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Backroom Deals and Political Posturing: The Coalition Building Process Is Underway in Israel

After an acrimonious election, some of Israel's politicians are jockeying for position in the new coalition government and striking conciliatory gestures.

by Harriet Salem
Mar 26 2015, 4:00pm

Photo by Dan Balilty/AP

Wrangling to form a coalition government began in earnest in Israel on Thursday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received an official recommendation from President Reuven Rivlin to head negotiations following 67 recommendations for his leadership from the country's 120-seat parliament.

Netanyahu, whose Likud party made a last-minute surge to election victory last week on the back of a dramatic rightward swerve in their election campaigning, has said he wants to form the next government "as quickly as possible." However Israeli coalition-building negotiations — a process fraught with backroom deal-making and political posturing under the best of circumstances — usually takes weeks, and this time round it is expected to be further complicated by Netanyahu's ongoing dispute with the White House.

"He [Netanyahu] will have to contend with the usual vying and jostling for ministerial and committee positions but there's also going to be lot of pressure on him from the US... to keep extremists out of key posts," Dr. Gayil Tashir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told VICE News.

Netanyahu's final days of election campaigning attracted condemnation from US officials, including President Obama, after he warned Israelis to go to the polling station because "the Arabs are voting in droves" and appeared to about-turn on his previous commitment to an independent Palestinian state on the eve of the vote itself.

Since then the Israeli prime minister, set to take his fourth-term at the country's helm, has attempted to retract some of his more controversial comments but the reaction from the White House has so far been frosty.

Related: White House chief of staff says Israel's occupation of the West Bank 'must end. Read more here.

"When he says one thing one day and another thing another, it's impossible to tell if he's sincere," US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said in response to Netanyahu's post-election apology to Israeli Arabs for his comments on election day. "We can't read his mind," she added.

On receiving the official election results on Wednesday, Rivlin echoed the wishes of the White House in calling for a coalition with as "broader base as possible."

"We have endured a difficult election period," the president said, as he formally tasked Netanyahu with forming the next government. "From every direction, things were said that ought not to have been said in a Jewish and democratic state. Fanning the flames serves no one. The fire does not only heat, it threatens to engulf in flames. Today is the time to begin to heal these wounds."

Netanyahu responded by saying that "our hand is extended in peace to our Palestinian neighbors," but also added that "real peace" could only be secured if "Israel remains strong."

Both Rivlin and the Obama administration had previously voiced their support for a so-called "unity government" between Likud and the center-left Zionist Union coalition block. As Netanyahu can muster 67 recommendations without their support, however, this outcome is unlikely.

For his part, the Zionist Union's leader Isaac Herzog also repeated that his party was unwilling to enter into a partnership with Netanyahu's Likud, which he accused of spreading rumors of a potential coalition deal to improve its bargaining position.

"Let me clarify, the Zionist Union is not a pawn in the game of running to destroy the State of Israel which Bibi [Netanyahu] and Bennett [the leader of far-right Jewish Home Party] are playing," Herzog said on Thursday, repeating his position that the party would only enter the parliament in opposition.

Among the parties most likely to feature in the Netanyahu-led coalition is Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu, Bennett's Jewish Home, and Avigdor Liebermann's Israel is Our Home. Support is also expected from two ultra-orthodox parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas. If this formulation plays out it would give exceptionally high prominence to national and religious parties, potentially making the coalition Israel's "most right-wing government ever," according to Tashir. Such an outcome, she adds, will leave "little hope for the continuation of a peace process with the Palestinians any time soon."

However, with bickering and deal-making over portfolio positions already in full swing it's still far from clear exactly how the new government will look.

Related: Israel denies report it spied on Washington to derail Iran nuclear talks. Read more here.

On Thursday morning, the Kulanu party, which took 10 seats and calls itself neither right nor left wing but is led by former-Likud minister Kahlon, announced it would boycott a meeting with Netanyahu's party after reportedly learning it had been snubbed for control of the Knesset's Financial Committee in favor of the United Torah party.

Writing on his Facebook page, Kahlon, accused Likud of a lack of commitment to resolving the housing crisis and "dividing the tools required to do this in a political manner and with a lack of social logic." Likud responded by calling the statements "puzzling" and "unnecessary," adding that it hoped Kulanu would return to the negotiating table to "clarify any controversies."

Meanwhile, Netanyahu appeared to have soothed over a post-election spat with Bennett in a Thursday morning meeting, after which he posted on Facebook that Bennett was a "true partner" in the coalition. The pair reportedly squabbled earlier this week amid rumors that the prime minister would renege on a pre-election promise to give Bennett either the defense, finance, or foreign ministries in return for his support during the election, after his Jewish Home party took only eight seats.

Further complicating matters, all parties at the table have reportedly submitted a whole host of demands to Netanyahu regarding laws they want to see considered for incorporation in the government's new guidelines — a document that will be released at the end of the negotiations.

"We can say this or that thing will happen," Tashir told VICE News. "But in the end, this is Israeli politics so nothing is off the table."

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem