JERUSALEM — After his big win at the polls two months ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may not have imagined how hard he would have to scramble to form his new coalition government, which he finally presented at a stormy parliament session late Thursday, to sustained heckling from newly ascendant Arab Israeli politicians and a fierce opposition.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, but suddenly, one of the longest-serving prime ministers in Israeli history, dubbed “King Bibi” by friend and foe, found himself on the defensive as he introduced his fourth government, which will be more right-wing and religious than the previous one.
Flush from a speech in March that garnered multiple standing ovations in the U.S. Congress, where he defied an American president unpopular in Israel and warned the world of what he sees as Iran’s dark nuclear intentions, Netanyahu found himself back home struggling to form a narrow government composed of five parties with a paper-thinmajority of 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Tempers were high and patience low as Netanyahu, after two hours of delays and last-minute cabinet-shuffling, opened his speech promising to safeguard Israel’s security and declaring, “This government will strive for peace.”
At that, Arab Knesset members, who now form one of the largest blocs in the legislature, erupted in laughter, lobbing insults at the prime minister until the speaker had three of them ejected for constant interruptions.
On the eve of his election, Netanyahu famously vowed that there would never be a sovereign Palestinian state on his watch. He later amended his remarks to say the time wasn’t right for peace talks now; President Obama warned afterward, “We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership.”
When his turn came to speak Thursday, Netanyahu’s challenger in the March elections, Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog, mocked Netanyahu, asking how the prime minister had the nerve to lecture the world on how to negotiate with Iran when Netanyahu spent weeks in sputtering talks to corral his own party into a cohesive government.
When Netanyahu dismantled his last coalition in December, he said Israelis deserved a unified, stable, effective government. Time will tell. Opposition leaders promise Netanyahu’s fourth government will not last a full four-year term.
The prime minister acknowledged that assembling a government was nearly impossible even after his Likud party won a sweeping 30 seats. He decried the method by which coalition governments are assembled in Israel and said the process had to be changed, not just for himself but for future Israeli leaders. He called on Herzog to work with him to find an alternative way of assembling a government.
“This country needs a change,” Netanyahu said. “We will all face this problem, and we need to pull together and change the way the government is formed.”
During protracted negotiations to build a coalition delivering his slim majority, Netanyahu first lost the support of an old ally, former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, who bailed out on him at the last minute and took his six seats with him. Lieberman condemned the new government as “opportunistic.”
Then Netanyahu had to force through a bill this week allowing him to create an indefinite number of new ministerial positions as inducements to cajole even members of his own party to support the government.
In addition to Netanyahu’s Likud, the new government will include two parties that represent ultra-Orthodox Jews: a new party built by a former Likudnik who is committed to making housing and banking reforms; and a religious Zionist party headed by Naftali Bennett, who opposes an independent Palestinian state and supports annexing to Israel 60 percent of the West Bank where Jewish settlements stand.
Bennett will serve as education minister, and one of his deputies, Ayelet Shaked, will be justice minister. The two have argued that Israel’s generally liberal judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, has too much power and needs to be reined in.
Former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon, who started his own party, was awarded the Finance Ministry and two other top posts. Kahlon has vowed to focus on a domestic agenda to make housing more available and affordable.
Likud member Moshe Yaalon will retain his post as defense minister. Yuval Steinitz was appointed minister of energy and infrastructure and will continue to coordinate strategy on Iran. Young Likud firebrands Miri Regev and Danny Danon were named culture and sports minister and minister for science and technology, respectively.
The leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Aryeh Deri, who served two years in jail on corruption charges in the late 1990s, will become economy minister. The appointment caused some grumbling among Israel’s entrepreneurial class.
“It is ironic that the most moderate person in this government is Bibi Netanyahu,” said Gadi Wolfsfeld, professor of political science at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, only half in jest.
Some Israeli pundits said Netanyahu was keeping the prestigious foreign minister post unfilled for now so he could persuade Herzog to join a unity government later. Herzog said that Netanyahu should give that position to someone else because he has no intention of joining a government that is likely to fail.