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Benjamin Netanyahu will keep his job — barely, and maybe not for long

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Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Wednesday afternoon was the deadline for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to put together his next coalition if he wanted to continue being the prime minister. He managed it, but just barely — putting together a majority by exactly one vote.

His new government is shaping up to be one of Israel's weakest in some time. Netanyahu's coalition will only survive on the whims of smaller parties. That makes it really unstable — and tells you a lot about the current state of Israeli politics.

What happened on Wednesday

Netanyahu Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In the Israeli system, winning the most votes in the election isn't enough to guarantee that you will run the government, since votes tend to split among lots of parties. You need to control at least 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament.

Netanyahu's party, Likud, did relatively well, but still won only 30 seats in the election. So Likud needed to put together a coalition of different parties — controlling 61 or more seats in all — that would be willing to support Netanyahu's bid for prime minister. The deadline was 5 pm Eastern on Wednesday afternoon, midnight Jerusalem time.

For most of Wednesday, no one was sure how Netanyahu was going to get over the 61-vote threshold. Yisrael Beiteinu, a nationalist party and natural ally of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, had quit the coalition on Monday. Without Yisrael Beiteinu's support, Netanyahu was left with two choices: 1) try to form a broad national unity government with the center-left Zionist Union, or 2) put together a right-wing coalition with the religious nationalist party Jewish Home that would control exactly 61 votes — a bare-minimum majority.

Netanyahu opted for the latter. Just minutes before the deadline, he announced a deal with Jewish Home's leader, Naftali Bennett, that would reportedly give Bennett control over several major ministries in exchange for his support. Netanyahu's premiership was saved. For the moment, anyway.

Why this coalition is a big problem for Netanyahu

netanyahu rally

(Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images)

Here's the issue for Netanyahu: 61 seats is a dangerously slim majority.

In order to accomplish anything in the Knesset, Netanyahu will often need each and every member of his coalition to vote with him. That gives individual legislators extraordinary power to obstruct Netanyahu's agenda or extort policy concessions in exchange for their votes. Americans are quite familiar with how problematic this can be.

It would not take much to topple Netanyahu's government, for example, if a small party announced it was leaving the coalition. Fights between coalition partners could very easily cause someone to quit the coalition, removing Netanyahu's governing authority and potentially forcing a new election.

Netanyahu will "sweat in an anorexic coalition with no margin for safety, in which every bastard is a king," Yossi Verter writes in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "It won’t collapse tomorrow or the next day, but in our current system of government, it’s clear that a coalition of 61 [Knesset members] will have trouble functioning for long."

It's possible, though somewhat unlikely, that Netanyahu could bring in another coalition partner — Yisrael Beiteinu, for instance. But even if Avigdor Lieberman, that party's mercurial leader, agreed to that, Netanyahu would still only have a 67-seat majority. The coalition would still be unstable.

Even Netanyahu's relatively homogenous right-wing coalition includes a centrist party, Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu, that could easily split with other coalition partners. Netanyahu could end up infuriating Jewish Home over any concessions he makes to the Palestinians or the Obama administration, for example. And even personal disagreements, like Netanyahu's well-known beefs with Bennett, could provoke a crisis.

The fundamental source of instability isn't just Netanyahu's narrow majority, then. It's also at some level about Israel's system of government. Election rules allow a ton of small parties to get seats in the Knesset, each of which represents a very narrow set of interests. Because there are so many small parties, major parties have a tough time winning dominant majorities. They rely on unstable hodgepodges of small parties to govern — any of which might quit and undo the whole thing at a moment's notice.

"The underlying challenge this whole crisis demonstrates is how broken our electoral system is," Yohanan Plesner, director of the Israel Democracy Institute, told the Financial Times.

So good luck, Prime Minister Netanyahu. You're gonna need it.

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