The 33rd coalition in Israel: Not minimal winning, nor super-sized

By Renan Levine, Lecturer, University of Toronto-Scarborough

What is the story?

After protracted negotiations, incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he will be leading Israel’s 33rd coalition government. In the immediate aftermath of the Israeli election on January 22, 2013, I outlined Netanyahu’s possible coalition possibilities (see previous blog entry).

The coalition Netanyahu formed is composed of his own party, Likud Beitenu, right wing Bayit HaYehudi, and two centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. The coalition controls 68 out of 120 seats. The government is not a minimal winning coalition because the three largest parties in the new coalition, Bayit HaYehudi, Likud Beitenu and Yesh Atid would have been able to control a 62-member majority without Hatnuah.

In contrast to predictions that governments leaders should prefer a minimal winning coalition (or at least a minimal winning connected coalition), oversized coalitions tend to be the norm in Israel because the Prime Ministers dislike being beholden to the demands of small coalition partners with the power to make or break the government. Over the past month-and-a-half, Netanyahu made it clear that he would prefer such a large coalition including parties on the right, parties in the center and ultra-Orthodox religious parties. So, what happened?

Element 1: Coordination of junior coalition partners

Netanyahu failed to realize his desired coalition because he was thwarted by a surprisingly strong alliance between Bayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid to jointly maximize their leverage over Netanyahu. Both Bayit HaYehudi and Yesh Atid refused to join a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox religious parties, unified in their desire to implement policies in office that would result in radical reforms to the current system of state subsidies for ultra-Orthodox schools and religious institutions and ending draft deferments for ultra-Orthodox men.

Element 2: Saliency of the religious-secular cleavage

For several decades the dominant issue in Israeli politics is peace and security, including such questions like whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or make concessions to the Palestinians. A secondary cleavage is over religious-secular issues, which because of the high level of state subsidies to ultra-Orthodox families and their religious schools is often wrapped up in concerns about domestic social policies.

During the campaign, the polls assured voters that Netanyahu’s Likud Beitenu would be the largest party and Netanyahu would continue his role as Prime Minister. This appears to have satisfied voters’ concerns about peace and security, since they could assume that Netanyahu would continue to take the lead on these issues. Consequently, many voters felt comfortable casting their vote to express their views on secondary cleavage instead of on peace and security. Religion and state and domestic social issues thus became very salient during the 2013 campaign, fueling support for Yesh Atid (a brand new party) and a substantially reorganized Bayit HaYehudi. Their party leaders recognized that their success was largely dependent on these issues and stood firm on these issues during negotiations.

Outcome: Expect hawkish approach to peace negotiations with Palestinians

While Netanyahu was forced to compromise on social and religious issues, he successfully held the line on peace and security. As a result, Likud will not only control the government’s median policy position on peace and security, they will also control the ministries primarily responsible for defense and foreign affairs. So, read the media headlines with some skepticism. Netanyahu and his party allies must be pleased with their ability to dominate policy-making on the issues that matter most to them and their supporters.

While many on the left are excited about the prospect of change in domestic policies and religious affairs, their excitement must be tempered by the knowledge that key positions on defense and foreign affairs will be held by politicians whose support for any compromise with the Palestinians is tepid at best. Contrary to some predictions that this government will last no more than a few months, popular reforms on social and religious issues combined with more of tough talk on peace and security could boost Netanyahu and the Likud at the next election.

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