”