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Can Israel’s Coalition Survive?

A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.

If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.

Netanyahu’s been in a downward spiral as he went from a position of unchallenged strength last spring to his current ridiculous predicament as he must embrace a trio of political rivals that he (and apparently his wife) abhor. The prime minister has made a series of political blunders in the last year that resulted in his party getting a far smaller share of the vote than it might have won only a few months before. While that didn’t prevent his re-election, it did create a situation where he had to find common ground with partners who were in a position to exact a high price for their cooperation.

But the curious thing about the abnormally long coalition talks and the arguments between the leaders that are obviously not fully resolved is that none of this really has anything to do with the key foreign and defense policy questions facing the country that remain at the core of the prime minister’s agenda. Nor is it related to the economic and social issues on which the election was largely fought.

While the rest of the world interprets everything that happens in Israel through the prism of the debates about the peace process with the Palestinians or the Iranian nuclear threat, there isn’t much difference on them between Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett–or even Livni, despite her claim to be the avatar of peace. Nor do the members of this fractious quartet have any real disputes about the need for a more equitable draft system or the need to avoid a retreat from the progress the country has made under the free market model that replaced the old socialist approach that once governed the nation.

Instead, their problem is mainly with each other. Netanyahu not unreasonably fears the ambitious and charismatic Lapid’s plans to supplant him at the next election. The prime minister and his wife also seem to hold a grudge against Bennett, who was once his chief of staff but bolted as a result of an as-yet-unspecified quarrel that may not have been directly related to policy disagreements. Livni is still seething over her failure to defeat Netanyahu in the 2009 election and her foolish decision to stay out of his government. Netanyahu is deeply distrusted by the other three and all–except perhaps for Bennett, who seems to have risen above the personality clashes to be the broker who made the deal–think Lapid is a vain television-created celebrity devoid of substance.

How can these four people live with each other and keep a government going? No one’s sure about the answer to that question as Israel appears to have elected itself a government that seems more like a reality show than a political coalition.

After his 2009 victory, Netanyahu appeared to have learned from the mistakes he made in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s when he seemed to have alienated every friend and political ally he had by the end of his three years in office. But he seems to have forgotten these lessons in recent months as he finds himself with a Likud filled with resentful members who think the prime minister has slighted them and a cabinet full of rivals who don’t like him either.

As I wrote yesterday, this government has an opportunity to do great things. The absence of the ultra-Orthodox parties means it can, among other things, go a long way toward creating a more equitable draft system and make much needed education reforms. It should also be equipped to hold the country together in the face of the Iranian threat as well as pressure to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that isn’t interested in peace. But it will do none of these things and may crash and burn long before its term is up if the quarrelsome foursome can’t learn to get along.


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