Can Netanyahu Hold Israel’s New Government Together?
The fate of the new Israeli government will depend on Netanyahu’s ability to keep his coalition united while preventing international isolation.
Formed in June 2021 and referred to by some as the “government of change,” the outgoing Israeli government was consistently portrayed by its opponents as “weak.” On December 21, fifteen minutes before his mandate expired, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had been Israel's prime minister from 2009 to 2021 and 1996 to 1999, informed the Israeli president that he was able to constitute a new government. During a primetime address the next day, outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid delivered a statement to Israeli media, not sparing the opportunity to give Netanyahu a taste of his own medicine by repeatedly calling him “weak.” In doing so, Lapid referred to the fact that Netanyahu's Likud party will be greatly dependent on five parties generally seen as holding extreme religious and political views. While it is not possible to predict the exact course the new government will take, it is important to examine the challenges it will likely encounter.
In the immediate aftermath of the November 1 legislative election, the situation looked quite straightforward. The six parties within the bloc, of which three had agreed to a shared list, seemed welded together by Netanyahu's political maneuvering and determination to return to power, although certain reports in Israeli media pointed towards tensions between the different factions. The bloc’s clear electoral victory—winning 63 out of 120 Knesset seats—led most to believe that the new Netanyahu government would be formed swiftly. In practice, however, the process needed almost all the time it could possibly take. While the last-minute approach is a proven tactic in Israeli politics, the fact that it appeared arduous to conclude formal agreements between Likud and its partners tells us a great deal about the fault lines within the new coalition, which may be contained or lead to further cracks.
A considerable amount of the differences are ideological in nature. While the government’s general thrust is clearly (far-) right, the exact positioning of its different components on various issues shows the relative importance of the left-right dichotomy in Israeli politics. Indeed, most Likudniks are right-wing on economics and the Palestinian issue, but not necessarily on religious matters. In fact, while it is the largest party in the new government, Likud is the only one that is not explicitly religious in name or nature. Two recent proposals by the religious parties—allowing gender segregation in public events and permitting service providers to refuse services on religious grounds under certain conditions—go strongly against the opinions of part of Likud, although only a few members have publicly commented on these issues in recent days.
For their part, the Haredi parties in the coalition, representing a strictly religious yet no less nationalistic segment of the population, have insisted on increased government spending for their constituencies through higher welfare payments and grants for men studying the Torah on a “full-time” basis. The sustainability of such measures has been more generally questioned in light of Israel’s growing Haredi population, and certain Likudniks will likely find them hard to accept when the moment comes to approve the state’s annual budget.
Part of the friction comes from personal motives, too. It has been Netanyahu’s practice to agree on ministerial portfolios with his coalition partners before turning to members of his own party, and this round of coalition negotiations was no different. However, the idea that Netanyahu has given too much to his “junior partners” is reportedly shared by part of Likud as well, not just by Lapid and the opposition. Although the official line continued to be that “senior” ministerial positions—defense, foreign affairs, and justice—would remain in the hands of Likud, some thought this was not enough. When the Likud Knesset fraction held its first meeting after the election, only a day before the government’s swearing-in, emotions ran high. The fact that several senior Likud figures probably spent much of their political careers waiting and hoping for a ministerial post must not have been foreign to the spectacle.
In order to deal with these ideological and personal fissures, Netanyahu employed two main approaches. The first was to enshrine as little as possible in (non-binding) coalition agreements in order to retain sufficient leeway and keep the government together without breaking the promises he made to his partners. This trick only worked to a certain extent. For instance, while no details were included concerning the controversial “override clause,” which would allow the Knesset to override decisions by the Israeli Supreme Court, it was agreed that all parties would promote it. Netanyahu’s second ploy, equally proven in past negotiations, was to split up portfolios and juggle responsibilities. For example, Haredi politician Aryeh Deri, who aimed to head the Finance Ministry, received an offer for the interior minister and health minister posts, with the promise that he would take over the Finance Ministry in two years.
The current situation may well raise questions about the effectiveness of Israel’s new government, regarding both its political vision and its implementation. Yet it also illustrates something much more profound about Israeli society. Since its founding, Israel has faced fundamental questions concerning its borders with Arab countries, relations between the different segments of its population, and the impact of religion on the state. While there has been a fragile balance at times, a consensus on the underlying issues was never reached. Indeed, the country is famous for having never adopted a formal constitution, and the “basic laws” enacted in its stead are precisely the ones that are increasingly seen as controversial.
No one can deny that Netanyahu is an experienced politician. Nevertheless, in his not-so-new position as Israeli prime minister, he is bound to deal with questions critical for his country’s future, something he has traditionally avoided. To make matters worse for Netanyahu, certain coalition partners hold views seen as extreme, have limited experience in government, and may be unable to compromise. Moreover, they are aware of Netanyahu’s ongoing criminal trials and his need to keep the government together.
In recent weeks, Netanyahu has also attempted to respond to international concerns about the coalition, giving interviews in English to Fox News, the New York Times, and Al Arabiya. It did not take Israeli media long, however, to spot the differences between the content of those interviews and Netanyahu’s domestic statements. More than ever, the fate of the government will depend on Netanyahu’s ability to keep the coalition united while preventing international isolation, all within a volatile regional context. Anyone dealing with Israel or Israel policy would be wise to closely follow these developments.
Dr. Alexander Loengarov is a senior affiliated fellow at the Institute for International Law at the University of Leuven (KU Leuven, Belgium) and a former official of the European Economic and Social Committee of the European Union. He coordinated the first rounds of the EU’s Erasmus Mundus External Cooperation Window scheme for academic mobility with Israeli and Palestinian institutions. In addition to his thesis on the entanglement of politics and law in the issue of recognition of Palestinian statehood, he has published analysis for think tanks like the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Israel Policy Forum, as well as opinion pieces on Middle East and Israeli politics for the Brussels Times.
His writings reflect solely his own views, and not those of the European Economic and Social Committee or the European Union, which cannot be held responsible for any use made of it.