Tuesday, February 26, 2013

In Israeli Coalition Building, Netanyahu Feels The Pressure

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is reportedly likely to ask President Shimon Peres for a 14-day extension on building Israel's new governing coalition.  The extension would be on top of the normal 28-day period granted to the winning party after elections.  The news is consistent with this blog's election night prediction that Israel's coalition building process would be drawn out.

Part of the delay stems from an agreement between the Prime Minister's two potential coalition partners, Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi.  The two parties have entered a strategic alliance to either join the coalition together, or not join at all.  The alliance complicates the Prime Minister's efforts to play each party off the other in order to ease the terms on which each would sign a coalition agreement with the Likud Beiteinu joint list.

Such an alliance could signal decreased power for the Prime Minister in the next government.  Bennett and Lapid have formed a strong counterbalance to the Likud, and may have incentives to continue to keep this balance.  In the long term, Lapid is much better off downgrading Prime Minister Netanyahu's influence and dealing with Bennett, a political newcomer with a solid but not majoritarian constituency.  Lapid has explicitly stated an interest in challenging Netanyahu for the Prime Minister position, ambition bolstered by a poll out today indicating increased support for Yesh Atid among Israelis.  For his part, Bennett is a mover and shaker on the Israeli political scene whose major obstacle is the Prime Minister.  However, Bennett has the potential to activate an insurrection among the more conservative wing of the Likud party, and stands to be a major player in future coalitions if he plays his cards right.

At a systemic level, the political impasse signals a shift in the nexus of power within Israel.  While Likud may have gotten the most votes, the kingmakers are two ambitious and pragmatic newcomers with ambitious agendas.  While Prime Minister Netanyahu may still be able to cleave Lapid and Bennett apart, the odds are looking increasingly unlikely.  In a longer term perspective, Lapid and Bennett's strong showing indicates an appetite for change among Israelis.  In contrast to the familiar stability for which Israelis voted in 2009 after Operation Cast Lead, voters today seem more confident in Israel's ability to improve its own situation - particularly with regards to domestic issues.  Here in Washington, policy makers should be attuned to this appetite for change and look for opportunities to improve the status quo both for the Middle East as a region and the United States as a key regional player.