Netanyahu’s House of Cards

Spoiler Alert: Plot points from the three seasons of the UK version of House of Cards disclosed in this article.

In the British version of the now popular American television series House of Cards, Prime Minister Francis Urquhart serves as the leader of the United Kingdom for 11 years and 210 days, passing Margaret Thatcher by a single day to become the UK’s longest-serving Prime Minister.

65-year-old Benjamin Netanyahu has been Prime Minister for a collective 9 plus years. According to a study by the Israel Democracy Institute, Prime Minister Netanyahu would pass David Ben-Gurion to become Israel’s longest-serving leader on September 23, 2018. Israel will most likely hold an early election before the next scheduled election on November 5, 2019. Expect Netanyahu to focus on the earlier date.

1,233 days to go.

Prime Minister Netanyahu signed agreements with four coalition partners to reach a narrow coalition of 61 MKs to the opposition’s 59. Although navigating a narrow coalition has been done before, it is extremely difficult.

What happens when an MK is in the hospital with his wife who is going into labor? What if an MK is in the hospital for a more tragic reason such as a serious injury? What happens when an MK decides that his best friend’s daughter’s wedding is more important than waiting all night in the Knesset to vote against his ideology because of a previous coalition deal agreement?

There is no doubt that this will be a difficult coalition to manage, and it still is not clear who will be named as the coalition chairman (chief whip) who will have to answer the above questions and keep coalition MKs from flying overseas. The next coalition chairman will play an important role in the success of the next coalition. Similar to the House of Cards series, with such a narrow coalition if the person who is in charge of keeping the backbenchers in line has their own agenda it could result in an eventual leadership change.

Even with a loyal coalition chairman, the anticipated legislative deadlock between parties with polarized views on certain issues will make maintaining the coalition extremely difficult for the new appointee.  However, just like the fictional Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, Netanyahu’s undoing might come from within.

The coalition parties do not have a good reason to vote against the government for at least the next two years. They all were given the authority, responsibility, and budgets they requested.

The ultra-orthodox parties of Shas and UTJ are back from the exile of the opposition. They suffered great losses in the last Knesset and would not do anything to jeopardize the collapse of the fourth Netanyahu government, nor do they harbor the ambition to one day replace him. They both signed coalition deals that they know are once-in-a-lifetime. Opposition Leader Herzog will not offer them nearly as much as Netanyahu did.

Bayit Yehudi will be motivated to follow coalition discipline after the package they received that included the Justice and Education portfolios. Even in a scenario of new elections and additional seats, Bayit Yehudi would not be expected to receive a better deal.

Kahlon’s new centrist Kulanu Party cannot afford to topple a government before his planned reforms on housing and the banks are completed. Although Kahlon might pick a fight or two he will be bluffing, since he risks losing his constituency to Lapid in the next elections if he doesn’t deliver on his reforms, his reason for agreeing to the highly unpopular steep payday for the ultra-orthodox community.

The situation in Likud is different. While the coalition parties negotiated attractive deals they are unlikely to give up, Netanyahu will have difficulty satisfying the demands of Likud’s MKs. Interior Minister Gilad Erdan is frustrated that, as the number 2 of the party that received 30 seats, he likely will not receive a top portfolio or a promotion. Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom is done playing Mr. Nice Guy with Netanyahu and expects a top post. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon cannot be happy that, although Netanyahu backtracked, the Prime Minister did offer Yaalon’s position to Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett before the election. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz was reportedly furious when Netanyahu tried to give his portfolio to Shas’s Aryeh Deri a few weeks ago. Netanyahu’s top cabinet loyalist, Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, wants a promotion, and it will be difficult to find one for him. These five Likud ministers all view themselves as candidates to replace Netanyahu one day, and the Prime Minister is aware of that. If Netanyahu does not find a way to keep them happy in their next cabinet posts, it could lead to his eventual undoing.

Netanyahu plans to re-appoint Benny Begin and Tzachi Hanegbi to the cabinet, two of his previous ministers who were members of his first cabinet back in the 1990s and veteran MKs of the famous 1988 class in which the Prime Minister himself was first elected. The Prime Minister also plans to appoint five new Likud ministers from ten potential candidates. There will be disappointed Likud MKs, and some, such as Ayoub Kara, might threaten to vote against the establishment of the government. Finding appropriate jobs for the five disappointed minister candidates will be essential for Netanyahu’s survival. Many of the minister candidates might have little experience and lack the qualifications that would make them suitable for a ministry, but they insist that they are loyal and should be rewarded.

In House of Cards Francis Urquhart is always victorious against his external foes whether it be the opposition Labor Party or going head-to-head with the King. However, in the final season Urquhart chooses to bully weak cabinet members, fire his Parliamentary Private Secretary and later disrespect his Foreign Secretary Tom Makepeace by asking him to take a demotion to Education, which leads to Makepeace’s resignation. It is not external elements that becomes Urquhart’s undoing; rather, it is the cabinet reshuffle in which he promotes loyalist backbenchers with little experience who get into trouble. The disgraced Foreign Secretary who chooses to run against the sitting Prime Minister after finding skeletons in the Prime Minister’s closet eventually leads to his downfall. The crafty Francis Urquhart who had never thought Makepeace was capable of replacing him was left blind-sided.

Netanyahu seems focused on external potential Prime Minister candidates such as Isaac Herzog, Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Yair Lapid and Avigdor Liberman at the expense of ignoring the threats from within his own party. The end of Netanyahu’s tenure as Prime Minister might begin by not promoting his current Likud ministers and leaving other Likud MKs without a spot around the cabinet table.

Although Netanyahu will not end his political career this week, the seeds will be planted with the formation of his government this week. Netanyahu is a skilled politician and will most likely find a way to form and maintain the next government for the short term. He knows how to ensure his government can survive even with one or two renegade MKs. The Israeli electorate will not vote for a Likud Party that cannibalized itself so quickly after an election and Netanyahu’s potential successors are aware of that. The question is what happens when one of those potential successors from within, or perhaps from the outside such as Gideon Saar, find a way to force an internal Likud leadership election and find support with a large number of disgruntled Likud MKs. This week Netanyahu will disappoint some of his MKs, both those looking for a ministerial promotion and those looking for a seat in the cabinet. Those who are considering running for Likud leadership will look to befriend every disgruntled Likud MK they can. Don’t expect them to wait until September 23, 2018.

When Prime Minister Netanyahu realizes that it is the Likud that will be his undoing, he might identify with Prime Minister Francis Urquhart’s quote after receiving the headcount ahead of the next leadership race.

“175 of my honorable colleagues firmly intend to vote for me, 123 are almost certainly against me. How dare they! They owe me everything. Half of them wouldn’t even have jobs let alone seats in Parliament. As if I hadn’t won three elections in a row and kept their noses in the gravy and these stuffed suits, these lumps of lobby fodder dare to raise themselves against me?”

Prime Ministers do not live forever, even if Netanyahu might think that he can.

However, a warning is in order for Netanyahu’s potential Likud challengers: In the novel version of House of Cards, despite ousting Urquhart, Makepeace fails in his attempt for Prime Minister.