The emerging coalition is an alliance of mutually suspicious partners. Its various members are each chasing their own tails. What could have been a direct path to the swearing-in ceremony has turned out to be a long, circular slog.
Yesh Atid leader MK Yair Lapid scored a victory by forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to make do with a 21-member cabinet (including the prime minister). But Netanyahu cornered Lapid by having him sign off on a constellation that gives the Likud-Beytenu an absolute majority in the government (12 ministers), way beyond what its Knesset representation merits.
Why did Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett agree to serve as an inferior minority in a cabinet that does not reflect their Knesset strength? What's behind this move?
They may have decided that after successfully denying the ultra-Orthodox a seat at the table and shrinking the cabinet to 21 ministers (from 30), that would suffice. They may be wrong: In two years' time, when the coalition suffers from internal strife, its various members will opt to keep it intact, as it would be premature to unravel the partnership. This would relegate Lapid and Bennett to the role of a perpetual minority. They will be ridiculed by the media for accepting whatever the majority decides; the press will pounce on them like a rancher with a cattle prod, urging them to bolt.
There may be another reason why the two agreed to accept a limited number of portfolios. Lapid and Bennett may be reluctant to have too many of their newly minted MKs become ministers, and fear this might erode their strength as party leaders.
The negotiators' exhaustion and political wear and tear could produce some misguided calls. It would be wrong for Habayit Hayehudi to pass up on the Housing and Construction Ministry in favor of a fictitious "settlement" portfolio. Such a portfolio would lack the prestige of a real ministry and as such, might not enjoy the same funding that the Housing and Construction Ministry has enjoyed over the years. Such a portfolio would be pure fantasy, virtual reality.
If Habayit Hayehudi does not insist on a fourth minister, it should at least insist on getting the housing and construction portfolio. Its designated portfolio-holder, MK Uri Ariel, should make his appointment contingent on having control over the Israel Land Administration (before the election Netanyahu said he would appoint Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon to head that body and have it become part of the Prime Minister's Office). As political pundits have noted on television, a Housing and Construction Ministry that is stripped of the Israel Land Administration is like having the Israel Defense Forces taken out of the Defense Ministry.
Control of the Education Ministry is now front and center. Lapid wants it to go to Yesh Atid's Rabbi Shai Piron. The Likud wants current Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to stay for another term (although some of his faction members are already eyeing his post). Yesh Atid wants control of the Interior Ministry, which could be instrumental in building a nationwide party apparatus. To get that ministry, he would have to cede the education portfolio to the veteran minister on the condition that Sa'ar works to have all state-funded schools teach the core curriculum subjects (the haredi school system has yet to fully comply with a court ruling mandating this). It would make sense to have Sa'ar stay on as education minister. This proposition has merits not just because his allies say so, but also because the other coalition partners consider him acceptable.
As it turned out, the Likud's younger generation will not get ministerial appointments. It is also unclear how many of the Likud's new guard will become deputy ministers. The biggest problem from the Likud's perspective, though, is that the ruling party was denied some of the most important portfolios. Likud's Knesset ally, Yisrael Beytenu, has so far refused to come to the rescue by relinquishing some of its portfolios.
It seems that some in Likud's leadership, including some ministers, have yet to come to terms with the fact that Likud shed a quarter of its size in the Jan. 22 elections. It's about time they accept the arithmetic.