Monday, April 20, 2015

Bibi Buys Time And Tacks Toward The Center

Israel's President Reuben Rivlin has granted Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu a two-week extension to form a governing coalition. Bibi will now have until May 6 to pull together enough parties to form a 61-seat majority or better in the Knesset.

Analysts hailed Netanyahu's win in March 17th elections as a landslide. Yet while the Likud party won a formidable 30 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, coalition formation has dragged on. Creating a coalition should, in theory, be easy for Netanyahu. The Prime Minister has a number of choices for coalition partners, and he is highly adept at playing rivals off each other. However, despite Likud's preference to wrap up negotiations early, they have continued on and forced the Prime Minister to request the two-week extension.

Netanyahu has been particularly interested in forming a coalition with Kulanu, the new centrist party which won 10 seats in the election. Despite scorn from the right-wing HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu parties, today Bibi met personally with the Kulanu party's leader Moshe Kahlon. This is a shift from the Likud's right-wing coalition partners in the past few elections, but it is a smart move for the Prime Minister. A centrist party would allow Bibi more political efficacy since he wouldn't be constantly needing to appease to the far-right parties. While he will have to play ball with HaBayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu at some level, having Kulanu as the major coalition partner gives Netanyahu some room to pursue an agenda closer to Likud's center-right platform. 

Additionally a move to the center would generate less antagonism within the Knesset itself. The center-left Zionist Camp's 24 seats is a formidable bloc that represents an important constituency among the Israeli public. Netanyahu is making a wise choice by tacking to the center. It allows him to avoid antagonizing centrists and simultaneously accuse the Zionist Camp of being impotent since it will agree with much of what the Prime Minister does anyway. 

Importantly, aligning with Kulanu does not mean Netanyahu will stop settlement building, giving handouts to religious parties, or antagonizing the international community. However, a Likud-Kulanu government might see progress in terms of social welfare for secular Israelis, regulating high prices, and pragmatism rather than dogmatic thinking on other policy areas.

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