On March 15th, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new coalition government had been formed. The announcement, coming just one day short of the deadline, presented a coalition that reflects the election results where concerns over internal economic issues outweighed those of foreign policy and peace. Given the diverse make-up of this coalition and the resentment over its formation, will it be able to effectively govern and will there be any changes in both domestic and foreign policies?
For only the 2nd time in 35 years, the ultra-Orthodox parties are not part of the government. In fact, the government-sanctioned special treatment and subsidies given to the Ultra-Orthodox (such as exemption from the military and payments for full-time study) were central issues in the election and the foundation of an unlikely alliance between moderate Yesh Atid (There is a Future) and right wing Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home). This alliance forced Netanyahu to abandon the ultra-Orthodox.
Netanyahu’s own Likud Party is also not happy. In agreeing to join the government, Yesh Atid demanded a reduction in the number of ministers as a cost savings measure. Less ministers means less power, and with only 22 ministers, down from 30 in the previous Netanyahu government, this is one of the smallest Israeli governments.
Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, led by the prime minister, holds 31 seats. Its control of 12 ministries including foreign affairs, which Netanyahu will head, defense, and strategic affairs, indicates there will be little change in these areas. Netanyahu has once again expressed a desire to return to negotiations with the Palestinians, but given there is no support to halt settlement expansion, progress is unlikely.
Yesh Atid (There is a Future) was the surprise second-place finisher in the elections with 19 seats. It is a new party formed to represent the secular middle class. Its electoral success is attributed to its focus on economic issues. The party leader and future finance minister, Yair Lapid, was instrumental in depriving the Ultra-Orthodox a place in the new government. In addition to finance, the party will control the education, health, and science and technology ministries. With Yesh Atid responsible for education, the education subsidy given to the ultra-Orthodox can be considered a thing of the past. Yesh Atid favors reaching out to the Palestinians but supports settlement construction. Whether this will make a difference in the progress of peace is unknown.
Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home), a right-wing party whose purpose is to maintain and strengthen the Jewish-Zionist state, won 12 seats and will control four ministries: culture, economics and trade, housing and construction, and information and diaspora. It was party boss Naftali Bennett who joined Lapid to tell Netanyahu they had agreed not to join a new government that included the ultra-Orthodox or maintained a system of preferential treatment. Given that Bayit Yehudi does not support a two-state solution, and with control of the housing and construction ministry will push for more settlements, it’s difficult to imagine there will be much more agreement between the two parties.
HaTnuah (The Movement) which won six seats, is a liberal party formed in 2012 by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. She was the first to join the new government, agreeing to serve as justice minister and lead negotiator to the Palestinians. The party will also control the environmental ministry. Naming Livni as lead negotiator could be a signal from Netayahu that he is willing to finally reach a solution with the Palestinians; however, Livni will not control the negotiations, only execute the prime minister’s instructions. So while she has the trust of the Palestinians, how that will influence the actual peace process will have to be watched.
It is clear the emphasis of the new government will be on domestic issues. Eliminating special treatment given to the ultra-Orthodox, cutting the deficit and unemployment, and lowering housing costs will most likely take center stage.
The question remains however; will this new government be able to govern? The opposition holds 52 seats. Arieh Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told Israeli Army radio "Our first mission is to topple this government." The road ahead will not be smooth.