Netanyahu faces coalition tightrope

Benjamin Netanyahu needs to form a coalition that will not harm his relationship with President Donald Trump, but also one that will protect him in case he is indicted.

al-monitor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump met at the White House, Washington, DC, March 25, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Carlos Barria.

Apr 15, 2019

After the Likud’s successful showing in Israel's April 9 elections, US President Donald Trump rushed to congratulate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On April 10, Trump told reporters on the White House lawn, “I think we have a better chance now that Bibi has won.… I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace.” A few hours earlier that same day, Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, had announced that the administration would be rolling out its long-awaited Middle East peace plan in the “very near future.” Regardless of such statements, it’s unlikely that many are enthusiastically anticipating the dawn of a new day. If anything, there appears to be a failure, or even an escalation, waiting to happen.

Before or soon after the next Israeli government is formed, the plan will be rolled out that the team headed by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and adviser, worked on for two years and changed substantially at least twice. Netanyahu, whether after reading it or only receiving general information about it, will praise the United States and its president, thank Trump for the extraordinary effort his administration invested in developing the plan, and call it an important move in a new and promising direction compared to previous plans. He will add that many points are acceptable to him, but there are also some troubling issues that would be very difficult to accept due to Israel's vital interest. Thus, although he sees the document as a basis for very serious negotiations with the Arab world and with the Palestinians, he will have to discuss it seriously with his colleagues in the government and deliver an official response as soon as possible. 

The ultra-Orthodox parties, it appears, will not throw obstacles in the prime minister’s path. Netanyahu could explain to the diminished right — minus the New Right, which didn’t surpass the vote threshold — that he does not intend to implement a plan that includes a territorial concession, that his stated acceptance of a two-state solution 10 years ago in his Bar-Ilan speech no longer stands and that the Palestinians will “do our work for us” in rejecting any offer Trump makes. If the right doesn't buy this approach, Netanyahu can promise that if the Palestinians surprisingly do not reject the plan out of hand, he will present conditions making it impossible to implement the plan, and Trump will be forced to remove it from the agenda. Netanyahu also has another card to play: A Palestinian rejection would make it easier for him to ask the leader of the free world to back the proposition Netanyahu announced on the eve of the election to annex all the settlements. With such arguments, it would be, it seems, hard for the right to insist on rejecting any plan out of hand.

All this could indeed happen. It wouldn’t be hard for the Palestinians to reject Trump’s plan, even without playing diplomatic games of delaying or presenting a letter with an infinite list of reservations. If they do reject it, Netanyahu could raise his annexation plan, which would cause most of the world to rear up on its hind legs. Trump himself might support the prime minister’s suggestion, not only because of his friendship with Netanyahu, but because of his anger at the Palestinians’ rejection. 

This scenario will not necessarily play out, because the ability to anticipate the responses of others has its limits. The best example is Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s decision in 1991 to agree to the request of Secretary of State James Baker and participate in the Madrid conference, estimating that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad would play the spoiler and refuse to take part. Shamir believed that he could thus avoid a confrontation with the United States, and that in any case, he wouldn't have to meet with the man seeking the return of the Golan Heights. Assad surprised him and agreed to the summit, and Shamir was forced to fulfill his promise to attend. It was the Madrid summit that opened the way to Oslo, which opened the way to peace with Jordan. 

The Palestinians are not committed to Netanyahu’s script. They could easily play the game that he wants to play, but they could also examine the US plan, as painful as it might be for them, understanding that Israeli voters just gave the Likud four more years in power and that it’s not at all guaranteed that Trump will be replaced in November 2020. They could hold to some of the easier points for them to accept and adopt a strategy similar to the one Netanyahu is planning and try to start negotiations with Israel with the support of the “Arab Quartet” of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

Even if the formal power of the extreme right is reduced after the final results of the Israeli elections are tallied, it will still be significant in the stability of Netanyahu’s coalition. Several of the most hawkish members of the Likud itself could join a far-right stance against the US plan. Netanyahu would then find himself in a difficult spot. He does not want to damage in any way the alliance between himself and Trump, so to avoid such damage he likely needs to form a coalition that would be prepared to participate in negotiations with the Palestinians. Those who would join such a coalition from the left side of the political map would demand real negotiations, not talks for show and in which they merely serve as extras in Netanyahu’s script. 

Netanyahu could find partners for a negotiations coalition in the Blue and White, whether the entire party or part of it. (According to law, those who leave a party must reconstitute at least one-third of it in a separate Knesset faction to avoid losing various Knesset privileges.) For Netanyahu, this could be essential for maintaining the alliance with Trump, and for Blue and White it could be a good reason to undo the unnatural package its leadership tied together — combining the Israel Resilience, Yesh Atid and Telem parties — in forming the party.

If Netanyahu finds himself in the situation of having to negotiate, it will not be because he wants to, but because he has concluded that he can’t risk losing a coalition to serve him on his most sensitive issue: the possibility that he might have to stand trial and face public pressure for his resignation in that situation. The continuation of the alliance with Trump is important to him, but only if he doesn’t see it thwarting the possibility of avoiding trial or continuing to serve as prime minister during a trial. 

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