Israeli Knesset enters recess amid new questions on government’s stability

March 28, 2017 by Alex Traiman - JNS.org
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Israel’s 20th Knesset entered a six-week parliamentary recess Sunday with serious questions emerging as to whether the current 67-member governing coalition can stay the course and avoid early elections…writes Alex Traiman/JNS.org.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem Feb. 19, 2017. Netanyahu and Kahlon now find themselves in a spat over public broadcasting. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi/POOL/Flash90.

During the past two weeks, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly sent signals that he could disband the current Likud party-led government and call for early elections over the government’s plans to replace the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA) with a new state-legislated entity, the Israeli Public Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet despite the threats, members of both Netanyahu’s 30-member Likud party and the coalition’s other parties seem hesitant to throw the country into elections over what many consider an issue that is not of grave national import.

‘Netanyahu already has his mandate’

“Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and others in the Likud party, as well as Defense Minister [and leader of the Yisrael Beiteinu party] Avigdor Lieberman, have said there is no good reason to go to elections at this point,” said Mitchell Barak, director of KEEVOON Global Research, an Israeli survey research and strategic communications firm.

According to Hebrew media reports, leaders of the coalition’s religious parties—Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee Chair Moshe Gafni (both of the United Torah Judaism party), and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (Shas), said Sunday in a joint statement that they “will not agree to advance [toward early elections], and we will have no hand in it.”

“Netanyahu already has his mandate,” Barak told JNS.org. “And there is no reason to go to elections over this issue. This is the last thing the country needs.”

Netanyahu vs. the media

The new state broadcaster at the center of the current coalition spat was passed into law in 2015, but Netanyahu has been pushing to scrap the new entity just weeks before its impending launch, in favor of resuscitating the IBA—reportedly over fears that its replacement would be a new critic of the prime minister.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, a key coalition partner and leader of the 10-Knesset member Kulanu party, has insisted on launching the new broadcaster, maintaining that it will save the government more than $25 million.

Multiple members of the Israeli press—which is known to have a generally contentious relationship with the prime minister—have reported that Netanyahu has stated his willingness to call early elections if the issue is not resolved before the new broadcast corporation’s scheduled launch.

Coalition in ‘disharmony,’ not crisis

Yet according to political analyst Jeremy Saltan, a former Knesset aide and a current member of the Jewish Home party’s Central Committee, elections are not likely on the horizon.

“There definitely is a little bit of disharmony within the coalition, but I would not call it an all-out coalition crisis. If you take a look at the exact wording that the prime minister and the finance minister have used, neither of them has directly said that we’re heading toward elections,” Saltan told JNS.org.

The current coalition is comprised primarily of nationalist and religious parties, and in many ways represents one of Israel’s most stable and like-minded coalitions in recent years. Yet according to recent polls—which often prove far from accurate—many coalition members, including the ruling Likud party, could stand to lose several seats if early elections were called, potentially paving the way for a new prime minister and a left-leaning government.

“The prime minister has 30 seats—a quarter of parliament,” Saltan said. “It took Netanyahu six elections at the head of the Likud party to get to that. Why would he throw that away when the polls suggest that, even if he were to maintain his current coalition following an election, he might not get to 30 seats again?”

‘No confidence’ not so simple

Saltan suggests that two key factors—the passage of a two-year government budget and recent electoral reforms—contribute to the current coalition’s stability.

“The main way to topple government is not to pass a state budget,” Saltan said. “The coalition just passed a biannual budget, which makes sure that the country and the parliament are relatively stable until the next time a new state budget needs to be passed, which is 2019.”

In the past, the Israeli government was subjected to frequent “no confidence” motions, which could trigger elections if passed. Electoral reforms passed in the most recent legislative term make such motions more difficult.

“Governments are much more stable now,” said Saltan. “The way the law exists, it’s no longer enough to vote ‘no confidence’ in the government. You have to have a ‘constructive no-confidence motion’ in which you present an alternative candidate for prime minister, a list of cabinet ministers, and an attached ‘confidence motion’ in which at least 61 members of Knesset sign in agreement to form a new government.”

“It’s pretty difficult to get 61 votes in confidence of an alternative government,” he added.

Therefore, despite the hype, it remains likely that the current government will remain intact for the time being.

“The Knesset now has a six-week recess,” Saltan said. “Anyone who thinks that the Knesset members are going to come out of their paid vacation to vote to disperse parliament—that would be a historic first.”

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