Bibi-Smotrich dust-up will dog this coalition
With a ratio of one minister per two coalition MKs, the emerging government’s job inflation will more than match the monetary inflation wreaking havoc with the world economy. Every one of the future coalition’s MKs will get a sinecure of some sort: While dozens will plump themselves into the deer-hide chairs reserved for government ministers, others will enjoy the perks of chairing Knesset committees, with expansive offices and extra parliamentary aides. And this doesn’t even include the dozens of new MKs who will enter the Knesset to take the place of ministers resigning from the chamber, in accordance with the Norwegian Law.
Job inflation dates back to the late Ariel Sharon. “It feels good to be a minister,” he said.
He must have enjoyed making people feel good: During his first government, the once-modest government table on the Knesset floor had to be expanded to accommodate the record new 28 ministers.
Netanyahu has learned from Sharon — as well as from his own mistakes. After his first election in ’96, he stuck to the basic law limiting the number of portfolios and formed a standard government of 25 ministers. But the constant intrigue from MKs left out of the government turned him into a lame duck from the start of his term. Since his return to power in 2009, Netanyahu has adopted the Sharon model, dispensing ministerial roles liberally.
But the system was taken to a whole new level by Lapid and Bennett’s change government, in which every MK was a kingmaker. With an inflated list of 28 ministers, Norwegian Law MKs galore, and diplomatic patronage, the pair did whatever they needed to patch together the disparate elements of their unworkable coalition.
This time around, Netanyahu had hoped to form a government within two weeks at the most, smoothing over differences by handing out as many roles as necessary.
Netanyahu’s rationale was simple: If the right-religious bloc was able to hold together during the trying days in the opposition, this should be all the easier when it was time to share the spoils.
In retrospect, we can already say that this assumption was the emerging coalition’s first mistake, and one that could affect its performance for the remainder of its term.
Chazal teach us that wealth is a harder trial than poverty, and right-wing voters have learned the truth of this in the aftermath of their stunning election victory. The right ended the campaign exulting, but its leaders’ conduct since the election has taken the bloom off the rose.
Bibi has found himself dealing with a recalcitrant ally in Bezalel Smotrich, who started by climbing the highest tree in the neighborhood and demanding the Defense Ministry. Egged on by the Americans, Netanyahu turned him down, but Smotrich hasn’t given up, and has become the biggest obstacle on the road to a right-wing government.
Last week, Smotrich was expected to fly to New York for the Chabad Kenes Hashluchim in New York, a strategy reminiscent of that of Bibi’s old nemesis, Avigdor Lieberman. Back when he was considered part of the right-wing bloc, Lieberman used to disappear during the coalition negotiations, fly abroad for a vacation, and show up at the last minute to duke it out with Netanyahu.
Smotrich ended up canceling his trip, and Chabad sighed with relief, in light of the feedback they had received from US donors associated with the Democratic Party. But even in Israel, Smotrich didn’t give Netanyahu a moment’s rest. Manufacturing crises, leaking his demands to the press, and putting the talks on hold for days at a time, Smotrich is going all in. He’s now demanding the Finance Ministry, as well as powers traditionally belonging to other ministries, such as Education and Defense.
To neutralize Smotrich before the situation gets out of hand, Netanyahu decided to outflank him through his ally Itamar Ben Gvir, who ran with Smotrich as part of a technical bloc in the election. After an expedited negotiation process, Otzma Yehudit became the first party to ink a coalition deal with the Likud last Friday. In the process, Netanyahu asked Ben Gvir to make his independence from Smotrich as clear as possible.
According to his deal with the Likud, Ben Gvir, whose campaign focused on restoring order to the Negev and Galil, will lead the National Security Ministry — a revamped version of the Public Security Ministry, with a bigger budget and authority over Israeli police forces on both sides of the Green Line.
Netanyahu’s message to right-wing voters is clear: Smotrich says I haven’t met his ideological demands? Then how did I already sign with Ben Gvir, who’s even further to the right?
ITwas clear to everyone at every stage of the negotiations that a government would be formed, but the question is how its leaders’ squabbling will affect the future government’s life expectancy.
Smotrich, who has won the Finance Ministry, at least for the first half of the government’s term, with a mere seven seats, should remember that the best measure of a finance minister’s success is, in order of importance, backing from the prime minister, and backing from the rest of the coalition partners.
And what do the future finance minister’s allies think of him in private? Just about the same as what Smotrich himself thinks of Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu, to judge by recordings leaked on the eve of the election, in which Smotrich called him a “congenital liar.” Netanyahu has responded by describing Smotrich privately as a “congenital megalomaniac.”
But it isn’t just Netanyahu. Take Shas chairman Aryeh Deri, who expressed interest in being elected speaker of the Knesset before the government is sworn in, to advance legislation enabling him to serve as Finance Minister despite pleading guilty to tax offenses.
Without entering into the legal niceties, it was Smotrich who kiboshed the move and refused to move forward before signing a coalition deal with the Likud. Smotrich thus earned himself another powerful enemy in the incoming cabinet in Aryeh Deri.
And if Smotrich had any credit left from the right’s year in the political wilderness, he squandered it during the coalition negotiations. Now his balance is overdrawn, not only vis-à-vis Netanyahu, but with all his coalition partners. To sum up: This isn’t how you start out on the right foot.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 938)
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