Since Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation as Defense Minister and Yisrael Beytenu’s departure from the government in mid-November, the ruling coalition led by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has just 61 Knesset members out of the 120-member parliament.
And while it’s not impossible to govern with even the thinnest of majorities — in fact, it is possible and legal to govern without a majority — the threat of even a single coalition member voting against the government raises the probability of early elections in the Jewish state.
Yet with the current government already serving nearly four years and pre-scheduled elections already set for November 2019, Israel is nearly in election mode, regardless of whether the current coalition crashes. Crises that threaten to collapse the government may have less to do with fundamental issues of governance and more to do with political posturing.
“The so-called crises are not real, but rather excuses being prepared to force elections over an issue that the party thinks it can be beneficial in the next election,” said Einat Wilf, former Knesset member and current political scientist.
And while the coalition could continue holding power until the scheduled polls, with Lieberman’s resignation — a move that many believe to be directly tied to his Yisrael Beyteinu Party’s low polling numbers — fractures in the remaining alliance are already bubbling to the surface.
Hebrew University political-science professor Avraham Diskin explains that a narrow coalition must “rely on strict discipline,” with all coalition partners fully onboard and present for key votes. The situation has kept Knesset members from traveling abroad out of fears that a snap vote could lead to the government losing a key ballot. By contrast, a wide coalition is “flexible” and “less vulnerable” to demands from coalition partners.
“The narrow 61-member coalition is holding strong, but we are reaching nearly full term. Elections are just down the road or a bit further down the road, so divisive issues are bound rise to the surface,” Diskin told JNS.
During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the right-wing Bayit Yehudi Party got into a shouting match over the confirmation of Netanyahu as Defense Minister in Lieberman’s absence. Netanyahu already holds the coveted foreign ministry portfolio, as well as the health ministry portfolio.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who leads the Bayit Yehudi Party, had given Netanyahu an ultimatum demanding that he be cast into the newly vacant senior defense ministry portfolio on the day of Lieberman’s resignation. However, Netanyahu — in a verbal (and visual) power grab — skillfully assigned the portfolio to himself in a nationally televised address, essentially forcing Bennett to back down from his public demand.
Following the cabinet fiasco, in a public statement uncommon among coalition partners, the Likud Party publicly chastised Bennett for “putting on a childish horror show against his own government in a pathetic attempt to get the defense ministry for himself.”
‘Determined to make it work for as long as possible’
“It was a clear signal that the smell of elections is in the air,” said Hebrew University political-science professor Avraham Diskin.
Multiple members of the coalition would like to be tapped with any of the available portfolios in order to improve their own political standing. Portfolios could be divided among coalition partners or kept within Netanyahu’s Likud Party, if the prime minister chooses to make any ministerial appointments at all.
In addition to the hoarding of coveted portfolios by Netanyahu, the coalition is currently being challenged by a number of major issues, each of which could become the trigger for bringing down the governing coalition at a time when any one of the partners, including Netanyahu himself, deems that collapsing the government could be used to their electoral advantage.
Yet former Yesh Atid Knesset Member Rabbi Dov Lipman predicted that despite threats and complications, the coalition is stronger than it appears, and early elections will only come if and when Netanyahu is ready.
“When the government was first formed in 2015, it had only 61 members and was not very stable, prompting Netanyahu to expand and include Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beyteinu Party. Currently, I sense that despite the noise, the coalition partners are determined to try to make it work for as long as possible,” Lipman told JNS. “Ultimately, it’s really only Netanyahu who will decide when he thinks the time is right for elections.”
Diskin thinks the “elections are basically around the corner,” whether or not the government completes its full term.
“Since 1988, there has never been an election exactly on time,” he said. “This government will last beyond four years, and whether elections are held in May 2019 or November 2019, it’s just a six-month difference and not very meaningful. Netanyahu will decide based on his own reading of what suits him.”
Wilf added that “it doesn’t matter when at this point when elections are held. The average government lasts 3.8 years, and this government will go beyond four years. The coalition made it this far, and it could go on for the next half-year as well.”
That said, Wilf quoted the famous interchange with former British Prime Mister Harold McMillen. “When asked, ‘What will blow your government off-course?’ he replied: ‘Events, my dear boy, events.’ The breakup of the coalition can come from many different directions.”