A year has passed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won his impressive reelection bid. Stunning pollsters who even in the final days projected a tight race, Netanyahu managed to rally his base with a combination of incendiary rhetoric and an aggressive social media campaign. Addressing the throngs of Likud supporters crying “Bibi, King of Israel” during his victory speech, Netanyahu promised to form a “stable government” that would address the country’s “security and socioeconomic challenges.”
However, the first year of Israel’s 20th Knesset has produced anything but stability. Even by Netanyahu’s own standards, his performance has fallen woefully short.
To begin with, he failed to prevent the signing of what he deemed to be a “bad” nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. While in hindsight it can be argued that the signing of the deal was inevitable, Netanyahu compounded the problem by posturing before Congress just weeks before his reelection and without the White House’s invitation. For a man so convinced of his own familiarity with U.S. politics that he famously told his cabinet, “Leave the Americans to me,” Netanyahu’s misreading of Washington had major diplomatic repercussions.
Israel’s premier has also failed to make the lives of ordinary Israelis more secure. Maintaining the “status quo” with the Palestinians delegitimized the pro-negotiation camps on both sides, creating an opening for extremist elements. If the most recent wave of terror has proven anything, it is that violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to evolve so long as political leadership refuses to engage in forward-looking policies. Questioned at a press conference last week on why Israel’s security apparatus seemed unable to curb the bloodshed, Netanyahu quietly requested that the public demonstrate patience.
Even Netanyahu’s economic plans have run up against a wall. Last Sunday, Israel’s Supreme Court denied the stability clause of the government’s proposed natural gas framework agreement. The deal, despite Netanyahu’s crafty use of legal jui jitsu in order to push it through, was passionately resisted by a group of NGOs who argued that it established a monopoly over a vital national resource. Down but not out, Israel’s premier must now go back to the Knesset a second time in the hopes of finding consensus for a new stability clause.
This body of diplomatic, economic, and security failings would be enough to trigger early elections in most democracies, especially in Israel where parliamentary elections have been held (on average) every 2.8 years since 1990. So should Israelis prepare themselves for yet another trip to the ballot box?
Probably not. Netanyahu views early elections as a means to reshuffle the political deck in order to offer himself more cooperative coalition partners. However, based on a March 25 poll conducted by Israel Radio, if elections were held today the results would not lead to a major coalition shakeup. Without any foreseeable gains, it is doubtful that Netanyahu would risk pushing the restart button once more.
But would Netanyahu consider a unity government with the opposition-leading Zionist Union party as an alternative to early elections? This option, which has been floated periodically over the last year, offers potential benefits for both sides and rumors are already surfacing that the two parties may engage in negotiations during the current Knesset recess (which lasts until May 23).
For opposition leader Isaac Herzog, who, according to the same Israel Radio poll should fear that his position within Zionist Union is under threat (not to mention the recent report that he and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri are under investigation for possible corruption), entering a unity government and receiving a prominent ministry would be a welcome opportunity to demonstrate his worth to a skeptical Israeli public. It would also serve the interests of many MKs within his party’s ranks who are eager to hold ministries of their own.
As for Netanyahu, always on alert for alliances that could potentially topple him, a unity government would not only neutralize the disproportionate leverage currently enjoyed by various coalition members, but would also establish a barrier between the prime minister and his potential usurpers. More importantly, a unity government with Zionist Union would provide Netanyahu with a large enough fig leaf to reduce international pressure against Israeli policies in the West Bank.
While there are a number of reasons why such a marriage makes sense, the odds are stacked against it. For starters, there is a section within the Zionist Union that from both an ideological standpoint and from an internal desire to diminish Herzog’s influence would reject any path that leads to a unity government with Likud. Within this group, many view a unity government as the equivalent to throwing Netanyahu a life preserver, and would prefer maintaining the support within the party’s constituency even if it means missing out on the opportunity to join a coalition.
After all, there is scant evidence that joining the government will benefit the Zionist Union. Dating back to the early 2000s, Labor Party efforts to join center-right coalitions repeatedly fell short of impacting government policy. Even worse, by abandoning its leadership role in the opposition, Labor’s participation in center-right coalitions eroded the public’s belief that the party was a clear political alternative.
Why would this time be any different? Netanyahu is unpopular, is leading one of the most combative governments in recent political history, and has failed to deliver on his promises to Israeli voters. Cooperation with Likud, at best, would allow Zionist Union to engage in low-level dialogues with the Palestinians (as has been the trend of previous marriages of this kind) while simultaneously undermining the party’s message of “anything but Bibi”. There is no evidence to indicate that Netanyahu would relinquish any critical policy issue for the sake of unity. Better that Herzog and the opposition focus on creating and presenting an alternative agenda to that of the government, expanding the party’s audience, and building new alliances within the political system.
Yes, this means allowing Netanyahu to remain prime minister for the foreseeable future. But considering the degree of polarization and paralysis gripping Israeli politics today, who wants to enable him?