The past few weeks were ones of turmoil in the Israeli political system. At first, it seemed that Prime Minister Netanyahu was set to expand his narrow coalition by inviting Zionist Union leader, Isaac Herzog, to join it. This revelation alone sent shockwaves through the political system, including a massive backlash from Herzog’s own party members, who refused to consider sitting in Netanyahu’s government. For weeks, reports circled around the tango between Netanyahu and Herzog. Then, suddenly on May 18th, the music changed. Without prior notice, Herzog was abandoned and left to lick his political wounds. All eyes were turned to the new “shidduch”: Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, who up until that very point had acted as arch-nemeses. In a paraphrase of the 1996 election results, the public went to sleep with Herzog and woke up with Lieberman.
This time the shockwaves were enormous, and came from all parts of the political system. One reason is Netanyahu’s zigzag between Herzog and Lieberman and the element of surprise with which Lieberman entered into the coalition. Another is Ya’alon’s removal from the Ministry of Defense and Lieberman’s appointment as his replacement. This is the same Lieberman whom the Likud party only recently derided as “a man whose closest experience to a bullet whistling by his ear is a tennis ball flying by”, and whom, in turn named Netanyahu a liar, con man, and a fraud only a few weeks earlier.
Since the most recent election, Netanyahu has desired to strengthen his coalition by having either Herzog or Lieberman join. What stands behind this desire? Why is it so cardinal to Netanyahu, who seems to be never satisfied with his current political partners?
According to coalition theory, the two most common types of coalitions are the minimal winning coalition – which includes the minimal number of MPs needed to win a majority in parliament – and the oversized coalition – which, as suggested by its name, includes more MPs than the minimal number needed for a majority. In Israel, coalitions traditionally tend to be oversized; aside from the current Netanyahu government, only three other governments have relied on minimal winning coalitions, the last being the second Rabin government in 1992. In other words, all Israeli governments since the mid-90s relied on oversized coalitions, following the notion of “the more the merrier”. This is surprising since, if anything, the literature predicts minimal winning coalitions to be just as stable, if not more stable, than oversized coalitions due to the strong incentives coalition members have to obey party discipline and the absence of a free-rider problem.
Nevertheless, the political reality in Israel appears to defy these theories. In the first year of the current government’s existence, coalition management proved to be extremely hard for Netanyahu, who was often “blackmailed” by its members. What is striking is that quite often he was blackmailed by members of his own party. This was the case with MKs Amsalem and Neguise – both Likud MKs – who twisted Netanyahu’s arm to approve the Aliyah of 1,300 Ethiopian Jews, threatening not to vote with the coalition otherwise. This was also the case with MK Oren Hazan, number 30 on the Likud list for Knesset, who also threatened not to vote with the coalition on important issues unless he received important and prestigious parliamentary positions. He ended up with spots on two of the most prestigious Knesset committees (Finance, Foreign Affairs and Defense) and the esteemed position of deputy Knesset Speaker.
Given these challenges, it is no surprise that Netanyahu sought to enlarge his coalition in almost any way possible, in order to not be held hostage by rebellious MKs or factions. A minimal winning coalition in the political reality of Israel in 2016 is risky, dangerous, and unstable. The ability, at least theoretically, of every member of the coalition to bring it down, calls for political extortion and cannibalism in Israeli political culture.
This state of affairs is especially striking (and disappointing) if we take into account the fact that this is one of the most ideologically cohesive coalitions we have seen in Israel in years. The government formed after the 2015 elections was a right-wing government. This type of coalition, known in the literature as a minimal connected winning coalition, represents the best of all worlds. It is a dream coalition composed of parties that are adjacent on a policy scale and devoid of unnecessary partners. Generally, this type of coalition means a smooth sail throughout its term, However, in Israel it is considered, at least from Netanyahu’s point of view, the source of all evil. The fear and uncertainty about coalition loyalty, despite its ideological proximity and its desire to maximize political power, made Netanyahu go to extreme lengths to add additional coalition partners, even at the price of breaking its relative ideological homogeneity. For now Netanyahu may have bought himself an insurance policy for a stable government, but at what price? We should be mostly worried by the effect this political turn of events may have on the public’s trust in the political system and its members, which is already at a low point. When the public is so doubtful and cynical about politics, and political trust in the system and in our elected representatives is constantly declining, one would expect politicians to be extra cautious and mindful in what they say and what they do. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case, and while Netanyahu may have bought himself a few more months of coalition stability, he and his friends in the political system are doing their best to demonstrate the truth of the observation that quite often the cynicism of the Israeli political system knows no boundaries.