Benjamin Netanyahu continues to confound opponents, surprise experts, and consolidate political power. Through a series of unconventional moves since 2009, Bibi has gone from struggling to form a supposedly weak coalition to heading one of the largest parliamentary majorities in Israel’s history. His bold move this week, cancelling early elections in favor of a unity deal with opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, is only the latest in a series of maneuvers that attest to his political acumen:
• Netanyahu created Israel’s largest government, with 30 ministers and eight deputy ministers out of 120 Knesset members. Despite his criticism of predecessor Ehud Olmert’s 27 ministers as wasteful, his massive government ensured him the loyalty of 38 MKs, more than quarter of the Knesset.
• In his first six months in office, he focused on consolidating coalition discipline, some say by controversial methods. Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai submitted a complaint that Bibi’s advisers burst into his office while Vilnai sat absent from a vote on the Knesset floor that would have failed without Vilnai present to vote.
• Bibi strengthened the power and influence of advisory bodies within the Prime Minister’s Office. The National Economic Council, created in 2006, was a largely irrelevant body under Olmert. But with Bibi’s 2009 appointment of Eugene Kandel as head of the NEC, it grew quickly in importance, influencing policy on management of natural gas revenues, taxes, and Israel’s macroeconomic policy. The influence of the National Security Council has grown as well under Netanyahu, assuming responsibilities previously handled by the military adviser, a Defense Ministry official. Knesset members regularly complain that the Prime Minister’s Office has taken power from them, including the Knesset Speaker. As MK Daniel Ben-Simon put it on the Knesset floor: “We are closer to the Chinese model… the (Prime Minister’s) Office decides everything. There are no checks and balances.”
• Netanyahu consolidated power within his Likud party, taking the unprecedented step of running for party chairman as sitting Prime Minister. He won the election easily, giving himself control over the party’s slate for the next election. This move angered Likud’s right wing, who wanted to stack the list with their activists. Likud’s right wing still has not forgiven him.
• Bibi keeps outlasting his political opponents. After refusing to join Netanyahu’s government, former Kadima head Tzipi Livni gained no traction as opposition leader, and found herself voted out of her party’s leadership. He almost succeeded in breaking Kadima in two by passing the “Mofaz Law,” allowing eight MKs to jump ship to another party. He split the Labor party in two, keeping Ehud Barak and his new Independence Party in his government. The rump Labor Party would have done quite well if the early elections were held, but they will have to wait another year and a half. Popular journalist Yair Lapid, who jumped into politics recently with a new political party, also stood to do well in the scheduled September elections, but by October 2013, he will likely not be a factor at all.
Netanyahu’s latest surprise allows him to progress on major legislation, as no party can topple the government, and no coalitions can form against him. Religious parties will hold little sway in the coalition, allowing the secular Likud, Independence, Yisrael Beiteinu, and Kadima members to pass a new law requiring ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army and the labor force. This might cost the coalition the votes of 16 MKs, but it can easily handle that. There has also been a growing effort to reform Israel’s unstable electoral system, with more power centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office. Expect the new coalition to pass legislation, drastically reforming politics in Israel.
Still, significant hurdles remain for Netanyahu’s government. The Supreme Court gave the government two months to evacuate the Givat HaUlpana neighborhood in the West Bank, and right wing MKs have threatened to leave the coalition if the evacuation goes ahead. The budget, which must pass this fall, is extremely controversial, as there is simply not enough money available to fulfill promises made in response to the social protests last summer.
This move has implications for America, too. Obama, clearly no Bibi fan, will have to deal with a strengthened PM, and will find it even more difficult to intimidate him. Netanyahu has more political backing for his Iran policy, but Mofaz has been more moderate rhetorically than Netanyahu or Barak. And if the Palestinians are really interested in making progress on peace negotiations, this is exactly the kind of broad coalition, armed with stability and national security credibility, that can hammer out a game changing deal with the Palestinians.