Depending on where you sit and what you believe, being part of Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition is a leaky, shaky ship of state that recalls three things:
A morality play about Donald Trump where the media chorus sings “No way, never happen” and then it happens.
Gilbert and Sullivan’s, “HMS Pinafore,” an operetta where sailors sing a funny chorus about a shaky captain who claims never to have gotten seasick: “What never? No, Never. What Never? Well … hardly ever!” Similarly, Israel is full of parties who claim they will never ever join “Captain” Netanyahu on his ship, and then sheepishly sing “hardly ever.”
And for Netanyahu himself his ship’s crew is like a bad mortgage – something that demands drastic renegotiation.
Israelis laugh wryly at their situation, alternatively chuckling, wailing and yelling at their politicians for producing unstable coalitions and sometimes-farcical policies in a year of three elections and a virus.
The ship of state wobbles along as Captain Netanyahu keeps bragging that he’s in firm control, has never been seasick, does not really worry about several pending criminal indictments. Similarly, some of the opposition parties who bragged they would never ever, but never, serve with Captain Netanyahu have indeed joined him on board his wobbly vessel.
But, to be fair, it’s not the politicians’ fault – not exclusively.
Israel’s electoral system encourages many small parties and minority participation through proportional representation, unlike the either/or two-party system of the United States or the winner-take-all representative division in parliamentary district systems such as Britain.
Historically, the binary approach of U.S./Britain produces clearer results and more stability, but not always.
Traditionally, the U.S. system brings polarizing primaries but bipartisan compromise after the final general election. Netanyahu, who studied in the U.S., has said several times that he prefers the U.S. model, with a strong executive. However, years of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump did not get great results. For example, former Senate Majority Leader Reid, D-Nevada, was able to prevent the U.S. from having a budget for several years in a row.
A similar budget problem now afflicts Israel, but with an Israeli twist. If parliament cannot approve a budget, the law requires a new election – the fourth in less than two years. This is wasteful and stupid, but it’s the law, and it will probably happen on March 23.
In the meantime, Israel’s ship of state drifts from crisis to crisis, sometimes unable to act consistently about fighting the COVID-19 epidemic. Secular leftist politicians push for open theaters and open beaches, while religious politicians push for open synagogues. Haredi politicians – an integral part of Netanyahu’s coalition – have prevented Netanyahu from locking down cities in the Haredi sector despite virus outbreaks there.
How can this happen?
Israel is governed by a parliamentary system of proportional representation where no party ever wins an outright majority, and it encourages lots of minority views. Sometimes a minority can actually call the tune for the majority as when the Haredi parties can make or break Netanyahu’s coalition.
Netanyahu has succeeded in making more coalitions than anyone in Israeli history and becoming Israel’s longest serving prime minister ever not just because he is smart and a good speaker but because he knows how to balance a coalition.
“If they give, they will receive” (Hebrew: Im yitnoo, yekabloo) was Netanyahu’s famous phrase when bargaining with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians, stressing his principle of mutual give and take.
It has now become Netanyahu’s guide to negotiating with potential coalition partners, but Netanyahu’s big problem – you should pardon me for saying this – is that he has a credibility problem like Arafat: people have learned not to believe his promises. Indeed, one could say that Netanyahu has learned from Arafat: make an agreement and then break it if you can gain an advantage.
Netanyahu promised Benny Gantz, leader of “Kahol-Levan” or Blue-White, an equal rotation as prime minister, with Netanyahu going first. He also promised Gantz’s party a say in the judicial system, through control of the Justice Ministry, an area that never really interested Netanyahu until he got indicted.
When the national unity government of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Alternate Prime Minister Gantz was formed, Gantz lost part of his popular backing. His voters did not like him sitting with Netanyahu. Gantz lost the more leftist Yesh-Atid faction of Yair Lapid, which pulled out of Blue-White. Lapid said Netanyahu could not be trusted and should not be prime minister with criminal indictments hanging over his head.
Gantz, a retired general, had campaigned on a pledge never to serve in a government headed by Netanyahu – “What never? No, Never.” Then, he sang a different tune: “What never? Well … hardly ever.”
Gantz, widely seen as a decent non-politician playing in the shark tank of Israeli politics, said he was willing to sacrifice his reputation because Israel had no choice but to go for stability, a national unity government.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu actually got more votes after he was indicted, and the law says he can govern until there is a final verdict against him. So, Netanyahu’s strategic position got stronger, while Gantz’s got much, much weaker. Current polls show Likud would be the largest party, again, while Blue-White would shrink dramatically, maybe even disappear.
Gantz is trying to hold out for a renewed promise – this time guaranteed by a tight law – of getting his rotation as prime minister, but he has very little political leverage. Theoretically, no one should want elections, and nobody really cares whether there is a one-year or a two-year budget.
If there is a fourth round of elections, Netanyahu will actually face two parties challenging him on his right flank – the Yemina Party of Naftali Bennett and the new Tikva Party of Gideon Sa’ar.
Bennett and Sa’ar were once close aides to Netanyahu. So was Avigdor Lieberman of the Israel Beitenu Party. Someday these old buddies of Netanyahu may actually join hands against him and push him out by forming a coalition with the Center-Left or with the Haredi Parties.
Netanyahu has been prime minister for much of the period from 1996-2020 – 15 of 26 years – which goes to show that one hallmark of Netanyahu’s career is alienating most of those who used to love to work with him.
Michael Widlanski is a Jerusalem-based journalist and advised Israeli negotiation teams at the Madrid and Washington talks in 1991-92.