April 15 at 9:00 AM
JERUSALEM — As negotiations on the formation of a new Israeli government got underway Monday, almost a week after parliamentary elections, analysts said one issue is foremost in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mind: building an “indictment-proof” coalition.
Israeli President Rivlin Reuven began consulting with the heads of the country’s various political parties Monday on whom they want to head the new government, a process that was live-streamed for the first time.
There is little doubt that Netanyahu will manage to form a coalition, most likely one made up of his own ruling Likud party and his traditional coalition partners of ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties, giving him a 65-seat majority in Israel’s Knesset, or parliament.
But Netanyahu will be looking to form a bloc that will stand by him regardless of whether expected indictments in three corruption cases against him proceed — or one that will even agree to pass legislation granting him immunity from prosecution.
To do that, he will have to balance demands from emboldened ultra-Orthodox parties, secular coalition parties and right-wing nationalists that are pushing for annexation of parts of the West Bank. The nationalists’ pro-annexation interests in particular could clash with Netanyahu’s own reluctance to publicly torpedo a U.S. peace plan expected to be rolled out by later this spring or early summer.
“It’s not exactly his first rodeo,” Gadi Wolfsfeld, a professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, said of Netanyahu’s negotiating skills. But this time, he noted, the prime minister has one overriding aim.
“Immunity is his number one priority,” Wolfsfeld said. He added that Netanyahu is likely to want more from his coalition partners than assurances that they will stick with his government even if he is indicted; he may also seek an agreement to pass legislation that could shield a sitting prime minister from prosecution.
“The difficult thing for him is some of the legislation he’ll have to promise in return,” Wolfsfeld said.
That could include neutering the Supreme Court and annexation of parts of the West Bank, he said. Netanyahu already made a pre-election promise to apply Israeli sovereignty to settlements there, a step considered illegal by most of the international community.
Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblitt has said he intends to indict Netanyahu on charges including bribery and breach of trust, pending a hearing in which Netanyahu can present his defense.
As he met with political parties on Monday, Rivlin urged “courageous unity,” which some political analysts interpreted as a nod toward his preferred option — a unity government that includes Likud and its main rival, the Blue and White party.
Final election results are scheduled to be released Wednesday, and they might be adjusted due to complaints of irregularities. But the current tally from the Central Elections Committee gives Likud 36 seats and Blue and White 35.
Becoming prime minister, however, involves garnering at least a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, necessitating support from other parties.
Blue and White, whose party leaders have said they will not sit in a government with a prime minister under indictment, ruled out the already slim chance of a unity government on Monday, leaving the most likely option a coalition including the far right and ultra-Orthodox.
Part of the campaign platform of the United Right, a far-right faction that includes the extremist Jewish Power, was that it needed to be in the government to stymie any concessions that might come with President Trump’s peace plan.
“The relationship between Netanyahu and Trump is strong enough that if Trump wants a peace plan to move forward, Netanyahu will want to oblige,” said Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent at the Jerusalem Post newspaper. However, Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition would probably not object to a “process” — only “an actual step” would be an issue, he said.
The biggest fault line in Netanyahu’s potential coalition “will be on issues of religion and state,” Hoffman said.
One potential road bump is Avigdor Liberman, who quit Netanyahu’s last government over the prime minister’s Gaza policy. Liberman has yet to back Netanyahu, and he is fiercely secular. He also represents a population in Israel that includes people not recognized as Jews by the ultra-Orthodox.
To form a government, Netanyahu will have to rely on the Haredim — ultra-Orthodox religious parties that have expanded their share of seats in the Knesset from 13 to 15, and possibly even to 16 with the latest readjustments.
“They will definitely have more power than they had last time,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama. “Though it will be interesting to see how Netanyahu will manage the Haredim on one side and Liberman on the other.”
Liberman, a former defense minister and another natural right-wing partner for Netanyahu, campaigned for reelection this month on a platform of weakening the ultra-Orthodox hold on life-cycle events. He has pushed for civil marriages and called on the ultra-Orthodox community to serve in the army in the same way as secular Israelis. The issue of army exemptions caused the last government to fall.
The ultra-Orthodox will be pushing for ministries and budget increases said Tzipy Yarom, a reporter for the ultra-Orthodox magazine Mishpacha. “The fact that we got more power makes us very hopeful.”