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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Israeli Leader Forms Precarious Government - Expected 61-seat majority leaves Netanyahu little margin for error in Knesset

From The Wall Street Journal:

TEL AVIV—Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cemented a conservative and religious coalition that will let him remain Israel’s leader for a fourth term, but afford little room to safeguard his government’s survival.

In an unexpected epilogue to his Likud Party’s election landslide in March, the Israeli leader became embroiled in prolonged negotiations with coalition partners that were further complicated by a former ally’s desertion this week.

The talks succeeded shortly before the legal expiration of his mandate to form the government midnight on Wednesday, but left Mr. Netanyahu with a badly truncated majority and an empowered Jewish Home party, a religious nationalist group which held out to gain concessions.

The new government member’s conservative positions are likely to complicate Mr. Netanyahu’s relations with the U.S. and Europe at a time when Israel faces increasing isolation over stalled negotiations with the Palestinians and its opposition to nuclear diplomacy with Iran.

The result came after the prime minister called early elections in December with the hope of forming a more cohesive and stable government. Instead, he has a razor-thin majority with the potential for even more instability.

The new 61-member coalition is Israel’s smallest postelection government in 34 years and leaves Mr. Netanyahu with little margin for error in the 120-seat Knesset.

Political commentators and opposition politicians criticized Mr. Netanyahu for allowing political partners win too many concessions in the negotiations.

“Netanyahu didn’t establish the government he wanted,’’ said Israel Radio political commentator Yoav Krakovsky. “He settled for a government that was forced on him by the coalition partners.”

Isaac Herzog, the leader of the opposition Zionist Union Party, said Mr. Netanyahu had given into “extortion” during the talks. “A weak and narrow government that won’t advance anything,’’ Mr. Herzog called it.

Mr. Netanyahu’s struggle to form a coalition, even after requesting an extension, presages the kind of disputes that may lie ahead.

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu’s combative foreign minister and longtime ally, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned his post, saying Mr. Netanyahu had done little to advance settlement expansion and wouldn’t fight against the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu faced a last-minute demand for the post of Justice Minister from Mr. Bennett’s Jewish Home, the remaining holdout among Mr. Netanyahu’s partners, a move likely to create strain among other coalition partners.

“Netanyahu’s victory celebrations were premature,” said Mitchell Barak, a public-opinion analyst.

No coalition in Israel has leaned so far to the right since Mr. Netanyahu’s first government in 1996, which rose to power with promises to slow down the Palestinian peace process.

The leader’s new government will likely face pressure from the international community to halt new settlements in contested territories and accelerate peace negotiations with Palestinians. Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition members favor the opposite.

“There is no coherence between the policies that the international community demands of him, and what is demanded of him by his coalition partners and his party,” said Dan Meridor, who held several ministerial posts under Mr. Netanyahu. “This tension could explode. You can’t square a circle.”

That tight bargaining space within his government signals continued testy ties with President Barack Obama and European allies. They have clashed with Mr. Netanyahu over peace negotiations with the Palestinians and sparring has stretched on through talks with Iran over a potential deal to all Israel’s archrival to maintain its nuclear industry.

Few predict relations will improve much with the current White House. “The approach will be damage control,” said Oded Eran, a former deputy director of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

In an internal memo last month, Israel’s foreign ministry said repairing the “severe crisis” with the White House should be a top priority for the next government. The comments, confirmed by the ministry after their publication, said Israel would soon need U.S. support in future conflicts without which Israel “would pay a heavy price.”

Palestinian statehood is one place where Israel could suffer diplomatically this year. The Jewish Home calls U.S. opposition to settlement expansion discriminatory and seeks to annex much of the West Bank into Israel. Jewish Home is against establishing a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu has begun to say he is against establishing one in the new future.

In response, Palestinians have attempted to pass a United Nations resolution that would immediately recognize a Palestinian state and set a date for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, which it has occupied since 1967. Expressing frustration with Mr. Netanyahu, the White House said it may not veto such a proposal as it has in the past.

“The real contest with the Palestinians will take place on the international stage this year, not in Israel,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at Israeli college IDC Herzliya.

Mr. Netanyahu’s thin majority could also impede the government’s domestic agenda. Moshe Kahlon, the incoming finance minister from the new center-right Kulanu party, rose to power promising an overhaul of the Israeli economy to reduce the cost of living. Economic inequality and rising house prices have often eclipsed security as Israel’s main political issue and resulted in large-scale protests in 2011.

Kahlon has said he plans to push reforms in the housing market and food retail market. He has also said he want to force banks to reduce fees on private individuals. But to succeed he will now need every vote in the coalition.

Voters will be watching carefully to see if he succeeds on that front, analysts say, and will punish Mr. Netanyahu if he doesn’t gain traction.


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