Selim Saheb Ettaba, AFP
Last updated: 14 March, 2013

Israel’s Netanyahu sapped by tough coalition talks

Negotiations in Israel to form a coalition government have further weakened Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who stopped just short of abandoning his core principles to appease new partners, analysts say.

During nearly six weeks of talks, Netanyahu was forced to make a number of concessions to Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party which won 19 seats in the January election, and Naftali Bennett, head of the far-right nationalist-religious Jewish Home, whose party took 12.

“Netanyahu sacrificed a lot,” an editorial in Maariv newspaper said. “He blinked time and time again and lost one stronghold after another to Lapid and Bennett.

“That’s how it goes when you have no bullets left in your magazine.”

An agreement between Yesh Atid and Jewish Home to take as much as they could in return for joining a Netanyahu government left the premier with no alternative, Maariv said.

Netanyahu’s rightwing Likud-Beitenu alliance won only a narrow victory in January, taking just 31 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and forcing the prime minister to abandon his “natural” ultra-Orthodox allies, Shas and United Torah Judaism, which collectively won 18 seats.

Both parties are vehemently opposed to plans by Yesh Atid and Jewish Home to change the draft law to compel ultra-Orthodox Jews to serve in the military, effectively nixing any chance of them serving together in government.

“This is not the government Netanyahu wanted,” wrote Yossi Verter in Haaretz newspaper.

Lapid, he said, had pushed Netanyahu to part from his ultra-Orthodox partners, had compelled him to bring about “a painful reduction” in the size of his cabinet and finally forced him to hand over the education portfolio.

But Likud-Beitenu has nonetheless held onto key ministries including defence, foreign affairs and the interior portfolio, and maintains a cabinet majority of 12 against the 10 of its coalition partners, among them the centrist HaTnuah of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.

According to the top-selling Yediot Aharonot, Netanyahu “didn’t want Bennett and he didn’t want Lapid. He viewed each one of them — and even more so the two of them together — as Trojan horses that would destroy his government from within.”

The alliance between Lapid and Bennett was made on the assumption that Netanyahu “would buckle under pressure” and would not risk his political future, wrote the paper’s political commentator Nahum Barnea.

“The assumption was that if Netanyahu were presented with a firm and consistent front, he would ultimately capitulate,” he said.

“Their bet paid off. Netanyahu squirmed and ultimately folded.”

Bennett and Lapid will “fill senior positions in a government under… a prime minister of whom they are openly contemptuous,” he wrote.

“Paranoia tends to grow rampant in governments of that kind.”

The government can still work if bones of contention are limited to internal issues, such as conscription for ultra-Orthodox Jews, but it becomes “more problematic when the issue on the table is Iran or Hezbollah,” Barnea warned.

“The situation is particularly problematic when the two novices sitting at the cabinet table aspire, each one independently of the other, to succeed him as the leader.”