PM Netanyahu's new coalition is being put to the test after a bill to legalize the Ulpana outpost failed to pass the Knesset today. The bill garnered 69 votes against and 22 in favor out of a total 120 members of Knesset. While Netanyahu won the vote without fracturing his coalition, his party now faces serious internal tension which may very well get worse.
The bill was mired in controversy from the start. The Prime Minister opposed the bill out of the desire to project government sovereignty into the West Bank. Settlers in Ulpana, Migron, and elsewhere attempt to circumvent the legal process for founding settlements in Israel. However, such actions weaken the government's control over the Israeli population of the West Bank, exacerbate already poor relations with the Palestinian Authority, and draw international scrutiny. Netanyahu chose to oppose the bill given the importance of government control in the West Bank.
To some extent, today's vote was a success for the Prime Minister and his centrist coalition. The far right's open disdain of Netanyahu's position made little difference in the overwhelming failure of the bill. Netanyahu also successfully enforced party discipline by threatening to fire any minister who voted in favor of the plan.
The cost of this hostility, however, was to empower more conservative members of the Prime Minister's own party. In the wake of the vote, Likud has fractured on the settlement issue. The shock of a new unity coalition last month called the conservative posture of the coalition into question. More conservative Likud MKs were able to play on this concern by far-right constituents today. They defied their own party leader and voted in favor of the bill. These MKs include major voices in the Likud party such as Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely who stand significantly to the right of the prime minister. Yesterday, MK Hotovely opined that Netanyahu may join the centrist Kadima party. This statement is a sharp rhetorical attack on the Prime Minister's lifelong conservative credentials and calls him out on his more centrist stance today. As the Netanyahu administration makes further settlement policy, these popular and far-right MKs will be a substantial threat to the Prime Minister's policy objectives. Overall, this internal dissent may pose a larger threat to the Prime Minister's agenda than the formal bargaining between parties which is part of Israeli coalition politics.
Thus, while Netanyahu's move to a unity coalition ultimately avoided a split between parties, it created a serious cleavage within them. His plan to build an additional 551 housing units in existing approved settlements may have bought some party discipline, but has done little to assuage the salience of opposition attacks. As an added concern, the plan has drawn criticism from the United States which has avoided talking about settlements since a spat between President Obama and Netanyahu on the issue.
In future rounds of policymaking on settlements, the Prime Minister is likely to face even louder opposition, especially if he attempts to balance the demands of Kadima, which now has a precedent in today's vote, with the demands of far right nationalist parties. Kadima stayed largely silent on today's bill but will only be more vocal over time, especially if Netanyahu veers to the right as he will almost certainly be forced to do in the next round. While the Prime Minister is not to be underestimated, he faces a settlement policy fight that may be his most difficult balancing act yet.