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Netanyahu coalition impasse ‘not a political crisis’

Text by: Marc DAOU
4 min

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been working without success since February 2 to form a coalition government. With a March 16 deadline looming, French political analyst Frédéric Encel talks to FRANCE 24 about Israel's political dilemma.


Time is running out for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a coalition government in the wake of January’s legislative elections as a March 16 deadline looms.

So far, only Tzipi Livni, former foreign affairs minister and head of the centrist Hatnua Party, has agreed to join Netanyahu. The prime minister can therefore count on six centrist politicians and 31 representatives from the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance (formed with rightwing nationalist Avigdor Lieberman) as members of his government.

The problem is that he needs 61 members to maintain a majority in the Israeli parliament, or Knesset.

According to Israeli media, former TV star Yaïr Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid (winner of 19 seats) and Naftali Bennett, of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home Party (12 seats), are on the verge of negotiating their participation in the coalition in exchange for several concessions.

In an interview with FRANCE 24, Frédéric Encel, a French political scientist and an author who specialises in the Middle East, offered his assessment of a complex situation.

FRANCE 24: Could Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu end up failing to form a coalition?

Frédéric Encel: No, a coalition government headed by him will soon be formed, without a doubt. Since 1949, different Israeli prime ministers used all the time given them to form their cabinets. Netanyahu is not facing a political crisis, but rather an arithmetic problem that he has to solve by giving more power to certain political forces than to others in his new coalition.

Netanyahu has more room to manoeuvre now than he did after the 2009 legislative elections, when he was forced to align himself with ultra-orthodox and far-right parties. This year, he has several options. And it seems that one of them – joining with right-wingers, centrists [including Tzipi Livni] and nationalists – is on the verge of becoming reality. This would be the first time in 20 years that the ultra-orthodox party Shas would not be in the cabinet.

FRANCE 24: Yaïr Lapid of the centrist party Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett of the right-wing, nationalist-religious Jewish Home Party emerged from the elections with considerable power. Is it in their best interests to join Netanyahu’s coalition?

F.E.: Lapid’s percentage of the vote makes him a force to be reckoned with now. His party will doubtless be, along with Likud, the main pillar of the coalition. Israeli constitutional law stipulates that if the prime minister does not manage to form a coalition, the person who came in second – in this case, Lapid – has a turn to create a coalition.

However, Lapid has no reason to want to see Netanyahu fail. He knows that the political class is not ready to let him be prime minister. It is in his interest, as well as in Bennett’s, to enter the government, build on his current popularity and prove his political skill – because if he disappoints, the risk is that he never again reproduces the electoral success he has just had. Israeli history has often shown this kind of centrist party rise to power and then collapse, because disappointed voters pivot quickly back to the traditional parties.

FRANCE 24: If the right wing-centrist-nationalist coalition you say is most likely ends up being formed, what will be the impact on the Palestinian issue and on Iran?

F.E.: In terms of Iran, one shouldn’t expect much change. It is a vital matter in Netanyahu’s view and it is only brought up in security meetings with the top ministers, army chiefs and secret service.

On the other hand, a new coalition could bring new propositions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process – even if nothing guarantees that [Palestinian] President Mahmoud Abbas will accept them. The presence of Tzipi Livni, who campaigned on the promise of restarting peace talks with the Palestinians, suggests that there will be some initiative in that direction.

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