As he prepares to present his new government to the Israeli parliament, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poised to lead a narrow and unstable rightist coalition that he would prefer to expand.
With the slimmest possible majority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu will preside over one of the most hawkish governments in Israel’s history, composed of the prime minister’s rightist Likud party, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home faction and two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism.
The composition of the coalition dims any prospects for progress in peace efforts with the Palestinians or any new curbs on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, analysts say.
“Netanyahu will not be taking any initiative,” said Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on Israeli foreign policy at Bar-Ilan University. “In the past he has always tried to have someone on his left in the coalition so he could present a positive face to Europe and the United States and counterbalance forces to his right. Now none of that applies.”
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In addition to continued stalemate on the Palestinian issue, some coalition members are expected to promote domestic legislation that civil rights advocates have warned could harm the status of Israel’s Arab citizens and undermine checks on government policies.
In frenetic last-minute coalition talks, Netanyahu agreed to give Jewish Home control of three Cabinet ministries, although it won only eight seats in parliament. The party opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, backs Jewish settlement in the West Bank and calls for annexing part of the territory to Israel.
Two of Jewish Home’s ministers will serve in the powerful security cabinet, the third minister will control an agency that funnels government funds to settlements, and a deputy minister from the party will oversee the Israeli military government in the West Bank.
The appointment of a party lawmaker, Ayelet Shaked, to the post of justice minister has been particularly controversial. Shaked has advocated curbing the power of the Israeli Supreme Court by changing the way judges are chosen and authorizing parliament to override court rulings that strike down legislation deemed unconstitutional.
Shaked has also been one of the proponents of a contentious draft bill that would enshrine Israel’s status as the Jewish state, a law that critics say would diminish Israel’s democratic character and undermine the standing of its Arab minority.
Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a center-right party, is the designated finance minister with an agenda of economic reforms. A former member of Likud, he has said little on the moribund peace efforts with the Palestinians, telling the Haaretz newspaper in a campaign interview that “at the moment we have no partner and there’s no one to talk to on the other side.”
The posture of the government could change if Netanyahu succeeds in bringing his main election rival, Isaac Herzog, into the coalition. Herzog heads the center-left Zionist Union alliance, and though he has pledged to lead the opposition, Netanyahu has signaled that he would like to bring him into the cabinet.
Netanyahu has kept the Foreign Ministry portfolio for himself, and his spokesman said last week that it was being held for a possible future entry to the government by Herzog, along with his party.
At a Likud meeting on Monday, Netanyahu pledged: “I will continue to make an effort to broaden the government, because the challenges before us are enormous and to face them we need the widest national consensus we can achieve.”
A broader coalition would be more stable, but Herzog declared last week that he was not about to “save Netanyahu from the hole he has dug for himself.” Still, the statement has not put to rest speculation, including within Herzog’s own party, that at a later stage he could be lured into the government.
In the meantime, Netanyahu will have to work hard to avoid strains within his coalition that could lead disgruntled partners to break ranks and bring the government down.
“In a coalition of only 61 members of the Knesset, Netanyahu is doomed to twist in the wind, beholden to the whims and caprices of each and every parliamentary joker,” wrote Chemi Shalev, a columnist in the Haaretz newspaper.
Without a coalition partner that can balance his government’s heavily rightist tilt, Netanyahu could face more confrontation with Washington and Europe over Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
“If Netanyahu doesn’t bring in Herzog,” Rynhold said, “it’s going to be a bumpy ride.”