Israeli political circles have been engrossed this week with reports about a possible plea bargain agreement between the state and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Following years of Netanyahu denying any misconduct; multiple investigations by the Israeli police; recommendations of charges by the state attorney’s office; the attorney general’s decision to file indictments in three separate cases for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust; the beginning of the trial and days of witness testimony; and the resulting circus that has ensued, including protests and Netanyahu press conferences on the courthouse steps; the notion that this may all end with a deal rather than an unambiguous courtroom verdict is causing all manner of Israeli heads to figuratively explode. While much of the discussion has been about the benefits, drawbacks, and even ethical justifications for both sides that a plea agreement would entail, there is also speculation about the political fallout that could occur as a result.
Much of the conventional wisdom has coalesced around the idea that a plea agreement that removes Netanyahu from politics for the next seven years—which would be the consequence of admitting to moral turpitude—is going to make the governing coalition unsustainable and in relatively short order lead to the government’s downfall. After all, the single issue that unites the eight parties in the coalition, which allows ideological right-wing MKs from New Hope to sit with ideological left-wingers from Meretz and religious Zionists to sit with Islamists, is opposition to Netanyahu. Four elections were contested around this single issue, and the right-left spectrum in Israel was entirely reorganized around this single issue. If the glue that binds this unnatural and unprecedented coalition together dissolves, it is reasonable to assume that the entire structure will collapse.
Nevertheless, nobody in the opposition should be getting ready to measure the prime minister’s residence on Balfour Street for new drapes. There are many reasons why the government is going to be monumentally difficult to replace even if Netanyahu disappears tomorrow. The first is one of basic procedure. Mustering a majority of Knesset votes for a no-confidence motion is not enough; to replace the government without elections also requires at least 61 votes for a specific new government. Getting to any sort of agreement on a new government in the immediate future and without elections will be nearly impossible.
For starters, Likud—which would reasonably expect a new prime minister to come from its ranks as the largest party and the traditional governing party on the right—would have to choose a new permanent leader, something that is not going to happen for three months following Netanyahu’s exit. This could happen much sooner if there was an obvious consensus candidate, but the end of the Netanyahu era in Likud is going to bring anything but consensus. Nir Barkat, Yisrael Katz, and Yuli Edelstein are all official or unofficial candidates for Likud chief, and below them is another tier consisting of Amir Ohana, Miri Regev, Avi Dichter, Yoav Galant, and a few others who have all been waiting for the end of Netanyahu’s tenure with varying degrees of patience. Until Likud settles the internecine fight that is guaranteed to break out once Netanyahu picks up and leaves, the next level of jockeying to see who becomes a potential new coalition’s candidate for prime minister cannot begin. In other words, Netanyahu’s departure is not the beginning of the end for the current coalition; if anything, it is the end of the beginning.
Even if these leadership questions could be miraculously settled immediately, there is a numbers problem. Leaving all personalities aside and returning to the traditional right-left divide that worked so well for Netanyahu’s Knesset majorities before his legal troubles began, there are 72 current Knesset seats controlled by right-wing and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties spread across Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu, Yamina, Religious Zionism, New Hope, Shas, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). But these 72 MKs are not only divided by Netanyahu’s presence. There is the long-running feud between Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Liberman and the Haredim, which is what led to the string of elections in the first place after Netanyahu was not able to replicate his previous coalition due to this clash, and the enmity between the two sides has only increased during the current government’s tenure. There is the unwillingness of New Hope MKs and some Yamina MKs to sit in any coalition with the racist and extremist Kahanists from Religious Zionism. There is the conflict between the reformist religious Zionists and the Haredim over the reforms this government has carried out in the area of kashrut certification. There is a split in Yamina itself, which currently has six MKs in the coalition and one in the opposition. Some of these divisions are more easily overcome than others, but the upshot is that there is not an alternative right-wing coalition poised to assume office as soon as the Netanyahu issue resolves itself.
There are also strong party and personal incentives for some of the would-be coalition defectors to stay put no matter what happens with Netanyahu. The left-wing parties in the coalition, Labor and Meretz, are thrilled to be part of a coalition and control important ministries after years in the desert and with an Israeli voting population that politically leans clearly toward the right. There is no conceivable scenario in which they are looking to dissolve this government. While Ra’am’s Mansour Abbas has been clear from the outset that he will throw his support to whomever will fulfill his policy and budget requests, the success he has had with the current coalition makes it extremely risky to try out his leverage with the current opposition and hope that they will similarly honor their promises. While some Yamina members might be tempted to jump ship given their discomfort sitting with left-wing parties and the immense pressure they have been under from right-wing activists for allegedly abandoning their values, it would mean throwing their own party leader and current prime minister under the bus. Yamina went from being shut out of the Knesset after the first election to controlling the prime ministry after the fourth election—a development that one year ago was inconceivable—and the prospect of returning to the status of an influential but small Likud satellite party will not look terribly appealing. As for New Hope, which is comprised of Likud defectors, it will undergo a difficult and uncomfortable reintegration process with right-wing parties that feel as if New Hope sold them out, not to mention that every poll has New Hope missing the Knesset threshold should new elections take place. This creates a powerful incentive for the party to buy as much time as it possibly can in the current government in the hopes of establishing a more permanent foundation and a base of popularity.
There are also more personal self-interested reasons for some potential right-wing defectors to maintain the current government. Despite the fact that Naftali Bennett had to be reluctantly dragged along to form the current government, the man ended up as prime minister against all logic and odds. Rolling the dice that he can pull off the trick a second time, in a coalition packed with erstwhile Likud ministers who view themselves as having paid their dues for years and are champing at the prime ministerial bit, and participate in dismantling his own government in a bid to create a more ideologically satisfying coalition would be an incredibly reckless gamble. There is a similar incentive at work for New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar, who is currently justice minister and slated to take over as foreign minister when the prime ministry flips to Yair Lapid in August 2023; aside from the fact that he occupies a ministry that is more important than anything he could reasonably expect in a Likud-led coalition, there is no chance that he would maintain the prospect of becoming foreign minister. Even Ayelet Shaked, who has been the weakest link in this coalition’s prospects for long-term staying power, would have to think twice about giving up her rotation in the justice ministry should the government be replaced.
Some of these calculations will change once the handover from Bennett to Lapid is imminent, at which point the coalition’s right-wingers may start to question the benefits of remaining in a government with a leader who is not from their camp. If there is anyone who will be sitting on pins and needles when Netanyahu departs, it is Lapid, and the sense of danger will not dissipate for him until he is firmly ensconced as prime minister. But that moment is over 18 months away, and there is a bevy of factors that makes the government more stable now than many assume. Netanyahu was the bonding agent that allowed the coalition to be formed, but there are factors beyond him that will keep it together once the “anyone but Bibi” rationale has melted away.