Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Netanyahu Government at Its Halfway Point: Keeping Things Quiet?

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Netanyahu Government at Its Halfway Point: Keeping Things Quiet?

Article excerpt

From 1996-2000, Benjamin Netanyahu served as prime minister of Israel. He was reelected to the post in 2009. His second period of incumbency is taking place during a time of severe foreign policy challenges for the Jewish state. Building an effective response to these challenges is at the center of the agenda that Netanyahu has set himself.

The key challenge put forth by Netanyahu is the threat of the Iranian nuclear program. However, the perceived gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat is related to other aspects of the Israeli prime minister's conception of the region, and the threats facing Israel therein. Unlike many of his predecessors, Netanyahu came to the prime ministership with a worldview and strategy clearly articulated and written. As such, it is possible to some degree to measure the success or failure of his prime ministership to date in its own terms against a fairly clear yardstick.

This article will attempt to outline the core foreign policy perceptions and goals of the Netanyahu government in a number of central areas. Key events from the time Netanyahu took office in March 2009 will be discussed. Throughout, the policy success or failure of the actions of the government will be assessed in terms of Netanyahu's own professed goals and objectives. The domestic political constraints incumbent on the prime minister, and his success or failure in navigating these and ensuring the survival of his government, will also be considered.


The second Netanyahu prime ministership emerged from an unprecedented political situation in Israel. Prior to the elections of 2009, following every election since the foundation of the state, the president had tasked the leader of the party with the largest Knesset (Israeli legislature) representation with forming a governing coalition. In the elections of 2009, however, Kadima under Tzipi Livni won the largest number of seats (28), while Netanyahu's Likud won only 27.1

However, the overall right-wing bloc won more seats than that of the left, which presumably guided President Shimon Peres's decision to give the task of attempting to form a government to Netanyahu. The president sounded out party leaders in the days following the election, and based on the apparent likelihood that a Netanyahu-led coalition would prove more stable, he approached the Likud leader.

Netanyahu and Livni failed to reach agreement regarding a possible national unity coalition bringing Likud and Kadima together. The issue that prevented this was Livni's insistence on the rotation of the prime ministership, which Netanyahu was not prepared to consider. Rotation would have involved Netanyahu and Livni agreeing that one of them would hold the prime ministership for the first two years of the government, after which the other would take over. Such an arrangement has a precedent in Israel in the national unity government of 1984 to 1988, when the premiership was shared between Shimon Peres of Labor and Yitzhak Shamir of Likud.

Netanyahu then set about creating a coalition that would bring in parties to the right of the Likud and religious parties, as well as the left of center Labor Party. Labor, once the main party of Israel's center-left, went from being the second largest party to fourth place in the 2009 elections, making it a viable secondary coalition partner.

The government eventually formed by Netanyahu and the Likud included Labor, the right-wing Russian immigrant party Yisrael Beiteinu, and the Sephardic Haredi party Shas. Also in the coalition were the Haredi United Torah Judaism list and the small, nationalist religious Habayit Heyehudi list. This coalition gives Netanyahu a comfortable Knesset majority of 75 seats in the 120-member Knesset.2

As shall be seen, from the point of view of Netanyahu's preferred policy direction, the coalition that emerged was favorable. Had he succeeded in bringing Kadima, along with Labor, into the coalition the Likud would have represented the rightist edge in the government and thus would have been vulnerable to the possibility of being "ganged up on" by the two large parties to its left. …

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