Netanyahu plunges to earth

A mere six weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- political magician par excellence -- was riding high. With his Likud party clearing 30 seats, Netanyahu appeared ready again to dominate the Israeli political stage. And, with back-to-back-to-back victories, there seemed the possibility, should he last until 2018, of surpassing David Ben-Gurion as Israel's longest-governing prime minister.

It has left many wondering how we got to a place where Netanyahu, in a frenzy of last-minute giveaways to his rival Naftali Bennett, was only able to form a razor-thin majority Israeli government (61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset) -- and only an hour before the deadline was to expire. All this has left the master maneuverer boxed in by a narrow government that gives the Prime Minister less space than the coalition he disassembled last fall.

So, what can we expect from this new, narrow and likely dysfunctional coalition? In short -- not much.

To expect an already risk-averse Netanyahu, dependent on a coalition largely of religious and right-wing parties, to make bold and even consequential choices on key issues such as peace is to expect too much. To do anything significant, this coalition would have to be broadened, something not at all that easy to achieve.

Still, we should not underestimate a man who is down but hardly out, or the potential longevity of a seemingly do-nothing coalition. After all, each member knows that stepping out of line, asking for too much or pushing too hard could bring down the government -- and with it the loss of all the spoils and benefits that go with it.

But why was Netanyahu forced to cobble together such a coalition in the first place? A combination of factors, including the fractious nature of Israeli politics, tough bargaining by putative coalition partners and a good deal of personal animus toward Netanyahu from his former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (who now willfully sits in the opposition watching Netanyahu suffer) has denied the Prime Minister a more comfortable 67 seats. Instead, Netanyahu will find himself presiding over a 61-seat majority at the mercy of religious parties and Bennett, the Jewish Home leader who doesn't much care for him either.

As a result, what had been initially seen as a dominant electoral win now appears to have left Netanyahu reeling and vulnerable to demands of right-wing and religious parties. It's a position the Prime Minister doesn't relish, preferring to play a balancing role in a coalition in which he can maneuver. Right now he's got as much space to maneuver as a guy in an old phone booth.

Yet the staying power of the current coalition is probably greater than conventional wisdom might suggest, and at least early on there will be no reason for coalition members to rock the boat. Certainly not Netanyahu's Likud party despite its divisions. The religious parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, meanwhile, believe they have been able to secure key ministries and influence on issues related to conversion, conscription, support for yeshiva, subsidies and other matters important to them.

Moshe Kahlon, who heads the Kulanu party, perhaps Netanyahu's most important coalition partner, has been given the key Finance Ministry. And Bennett of the right-wing Jewish Home party -- the last holdout to come on board -- will get the Education and Justice Ministries, though the full terms of his deal with Netanyahu aren't yet clear.

But a majority of 61 isn't sustainable for an extended period of time. Passing a budget, let alone implementing some of the domestic reforms Kahlon has in mind, will require a broader coalition. A kind of mutual assured destruction -- if one party bolts, the government will come down -- may keep the coalition afloat. But it will prove an unwieldy craft -- dysfunctional and paralyzed.

A national unity government?

Netanyahu's options for expanding his coalition while maintaining his authority and control aren't great. He can try to get Lieberman back in the government or try to reach out to Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party.

But most intriguing is the possibility of forming a national unity government with the Zionist Union -- something that enjoys some support among the religious parties and even among some in Netanyahu's own party. Netanyahu might see merit in getting rid of Bennett and bringing in Zionist Union leader Issac Herzog. The question of course is what would it cost him.

Herzog knows Netanyahu is in trouble, so his price will be high. Yet if Herzog is to be a future leader, he needs experience in prime time. And that means getting out of the opposition and actually running something. Netanyahu would not agree to rotate the job of prime minister, though he might agree to some kind of joint decision-making mechanism.

There's also the potential for the Foreign Ministry as a landing spot for Herzog, which dovetails with the Zionist Union's interest in moving toward resuming negotiations with the Palestinians and progress on a two-state solution. But that enterprise is fraught with so many problems -- not just on the Palestinian side, but in terms of how much control Netanyahu would actually cede.

At a minimum, such a government would likely restrict settlement activity and show a much more moderate and kinder face to the world. But the notion that Likud and the Zionist Union could agree on terms for a solution to the Palestinian problem acceptable to Palestinians seems fanciful at best.

Ultimately, Israel is facing momentous domestic and national security challenges that would be difficult for a more balanced national unity government or even a strong, wise, popular and visionary Israeli leader to address, let alone resolve. There's more uncertainty than clarity about the future course of Israeli politics.

This suggests that Israelis aren't going to get closer to resolving key issues with the narrow government that will be formed a week from now. So get comfortable and pass the popcorn. We're only at the beginning of what promises to be a very long movie -- one that might even prompt a sequel or two.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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