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Analysts: Amid Mideast Turmoil, Narrow Israeli Coalition Stable

  • Scott Bobb

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking in the Knesset in Jerusalem in a May 14, 2015, photo.

FILE - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen speaking in the Knesset in Jerusalem in a May 14, 2015, photo.

After nearly six months of semi-paralysis following the collapse of the previous Israeli government and subsequent elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a governing coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, or parliament.

Despite its slim majority and a vocal opposition, the fledgling government is not necessarily unstable, according to Hebrew University Professor Abraham Diskin.

"One of the reasons why small governments in Israel tend to be more durable - it's not a general rule, only a tendency - is because the policy distances between the partners are not as huge," he said.

Such a small majority can make governing difficult, he said, but so far the coalition has held together.

In the March 17 elections, Netanyahu's Likud-led center-right alliance defeated a center-left alliance led by the rival Labor party. A joint list of four Arab-led parties came in third but declined to join in any government. Centrist and hardline right parties scored enough seats to become potential king-makers.

Netanyahu reportedly sought to form a unity government with the center-left. But when that failed, he formed a coalition with traditional allies among nationalist, pro-settlement and ultra-religious parties.

Playing the ‘existential threat’ card

A main reason this government is likely to be stable is "the lack of an alternative," said Hebrew University political science professor, Shlomo Avineri.

"The prime minister is aware of the weakness of the government and his inability to make hard decisions on some of the crucial issues. Therefore he is exaggerating some real difficulties Israel is having with multiple actions against Israel and is making them into an existential threat to Israel that is making the Israeli public rather hysterical about it," he said.

One of the recent issues to make headlines is the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, called BDS. It gained some traction recently through high-profile efforts to expel Israel from FIFA, football's world governing body, an academic boycott announcement by Britain's National Union of Students, and a statement by the head of Orange, the mobile phone giant, that he would like to end business relations with Israel.

Netanyahu sounded the alarm at Sunday's cabinet meeting.

"We will stand against any attempt to harm Israel with lies and false accusations and boycotts, left and right together as one. We will push back any pressure. We will expose the lies, attack the attackers,” he said. “We will shatter the lies of our enemies."

The cabinet allocated $26 million in government funds to counter the BDS movement.

Most politicians on the right and the left also condemned the BDS movement. Opposition leader Yitzhak Herzog called it the next "intifada," or Palestinian uprising.

Former President Shimon Perez announced the launch of a website dedicated to countering the movement. Wealthy Jewish Americans met in Nevada in the United States and reportedly pledged millions of dollars for a counter-offensive.

Diskin called BDS a "very irritating issue that hurts Palestinians more than it hurts Israelis" because so many Palestinians are employed by Israeli farms and factories in the territories.

Many Western governments, led by Britain, France and the United States, re-affirmed their strong opposition to a boycott or any other form of isolation of Israel.

Analysts say that the effort to expel Israel from FIFA was withdrawn by the Palestinian federation amid firm opposition from many FIFA members. The British student union vote was largely symbolic. And the head of Orange publicly apologized, saying his remark was a business assessment, linked only to a marketing strategy with its local partner in Israel.

Several Israeli activist groups called the prime minister's reaction overly alarmist.

‘Scare tactic,’ some say

Mikhael Manekin, director of the left-leaning Molad think-tank, in statement entitled "It's the Settlements, Stupid," called it "a knee-jerk reaction."

"Almost all boycott measures against Israel in recent years have specifically and explicitly targeted its policies in the occupied territories (West Bank)," he said.

The Israeli presence in the territories is viewed by much of the international community as illegal.

"The prime minister is making every criticism of Israel appear as if it is de-legitimizing Israel," Avineri said. "It is a scare tactic. It works and I think the prime minister is going to be successful in making Israelis nervous and hysterical about it and therefore supporting a very weak government."

Netanyahu has called on the Palestinians to resume negotiations without preconditions.

Palestinian leaders say the prime minister is not really interested in negotiating peace. They are focused instead on seeking recognition as a full member of the United Nations and gaining admission to more than a dozen United Nations and other multilateral institutions. These efforts only aggravate fears of de-legitimization among Israelis.

Although some members of the governing coalition oppose any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Diskin believes the prime minister has room to maneuver.

"I don't think that the government is really paralyzed," Diskin said. "As is the case in fragmented societies and multi-party parliamentary coalitions, the name of the game is consensus. And consensus can be reached not only in vetoing any progress but also in making different kinds of progress in different arenas."

‘Very happy with the status quo’

Avineri, however, does not believe the prime minister wants to move forward.

"He doesn't want to have a change because he's very happy with the status quo as it is,” he said. “There are no negotiations with the Palestinians. There probably are not going to be any negotiations. And this seems to be exactly what the prime minister wants."

The prime minister also regularly evokes the security threat to Israel from Hamas-led militants in Gaza, Hezbollah militias in Lebanon and Islamist terrorists in other countries around the region.

Analysts say the turmoil is cause for worry but say the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Egypt have had an overall effect of making Israel's security better than it has been in many years.

"Israel is not threatened by any coherent military establishment across its borders," Avineri said. "It is threatened, like many other countries, by terrorist attacks which can be terrible and can be murderous, but are not existential."

Netanyahu has also continued to campaign against the negotiations to end Iran's nuclear weapons program. Almost all Israelis agree that an Iranian nuclear bomb would pose an existential threat to Israel and that the current deal under negotiation with world powers will not halt this program.

But many Israeli's also believe that Netanyahu through his statements has needlessly irritated relations with the United States and other allies which are viewed as a bulwark of Israeli security.

"He's doing enormous harm to Israel's standing in the world and to the feeling of security of Israeli's," Avineri said. "But it's not going to make him lose his government majority."