In a political drama that played out down to the wire, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a slender majority to form the country’s next government and keep him in office for a third consecutive term and his fourth in two decades.
Less than two hours before the midnight Wednesday deadline for forming a government, Netanyahu announced that he had reached agreements with enough political parties to give him a parliamentary majority. Failure to form a coalition could have cost the prime minister his post.
The emerging government will be based on a coalition of Netanyahu’s Likud party, the Orthodox religious parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism, as well as the centrist Kulanu and the hawkish Jewish Home parties. Put together, the five parties control 61 of Israel’s 120-seat parliament, or Knesset, the narrowest possible majority but enough to form a government.
In a formal letter to the speaker of the Knesset, Netanyahu said he had succeeded in forming a government and would present it for the Knesset’s approval as soon as possible. That is expected to be Monday.
In a brief statement to the press, Netanyahu said 61 was a good number but more would have been better. “There is much work left to be done,” Netanyahu said.
A landslide victory for Netanyahu’s Likud party in the March elections appeared to place Netanyahu in a comfortable position for forming a coalition swiftly with the religious and conservative parties he calls his “natural partners.”
However, the road to the seemingly obvious coalition was unusually long and fraught with tension and fierce political and personal rivalries that may linger and mar relations in the new government from the start.
Netanyahu had set his sights on a broader coalition with a stronger majority and already signed agreements with the two religious parties and the centrist one in recent weeks.
But in a carefully timed maneuver Monday, Avigdor Lieberman announced that he was resigning his post as foreign minister and that his six-seat party, Yisrael Beitenu, would go to the opposition and not join Netanyahu’s new government. He accused Netanyahu of conceding key issues to coalition partners and said the new government was guided by opportunism, not principle.
The move appeared to embolden the Jewish Home leader, Naftali Bennett, whose demands to Netanyahu were a sticking point until they were reluctantly met at the last moment, making his eight-seat party the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. That put Netanyahu over the top and gave him the minimal majority required to rule in Israel’s complex parliamentary system.
After locking horns with Netanyahu in the last hours before the deadline, Bennett appeared by the prime minister’s side Wednesday night and announced his party’s support for Netanyahu and pledged to work together with him.
“This government is neither right-wing, left-wing or centrist. It is a government for all of Israel,” he said.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who lost the elections to Netanyahu, said the new government was “narrow and weak,” lacked the power to advance anything and would soon be replaced by an alternative of “hope and responsibility,” his own party’s campaign slogans.
Sobelman is a special correspondent.