He won the elections over 7 weeks ago. So why is Netanyahu still not back in power?

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Preferring not to turn into a political pumpkin, prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Isaac Herzog shortly before his Wednesday midnight deadline to tell the president that he has managed to put together a coalition that can win the support of a Knesset majority and take over the governance of Israel. “I’ve done it,” Netanyahu then tweeted.

Except that, self-evidently, he hasn’t. The Likud leader has negotiated partial deals with his coalition partners. And he and his colleagues are piloting through parliament the legislative changes required by some of those agreements. But the work is incomplete. And therefore, as things stand, while Netanyahu indeed enjoys the backing of 64 of the Knesset’s 120 MKs for him and their ascent to office, he cannot, at this point, get his government sworn in.

This is rather curious.

It is now, after all, more than seven weeks since the November 1 elections, when Likud, along with Israel’s two ultra-Orthodox parties and a Netanyahu-brokered alliance of three far-right parties, defeated the Yair Lapid-led coalition. The Netanyahu-led bloc had campaigned on the premise that continued governance by Lapid and his across-the-political-spectrum partners constituted a profound danger to Israel’s very security, and that they had to be urgently replaced. The electorate gave Netanyahu the votes to do so. And then… nothing.

Initially maintaining his campaign’s sense of urgency, Netanyahu informally started his coalition talks immediately after election day, before Herzog had begun his customary consultations with party leaders. Herzog officially assigned him the task of building a government on November 13. Lapid then held what he bizarrely chose to declare was the final meeting of Israel’s 36th government on November 20 (since when, as a consequence, Israel’s cabinet has not convened). A further month has passed, and still Netanyahu is not ready.

Instead, in a move plucked from the small print of the parliamentary playbook, the Likud’s newly installed Knesset speaker Yariv Levin on Tuesday declared the plenum shut for almost a week — so that although Netanyahu met his deadline and gave Herzog his word that he had put together a coalition, the 120 Knesset members won’t be assembling until Monday, December 26, to hear those tidings. The maneuver gives Netanyahu a further week if needed, until January 2, to actually get the government sworn in, since an incoming prime minister has seven days after the speaker’s announcement to follow through.

Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu informs President Isaac Herzog that he has managed to form a government, in a phone call shortly before a midnight deadline, December 21, 2022 (Likud spokesperson)

Were anyone but Netanyahu limping into leadership in this way, they would be derided by impatient allies and frustrated rivals alike. And indeed, some of his own party colleagues, anonymously of course, have been seeing at his handling of the negotiations — the powerhouse roles he’s handed out to the leaders of the other parties in the bloc, the readiness to advance their agendas, at the ostensible expense of Likud.

Netanyahu would of course have wanted to lock up his coalition quickly, and to have long since returned to power. It’s just that his allies so mistrust him that they won’t join him in office until they’ve done their utmost to lock him into the concessions he’s granted them.

So we have Itamar Ben Gvir, whose ambition is far from sated even though he’s been given the police ministry, insisting on legislation to subordinate the police commissioner to his will. And, similarly, we have Bezalel Smotrich, eyes unerringly on the ultimate goal of Jewish sovereignty throughout the biblical Land of Israel, bent on insuring the legislative revolution that grants him West Bank oversight from a newly created permanent ministerial post inside the Defense Ministry, thus siphoning powers from both the defense minister and the IDF.

Two years ago, Benny Gantz, at the time Netanyahu’s most potent rival, agreed to partner the Likud leader in a coalition that provided for him to take over the premiership part-way through their joint term. But Netanyahu predictably outsmarted the politically naive former IDF chief of staff, and used a loophole in their deal — preventing the passage of the state budget — to wriggle out of the arrangement. Ben Gvir, Smotrich and Shas leader Aryeh Deri — for whom another law is to be changed, so that he can return as a minister even while under a suspended sentence for tax offenses — are determined not to be so easily duped.

Many Israelis, many Diaspora Jews, and many more overseas who care deeply for Israel are deeply worried about where this unprecedentedly hardline nascent coalition is going to take Israel. They are worried about the further entrenchment of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly over matters of Judaism in the state, and the rejection of the legitimacy of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Worried about the institutionalizing of the exemption of ultra-Orthodox males from military service and any other national service, the allocation of immense state funding to ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivot that will keep those men out of the workforce, and the consequent exacerbated military and tax burden on the rest of the population. Worried by the declared intention, by all parties in the Netanyahu-led bloc, to neuter the High Court, the only brake and protection that Israel has against excesses by a political majority. Worried about a coalition, in which Ben Gvir and Smotrich have such central roles, risking an escalation of conflict with the Palestinians on the ground, while rendering Israel more vulnerable to international “lawfare” and diplomatic pressures.

Several times, in interviews with US media arranged to plug his recent autobiography, Netanyahu has dismissed these and other concerns, waving away the notion that the Law of Return may be amended, LGBTQ rights rolled back, the sensitive checks and balances between the legislature and the judiciary shattered, Israel’s vibrant democracy undermined.

He, and not Smotrich, will retain ultimate authority when it comes to the West Bank, he told Al Arabiya last week. He won’t allow any harm to gay rights, he assured NBC. He will “safeguard Israeli democracy,” he promised the same channel.

“Coalitions make interesting bedfellows,” he told NPR, while stressing, of his future partners, “They are joining me. I’m not joining them.”

MKs Itamar Ben Gvir (left) and Bezalel Smotrich speak in the Knesset on December 19, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

But that’s not the way it has looked during almost two months of negotiations. His inability to bend those coalition allies expeditiously to his will, at least in those areas where he does not truly share their agenda, suggests a far more complex balance of forces.

Tellingly, when Netanyahu tweeted “I’ve done it” at 11:48 on Wednesday night, he wasn’t even breaking his own non-news that he’d met the necessary if almost meaningless midnight deadline. Smotrich had posted his own tweet, “We’ve done it,” 34 minutes earlier.

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