Netanyahu Forms an Israeli Government, With Minutes to Spare

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, right, and Naftali Bennett, head of Jewish Home, in Parliament on Wednesday.

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Gali Tibbon/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel barely met the legal deadline to form a new government on Wednesday night and will start his fourth term with the slimmest of parliamentary majorities, made up of right-leaning and religious parties.

Mr. Netanyahu and his Likud Party celebrated a surprisingly strong victory in the March 17 elections after a divisive campaign, but ended up scrambling to scrape together 61 of Parliament’s 120 members into a coalition — and hold on to his premiership. He was forced to make major concessions to the more conservative Jewish Home party, and emerged weakened to lead a government that Israeli experts said was unlikely to last long or do much.

“Netanyahu simply miscalculated,” said Eytan Gilboa, a professor at Bar-Ilan University who specializes in politics and communications. “What you see here is a big political mess that, I think, shows Netanyahu has been too confident.” Of the new coalition, he added, “Nobody in his right mind believes that this will hold for even a short time.”

Mr. Netanyahu and the head of the Jewish Home, Naftali Bennett, appeared together at Israel’s Parliament building shortly before 11 p.m. to tell reporters they had sealed the deal. The two men, who have clashed frequently over politics, policy and personal matters, shook hands after two days of fierce negotiations.

“Mr. Prime Minister, we are behind you for the success of the country and the government you head,” Mr. Bennett said in comments broadcast on Israeli radio.

Mr. Netanyahu indicated that he would still try to lure other parties to the coalition to strengthen it. “I said that 61 is a good number, and that 61-plus is even better,” he said. “But it begins with 61, and we will get started. There is a great deal of work ahead of us.”

Many Israeli analysts said the last-minute deal-making and the narrow government it produced pointed to problems in Israel’s fractured political system. Ten parties split the seats in Parliament, with the largest, Likud, winning 30, a quarter of the total. The final frenzy of negotiating came after Monday’s surprise announcement that Israel’s unpredictable and ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, would not join the new government.

“It’s more like a soap opera than serious politics,” said Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at Hebrew University.

“In every other country, if the largest party has 30 seats, this is ridiculous, this is not a victory,” he added. “In normal countries, such a result is the best loser. We have a problem with our government system and this fragmentation.”

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bennett plan to finalize details of their agreement and sign it Thursday, and the new government is slated to be sworn in next week. Some details remain unclear, but the Likud-led coalition will include Kulanu, a new center-right faction focused on the economy; two ultra-Orthodox parties, United Torah Judaism and Shas; and the Jewish Home, which favors expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Bennett is expected to serve as education minister, and another Jewish Home member, Ayelet Shaked, as justice minister; both will probably sit in the security cabinet, which makes critical decisions about war and peace. Kulanu’s leader, Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud minister, will become finance minister and will also serve in the security cabinet, along with Moshe Ya’alon of Likud, who is likely to continue as defense minister. Mr. Netanyahu himself will probably double as foreign minister for now.

Mr. Netanyahu’s comments, and statements earlier Wednesday by other Likud leaders, suggested that he would soon try to lure Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union as foreign minister in a national unity government. But Mr. Herzog denounced Wednesday night’s deal as “a government of national failure.”

On Twitter, Mr. Herzog called it a “government with no responsibility, stability or governance,” and on Facebook, he said it was “the most weak, narrow and squeezable government in Israel’s history.”

With Mr. Lieberman’s late-in-the-game withdrawal, Mr. Bennett used his added leverage to demand the Justice Ministry for Ms. Shaked, stirring outrage. She is an outspoken hawk on the Palestinian issue who has described African asylum-seekers as a threat to Israel’s Jewish character and has pressed for a “nationality bill” that critics say would disenfranchise Arab citizens.

Nachman Shai, a Zionist Union lawmaker, said giving Ms. Shaked the post “would be like appointing a pyromaniac to head the fire department.” Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, called the new Israeli government “the most extremist in its history.”

“Since this government does not pay even lip service to the charade of a negotiated peace with the Palestinians, the international community and Western powers in particular can dispense with the traditional honeymoon period,” Mr. Rabbani said in a statement circulated by the Washington-based Institute for Middle East Understanding. “If there is to be any hope for peace in the Middle East, it needs to begin with an end to Israeli impunity and by holding this government to account for its actions.”

The coalition agreements that Likud signed earlier with Kulanu, Shas and United Torah Judaism call for repealing laws passed by the last government to expand the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men and to ease the process of converting to Judaism. Each party in the coalition could veto the nationality bill and object to efforts to limit the Supreme Court’s ability to invalidate parliamentary actions.

Adding the Jewish Home will complicate things, since its modern-Orthodox constituency is often at odds with the ultra-Orthodox.

“It’s a weak government, numerically but not only numerically — they are not singing the same song,” said Tamar Hermann, a political scientist at Israel’s Open University. “The question is whether Netanyahu will be able to orchestrate them effectively.”

Noting that the prime minister had squeaked the coalition through “like Cinderella, a minute before midnight, before he turns into a pumpkin,” Professor Hermann said his ability to maneuver going forward “is nothing like what people expected the day after elections.”

The 61-member coalition is the thinnest majority in Israel in two decades, according to parliamentary records. Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a centrist former member of Parliament, called it a recipe for stagnation and dysfunction.

“Any major changes, economic or foreign policy, are not going to take place — it’s a government that will be based on an ongoing balancing act and pleasing the members without aggravating the other members too much,” Mr. Plesner said. “Either it will expand or it will collapse.”

But Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said that small governments had actually proved stable around the world because members know that “anyone who makes too many problems really directs the gun at his own head.”

“It’s going to be more cohesive” than the previous government, Professor Diskin said, referring to the fissures over expanding settlements in the occupied West Bank and the nationality bill that led to its dissolution. “I don’t think that something dramatic can be expected.”

Mr. Netanyahu, for his part, played down the drama of the approaching deadline. “I am sure no one is surprised that this negotiation took time, with all of the factions,” he told reporters at the Parliament building. “No one is surprised that it ended on time.

“But time is pressing,” he added, both to finalize the details of the coalition agreement and to officially notify President Reuven Rivlin, as required by law.

He did that in a telephone call around 11:15 p.m., in which the president suggested the prime minister catch the end of a Barcelona vs. Bayern soccer match that had been competing with coalition news on televisions across the country. “It may relieve some tension,” Mr. Rivlin said.

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