Israel’s Netanyahu could form minority government as coalition talks founder

Recently re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering forming a minority government, an unprecedented move in Israeli politics.

Since Israel’s general election on 9 April, Netanyahu has been engaged in coalition talks with a number of right-wing political parties. Yet after over a month of discussions, and having asked for a two week extension to the deadline to form a government, the newly re-elected prime minister is struggling to bridge the divides between the various factions that he had hoped would make up his ruling coalition.

Netanyahu was anticipating that, by bringing the two ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), the Union of Right Wing Parties (URWP), Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party and centrist Kulanu party together, he could form a 65-seat ruling coalition, four seats over the 61 needed to form a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset.

However, due to the increased strength of each of these parties compared to their 2015 election performances, many have become emboldened and made increasingly stringent demands in return for their support.

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Against this backdrop, sources within Netanyahu’s Likud party today revealed that the prime minister is considering forming a minority government of 60 seats, without Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. This would be an unprecedented move in Israeli politics; though minority governments have previously existed, this has historically been the result of coalition partners withdrawing their support for the government later in the Knesset term.

The Times of Israel notes that, even if unprecedented, forming a minority government is not impossible. “Likud sources believe that even if Lieberman does not join the government, he would not actively vote against it and risk being blamed for forcing new elections,” the Israeli daily explains, adding: “Instead, Yisrael Beytenu’s five MKs could abstain in any confidence votes, leaving the coalition with a simple majority of 60 to 55, but still remaining in the opposition.”

Speaking yesterday, Netanyahu appeared to lament the difficulties he has faced during the coalition talks, accusing the various factions of “making impossible demands”. Netanyahu revealed that “one faction asked for four ministerial portfolios – for every one of its MKs [Knesset Members],” which the Jerusalem Post interpreted as referring to Kulanu, “the only potential coalition partner that won four seats” in last month’s election.

Much of the difficulty in reaching a consensus centres around the rift between the ultra-Orthodox parties and Lieberman, who has vowed to follow through on his promise to draft Haredi men into the Israeli army, much to the ire of Shas and UTJ. Lieberman has been unyielding in his coalition demands, repeatedly threatening to “walk” if they are not met.

Lieberman has however denied allegations that he will join the official opposition, which is likely to be headed by Benny Gantz. Although Gantz’s Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party received the same number of seats as Netanyahu’s Likud in April’s election, due to the latter’s position as incumbent he was offered the first shot at forming the government.

However, if Netanyahu fails to form a coalition by 29 May, the task could be assigned Gantz. If he cannot form a government – a real possibility given his apparent refusal to work with the Arab-Israeli parties and the poor election performance of the left-wing parties – Israel could face new elections.

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