With the latest shuffling in his coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has again proved he is a remarkable politician, but only time will tell whether his acumen is good or bad for Israel.
When Netanyahu formed his fourth government with a 61-vote coalition in the 120-member Knesset last year — matching David Ben-Gurion’s record for the most terms as prime minister — we were counting the days until it all fell apart and forced new elections. Instead, more than a year later, the Likud-led coalition keeps going despite constant turmoil, reflecting Netanyahu’s ideological flexibility in all things except his place at the head of the government.
He nearly reached a deal in May with the leader of the Zionist Union opposition, Isaac Herzog, to create a unity government and position Israel for a serious push for some kind of agreement with the Palestinians, whether through the initiative of France, Egypt, the United States or the two parties themselves.
Instead, that deal fell apart, and Netanyahu jumped in the opposite direction, bringing his junior partner from a previous government, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, into the coalition, with Liberman as defense minister. The other members of the coalition approved the deal Monday, May 30.
While Liberman is saying the right things about supporting a two-state solution, his return to the Cabinet led State Department spokesman Mark Toner to say the rightward shift of the coalition raises “legitimate questions” about Israel’s commitment to peace with the Palestinians.
The United States shouldn’t get involved in the composition of the Israeli government. The American concern should be limited to Israel’s actions, not its actors, and with our forthcoming Trump-Clinton presidential election, we’re not in the strongest position to criticize political leadership.
A bigger concern is the response within Netanyahu’s government. Moshe “Bogie” Yaalon, the highly respected retired general who was serving as defense minister during the prime minister’s negotiations with Liberman, not only quit the Cabinet, but resigned from the Knesset and stormed out of political life.
He said Likud has been seized “by extremist and dangerous entities” and “is no longer the movement I joined.” He also reminded the military that it must hold the line and remain humane.
A member of the Kulanu party, Avi Gabbay, then quit his post as environmental protection minister, similarly warning that the government has become increasingly extremist and risks driving Israel toward destruction.
Another coalition member, Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, threatened to block the Liberman appointment over the sharing of security information before declaring himself satisfied.
If only Netanyahu could negotiate with foreign powers — friends and foes — as successfully as he navigates internal politics.
Last year he threw everything into an unsuccessful effort to stop the Iran nuclear deal. In the process he undermined support for Israel among U.S. liberals and ended any doubts that he and President Barack Obama just don’t like each other.
But in six months Obama will be an ex-president, and Netanyahu is all but certain to remain in the office he seems destined to hold longer than anyone else in Israeli history. We can only hope at some point he is able to make national diplomatic history to match his personal political history.