A new Israeli coalition government is set to be invested with authority by the Knesset this coming Sunday. Once it is sworn in, it will end the consecutive twelve years of tenure by outgoing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud Party. Netanyahu will remain in the Knesset as leader of the opposition.
The government is formed upon the agreement of eight parties, and will have as its parliamentary support the bare majority of 61 Knesset members. It is set up under the rotation provisions that were passed into the constitution (more technically, The Basic Law: Government) on the occasion of the formation of Netanyahu’s government arrangement with Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party in 2020.
Under the agreements for this government, the first Prime Minister will be Naftali Bennett of the Yamina Party, while Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid serves as Alternate Prime Minister. The rotation will occur in August, 2023. From that point to the scheduled end of the Knesset term in November, 2025, Lapid will be Prime Minister (and Bennet Alternate). As allowed under the constitutional provisions rotation, Yamina and Yesh Atid will each head a “bloc” that is granted equal powers in the cabinet, and in which even when serving as PM, the leader of one bloc can not dismiss a minister who is from the other bloc.
A good overview of the various agreements is available in the Times of Israel. Many of the facts I refer to in this post are from that article; others are from various ToI live blog editions of recent weeks or other media sources. I will comment on some of the specific policy or personnel decisions below, but I first want to emphasize several interesting features about the balance of power among the parties in this set of agreements.
First of all, it probably should be classified as a minority government. One of the parties, Ra’am, will have no ministers although it will have a Deputy Ministerial position (within the Prime Minister’s Office).* If we do not count Ra’am as part of the government, then the parties actually in government have just 57 seats, and Ra’am is an outside support party. Normally I would say this makes it clearly a minority government, because a majority government implies the parties that comprise the parliamentary majority are all represented around the cabinet table. On the other hand, I think most of the time “outside support” parties do not have deputy ministers, either. Moreover, in Israel there have been parties in previous governments that had only deputy ministers and yet were typically counted as majority coalitions. I am referring to the Haredi party, UTJ, often refusing to take senior ministerial positions but having Deputy Ministers. I take those as special cases (due to the UTJ’s arms-length relationship with the state itself, other than when it is subsidizing their organizations and communities.) I think this is a “normal” minority government relationship, at least when compared to the previous UTJ deals. I am open to other interpretations, however, as this is an unusual and innovative arrangement. [* As of Sunday, it is no longer clear that Ra’am will have the deputy ministerial position. Apparently, under the law on rotation governments, this would have to be noted when the government is introduced before the Knesset, and the party holding such a post has to be classified into one of the blocs. It was not mentioned, per my understanding from Israeli Elections Live, a very useful Twitter account I follow, so Ra’am may have declined the deputy ministerial post.]
The equal power for the two blocs is especially striking. Each party is designated as belonging to the Yesh Atid bloc or the Yamina bloc. And right here we have more evidence for the accuracy of counting it as a minority government, because Ra’am is not designated as a member of either bloc. More strikingly, only two parties are in the Yamina bloc: obviously Yamina itself and New Hope. Together, they account for only 12 seats. That is 10% of the Knesset and only 21% of the government parties’ coalition basis (i.e. the 57 seats held by cabinet parties). Yet they get 50% of the coalition power, given various veto provisions granted to each bloc–the previously mentioned ability to prevent even future PM Lapid from firing Yamina or New Hope ministers, and some specific policy vetoes provided for in the coalition agreements.
In term of ministers, Yesh Atid starts with 7, Yamina 3 in addition to PM, New Hope and Blue and White 4 each, and 3 each for Yisrael Beytenu, Labor, and Meretz. That is 28 ministers, and thus Yesh Atid has 25% of the cabinet despite 29.8% of the coalition’s parliamentary basis (17 seats of the 57). So much for formateur’s bonus–it was Lapid who held the mandate to form the government (hence the formateur). Yamina’s share of parliamentary basis is only 10.5%, yet it gets 14.3% as well as, more importantly, veto power. Quite a good deal. [My numbers here are updated; the full list of ministers is in a ToI article from 12 June.]
Bennett was able to achieve such a good deal precisely because he had strong leverage. He had recommended himself as prime minister in the formal process by which each party head meets with the President after the election. He made himself pivotal by repeatedly stating he preferred a right-wing coalition with Likud. Such a government was not possible from the parliamentary arithmetic unless New Hope (made up of the most recent set of Likud defectors) also joined, or else if both the Islamist Ra’am and the ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party were also in the coalition. None of these ever looked likely given repeated statements by those leaders, so we could question whether Bennett was really pivotal in the technical sense. (Need actual options to pivot towards in order to be pivotal.) Bennett’s real alternative was to allow a second election later this year instead of a government. And Netanyahu had dangled promises of high list positions on a merged Likud-Yamina list and ministerial positions in attempt to pull Bennett away from the “change” bloc. It is evident that Lapid and the others took this threat seriously, and prioritized ousting Netanyahu now over going back to the polls (again).
As already noted in detail in this space by Or Tuttnauer the small size of the prime minister’s party will be extremely unusual. It is a gamble by Bennett, given the usual electoral penalty to governing, and the feeling of betrayal by many of his supporters for joining a government with left-wing parties and backed by an Arab party. But it is a gamble that is probably sensible for him to take, in order to erase the notion that he is just Netanyahu’s subordinate and to exercise actual political power. The post by Tuttnauer also offers evidence that such a small and ideologically extreme party may be more likely to gain votes (perhaps because power makes voters perceive it as more moderate), defying the usual cost of both governing and extremism.
Another unusual feature of the coalition is that the (initial) Prime Minister’s party will have no signed agreements with any of the parties in his cabinet, except that of the Alternate Prime Minister. This must be quite unusual, comparatively! The reason for this is that it is formally Lapid who is presenting the government, even though he will not initially be PM. So his party has a series of bilateral agreements with the other six parties, but Yamina does not.
Several of the policy commitments are of special interest. This government will be one of the few not to include Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parties. As such, it promises to make several changes to religion-state issues, including passing a long-delayed law on drafting more Haredim into the military, reforming the process of selecting the state’s chief rabbis, placing Yamina and New Hope members in positions influencing the selection of judges of the Jewish religious courts, and expanding the opening of stores and running of public transportation on Shabbat (issues demanded by Yisrael Beytenu). The deal with Yisrael Beytenu also states that the government will develop the previously promised but then cancelled egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall. In other aspects of religion-state issues, the coalition guidelines call for maintaining the status quo and giving the Yamina party a veto.
The government will split the positions of state prosecutor and attorney general. It will seek to pass a Basic Law amendment imposing a two-term limit on the Prime Minister (as discussed in an earlier post). It will seek to enact a Basic Law for legislation (on which I have seen no more details).
Additional parties can be added to the government, but both the PM and his Alternate have to agree. The deal with Yisrael Beytenu states that this party also has a veto on additional parties joining. At issue here is the desire of at least Bennett to bring the Haredi parties on board, to sever their relationship with Likud and stabilize the coalition, reducing its dependence on Ra’am. Given that Yisrael Beytenu is the most secular party in terms of its policy positions on religion and state, it is obvious why it wants to be able to determine the terms on which ultra-orthodox parties might join later.
The deals with Labor and Meretz mention advancing rights of the LGBT community. This is particularly significant because the coalition’s support party is Islamist and very vocally opposes gay rights. But it apparently put this aside to advance its other priorities.
Those priorities for the Ra’am have been addressed in what could be a highly significant set of policies. There will be substantial spending aimed at curbing the very high crime rates in the Arab cities and towns, advancing public works projects for the Arab sector, recognizing three specific Bedouin villages in the Negev desert, temporarily freezing housing demolitions in unrecognized villages, and freezing an existing law that seeks to prevent illegal building. Being pivotal—Ra’am was publicly negotiating with Netanyahu over similar concessions before the formateur role passed to Lapid—again has payoffs. In this case, not mostly in personnel, but in policies the Arab sector needs addressed. Ra’am also gets some personnel benefits. I already mentioned the Deputy Minister in the PMO. It also gets to chair the Knesset Interior Committee and the Arab Affairs Committee.
On issues of relations with Palestinians, there are a few points of note. The agreement with Meretz—the most leftist of the Zionist parties—states that there will be no unilateral moves with respect to the Palestinians. (Notably, there is no related clause in the deal with Ra’am.) Otherwise, the government has some guidelines that would be consistent with the right’s preferences: Ensuring that in Area C (the part of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords assign to full Israeli civil and military control) there will be funds for the Defense Ministry to carry out enforcement against illegal Palestinian construction; and increasing budget allocation to Ariel University (in a city deep within Samaria/West Bank).
The question on everyone’s mind is whether the government will last. And, of course, I should make the obligatory note that it is not even a government yet, as it still must not face even one defector in the Knesset investiture vote on Sunday. (It has been reported that two MKs from the other Arab parties in the Joint List might abstain, which would give it a cushion, but not one Lapid or especially Bennett would want to rely on; most of the Joint List members will vote against, thus siding with Likud, Religious Zionism and the Haredi parties in opposition.)
Objectively, an 8-party, 61-seat coalition (counting the support party) in a 120-member parliament, spanning nearly the entire ideological range of Israeli party system should be considered inherently unstable. Nonetheless, I would not assume it will be hobbled from the start. The emerging government has already weathered the biggest stress one could imagine for a potential cooperation between right-wing parties and an Arab party in the form of the 11-day war with Hamas and the horrific inter-communal violence within Israel during that time. If such events had happened after the government was up and running, they might well have forced its breakup. That they happened while it was being negotiated allowed the coalition to pass a stress test at a time when it could still be called off easily.
The other major stress the coalition has seemingly already come through is the risk of defections. Netanyahu has been very openly trying to entice members of New Hope and Yamina to defect from the emerging government. One has done so; that is why I counted above Yamina as having six seats when it won seven in the election. Others engaged in some public agony over what they would do, even delaying the formal investiture of the government by not being willing to join a vote to replace the Knesset speaker before the date the incumbent speaker, of Likud, set it. At this late date, it is unlikely there will be surprise defectors on the day of the vote. There just is not much Likud can offer an individual member, given the overall parliamentary arithmetic. The bargaining process has been a test of Bennett’s ability as a party leader and of Yamina as a party in any meaningful sense–we typically assume parties in parliamentary democracies are unitary actors at least in the questions of entering or leaving governments (a strict and simplifying assumption that normally holds). Yamina and Bennett probably are passing that test, the one already announced defector notwithstanding.
Most of all, the coalition is likely to be stabilized by the basic threat of a return of Netanyahu and the likelihood that many of its component parties—most of all Bennett’s—would suffer significant electoral punishment if they had to face the electorate before significant policy gains could be realized. Sometimes very narrow parliamentary majorities are actually more stable than oversized ones. Ultimately, unless a party has an expectation of gaining by an election or defecting to Likud’s side, the government can last. In the meantime, it will matter what Likud does in opposition. If it cleaves to Netanyahu, as currently seems likely, these parties will not want to go back to partnership with it. Were Likud to replace its leader, then calculations in New Hope and Yamina could change.
The other thing to watch in the coming week or so will be what further amendments to Basic Laws the coalition passes to help ensure its stability. There are several in the works, but details remain sketchy.
While the is a highly unusual government, it really just might work!