Passover is over. The Knesset will open its eleven-week summer session on May 23. The Government will look different after the holiday. Expect changes to take place over the next three weeks that will include a cabinet reshuffle and perhaps a government shakeup.

The main goal is to tighten the flimsy coalition by redistributing jobs within the ruling party. Expanding the coalition is a secondary goal. It is not as pressing of a need but would be extremely helpful ahead of the 2017-2018 biannual state budget, which, if passed, could push off elections to early 2019. The latter goal can wait until the start of the winter session, while the former must be dealt with before May 23.

 

Netanyahu won Phase 1 of the 2015 general election with 30 seats. He went on to receive the nomination of five parties totaling 67 MKs to win Phase 2. Netanyahu secured a narrow Phase 3 victory of 61 votes by signing coalition agreements with Kahlon, Bennett, Deri and Litzman. The coalition government’s difficulties have come mostly from Netanyahu’s 30 Likud MKs rather than the 31 MKs of his partners.

The coalition agreement, signed by each coalition party in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government, states Netanyahu’s fourth government is to have 20 ministers with 12 of those ministers coming from the Likud. Today there are 19 ministers, and 10 of them are from the Likud. Many Likud members are looking for a promotion.

About a year ago, on May 14, a government of 20 ministers, including 12 from the Likud, was approved in the Knesset by a narrow 61-59 margin. The government has changed a lot since then. That cabinet included Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, Science and Technology Minister Danny Danon, and Minister without portfolio Benny Begin and did not include Likud’s #2 Gilad Erdan. Today, Erdan is a senior minister, Begin is a rank-and-file MK, Danon is in the UN, and Shalom is sitting at home.

 

Before the formation of the government I predicted that unlike the previous coalition it would be the disgruntled Likud MKs unhappy with their appointments, not the MKs from the coalition partners, who would cause the most issues for this coalition.

We have become accustomed to seeing slim margins in the crucial votes of the 20th Knesset, and that has even led to the coalition losing about a dozen votes. It has been the Likud MKs who have caused the most trouble by boycotting votes or simply forgetting to show up. At the beginning of the term it was Gilad Erdan before his reappointment to the cabinet. By the end of the term it was MKs Amsalam and Negosa. Hazan and Kara are among the other Likud MKs rebelling during the past year. Netanyahu can look only to his own party for losing votes on the Knesset floor.

In profiling the 17 Likud minister candidates for the 12 open slots, I predicted that the way Netanyahu treated the five disappointed candidates would be crucial to his own long-term survival.  Now he has a chance to repair at least some of the damage.

It starts with Tzachi Hanegbi, who is expected to be appointed the 20th minister of the government this month. Hanegbi, who first entered the Knesset together with Netanyahu in 1988, was a Justice Minister in Netanyahu’s first cabinet in the late 1990s. Hanegbi has held six different ministry portfolios over the years and decided to run for the Foreign Ministry post at the start of the term. At the time, Hanegbi was the outgoing Deputy Foreign Minister and Deputy Health Minister. Netanyahu informed Hanegbi that he would not receive the Foreign Ministry or any other ministry, despite the Likud’s growth from 18 to 30 seats and five ministers to twelve. Instead, Hanegbi was named the Knesset Defense & Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman and Coalition Chairman (Chief Whip). He was told that he would be the next Likud MK in line to enter the cabinet and would enter a rotation agreement with Minister Akunis if no vacancies occurred. Following the Hanegbi appointment there will a reshuffle in the cabinet and among the key Knesset committee chairs and posts.

Netanyahu is looking forward to appointing someone who will be able to maneuver enthusiastically the coalition after a difficult first year. Although the coalition only lost about a dozen votes, the bigger issue is the government has pushed off the vote on dozens of bills due to fear they would be defeated. Backbencher MKs will tell you that the previous coalition chairmen of the last two terms – Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, who were both promoted to minister portfolios – were more successful in “whipping the votes” than 9-term veteran Hanegbi. One of the rookie Likud MKs is expected to receive the important job of Coalition Chairman as part of the reshuffle. There are two main candidates to replace Hanegbi as the Knesset Defense & Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman.

Benny Begin, another member of the 1988 Likud class, was appointed one of the twelve Likud ministers at the start of the term. When Likud #2 Erdan decided he would accept Netanyahu’s final offer it was Begin who was asked to resign. Erdan also replaced Begin in the Security Cabinet. Netanyahu thanked Begin for his 11-day service in the cabinet and said he would try and bring him back in when the opportunity presented itself. Begin did not receive a Committee Chair and embraced his position as a rank-and-file MK. Following the departures of Danny Danon and Silvan Shalom, it seemed only natural that Begin would be named alongside Hanegbi to rejoin the cabinet. However, a recent Supreme Court decision and rabbinical decree forced Netanyahu to appoint Litzman as a minister. Netanyahu can decide to ask the coalition partners to increase the cabinet from 20 to 21 seats because each coalition partner agreed to 12 Likud ministers. It is unlikely that Begin will want to modify a Basic Law just so he can rejoin a cabinet table from which he was removed. Begin might not be the leading candidate for the Knesset Defense & Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman position, but Netanyahu knows that Begin is among the people that are expecting a promotion during the current reshuffle.

Avi Dichter, like Hanebgi and Begin, is another former minister from Netanyahu’s government that did not receive a portfolio this time around. Dichter is the former leader of the Shin Bet and a former Homeland Security and Homefront Defense Minister. He is the leading candidate for the Knesset Defense & Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman position. Dichter, like Hanegbi, is a survivor from Kadima, and, like Hangebi, points to his Kadima stint as one of the reasons he was not appointed to the cabinet this time. Begin is another former Likud Minister who at one point spent time in another party.

The other two Likud candidates that missed out on a portfolio at the start of the government are Tzipi Hotovely and Ayoub Kara, who both agreed to Deputy Minister positions with Netanyahu as the sitting minister above them. Hotovely is not expected to ask for a promotion, but Kara probably will. Kara has been one of the unpredictable wildcards of this Likud class. Kara was first elected to the Knesset in 1999 and has always remained in the Likud as a Netanyahu ally until he was overlooked for a ministry position. It is not clear what compensation could be given to Kara in this current reshuffle.

Prime Minister Netanyahu started out as the 21st Minister of his own government. He named himself Foreign Minister, Communications Minister, Regional Cooperation Minister, and Health Minister. Since the government’s formation Litzman replaced him as Health Minister. Netanyahu replaced Shalom as Interior Minister then swapped portfolios with Deri and received the Economy Ministry. Netanyahu is looking to break up the Economy Ministry that was created especially for Naftali Bennett in 2013. Netanyahu wants the ministry to return to its Industry and Trade days, by sending some responsibilities back to the Welfare Ministry. The free portfolio allows him to reshuffle the cabinet positions and give something extra to the new Likud Central Committee Chairman and Welfare Minister Haim Katz. The Interior Ministry might be returned to Netanyahu if the Attorney-General decides that Aryeh Deri needs to suspend himself temporarily. If that does happen the reshuffle could be even larger since it would include another party.

Among the Likud candidates that could be promoted is Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who gave up the Homeland Security portfolio and Security Cabinet position to Erdan when he entered the government. Immigration and Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, who gave Erdan the Strategic Affairs Ministry and received the Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry, is another option. If Netanyahu decides to enforce the rotation agreement Akunis might need to give the Science and Technology portfolio to Hanegbi and return to a no-portfolio-status. The four veteran Likud ministers – Erdan, Katz, Yaalon and Steinitz are not expected to receive promotions. Neither are Likud’s female ministers Regev and Gamliel.

 

Netanyahu has said consistently since the government’s formation that he is holding the Foreign Ministry for the opposition party leader who wants it – Liberman, Lapid or Herzog. Over the last year there have been various rumors about an opposition party joining the government, and most of them have focused on Herzog. Herzog has denied any talks over and over again. Herzog’s political future as the leader of Labor, even if he emerges from his legal troubles, is in doubt. Expanding the coalition during the middle of an internal Likud reshuffle seems unlikely. Of course in Israeli politics anything is possible. Rumors of talks are to be expected until the state budget is brought for a final vote in the winter. After the biannual budget is passed Netanyahu’s interest in expanding the coalition will wane. A bill passed by Lapid and Liberman in the previous Knesset has taken the teeth out of no-confidence motions, and the government would not face another crucial vote until the 2019 State Budget. That is, as long as Netanyahu solves the Likud’s internal issues before the Knesset’s Summer Session.

If Herzog does lead the Zionist Union into the coalition it would turn the government reshuffle into a government shakeup, and that would cause chaos for Netanyahu within his Likud Party.

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