Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to defy the odds and maintain his fragile rule.
I have often described Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a magician in my articles, perhaps too often. Yet today I am compelled to use this moniker yet again, in light of my apparently incorrect sense of his government’s (in)stability.
I expected Netanyahu’s government to be destabilized as a result of its failure to halt the third intifada, combined with the usual threats of this or that political party withdrawing from the coalition government. I saw the collapse of the coalition government as a strong possibility given the government’s slim lead of one in the Knesset.
Yet I see now that contrary to all indications, Netanyahu's government remains surprisingly stable.
In May of last year, one hour before Netanyahu’s deadline to form a government and after stormy negotiations with settler parties and the extreme religious right, a radical right-wing government coalesced with the slimmest of majorities – 61 out of 120 Knesset members. The government was quickly labeled as fragile and unstable. It was said in jest that if a Knesset member were to go to the bathroom during a vote, it would cause the government’s collapse. The accepted wisdom was that Netanyahu was obliged to expand his government if he wanted it to continue as prime minister for longer than a few months. Netanyahu’s strategy to keep several government ministries under his authority by not appointing ministers was initially perceived as a way for him to tempt parties outside of the coalition, namely Labour, to join the government. Instead, Netanyahu continued to do the impossible and rule with the tiniest majority.
Netanyahu, who has served as prime minister of four governments, three in succession, is undoubtedly king of the Jewish state. Within his own party, Netanyahu succeeded time and time again in foiling his alternatives. Several weeks ago he declared internal Likud elections for the leadership of the party, though the elections were neither required nor supported by senior or young party members. Netanyahu succeeded in forcing the elections to take place, and also in being the sole candidate running for Likud’s leadership. Other party members understood that if they ran they would certainly lose. Although Netanyahu essentially won these elections by acclamation, Likud members did not dare challenge him.
Last month, another seemingly catastrophic threat was leveled at Netanyahu’s fragile government when settlers broke into buildings in the West Bank city of Hebron. The settlers raised the Israeli flag and claimed that they had purchased the structure from its Palestinian owners. But, the following day the Israeli army evicted the settlers under government order; the Palestinian owners of the buildings had registered complaints, indicating that Israeli regulations for occupying homes in the West Bank had not been followed. Government ministers and their Knesset members from the extreme right threatened to boycott Knesset votes if the government did not immediately reverse the eviction, an act that would have resulted in the demise of the government.
Netanyahu, however, was indifferent to this threat. With his magic, he knew better than anyone else that the threat was not serious, and the reason is simple: no one in the Knesset has an interest in early elections!
But, what about the opposition?
Since the elections, there have been whispers that opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog would join Netanyahu’s government, even if it would be at the expense of splitting the Likud party and alienating the religious and far right parties. What has emerged, however, is a potential split within the Labour party – not Likud.
Several days ago, the hoopla and excitement returned to Labour after Herzog said during a meeting with French President Francois Hollande in Paris: “Now is not the appropriate time to implement the two-state solution.” Because Herzog’s statement is in line with the political agendas of Likud and the extreme parties in Israel, he renewed the battle inside the Labour party, the oldest one in the Jewish state, and reignited talk of Labour joining Netanyahu’s government. But, even if Herzog’s comment doesn't facilitate the participation of Labour in the government, it will serve to weaken Labour, and thus Netanyahu’s opposition.
Netanyahu, the magician.