Following the 2015 election, between Phase 2 and Phase 3, Netanyahu and his Likud Party signed coalition agreements with each of his original coalition partners – Kulanu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas and UTJ. One of the key clauses set the number of cabinet ministers at 20, which would require an amendment to the new law that was supposed to limit new governments to 18 ministers, and gave Likud 12 of the 20 ministers.
Four of the original 12 Likud ministers are no longer in the cabinet: Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Silvan Shalom, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Science and Technology Minister Danny Danon and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin. First, Begin was forced out of the government to allow Likud’s #2 Gilad Erdan to re-enter the cabinet. Danon resigned from the cabinet to become Israel’s Ambassador to the UN. Shalom resigned due to scandal. Yaalon chose to resign from Knesset instead of accepting a demotion to Foreign Minister after Avigdor Liberman entered the coalition.
Two Likud Ministers who held two portfolios had to give up their main portfolio. Yariv Levin handed the Homeland Security Ministry to Erdan, and Zeev Elkin handed the Immigration and Absorption Ministry to Yisrael Beitenu’s Sofa Landver.
The Foreign Ministry has been left without a Minister for the entire term. Prime Minister Netanyahu kept it open for Yair Lapid, Issac Herzog or Liberman. The argument that Netanyahu is still keeping it open for Lapid or Herzog is no longer working within Likud circles. Supposedly, Speaker Edelstein was offered the Foreign Ministry and rejected it. The three Likud ministers with the most seniority – Erdan, Yisrael Katz and Yuval Steinitz – are all vying for the job.
While Erdan, Katz and Steinitz – ministers in Netanyahu’s last three cabinets – wait for the Foreign Ministry, the rookie Likud ministers are also hoping for a promotion later in the term and would prefer Netanyahu not add more Likud ministers into the mix. If new ministers are added to the government it would decrease the chances a current minister would be promoted.
Likud has ten ministers, not 12, because Netanyahu has been slow to appoint new ministers. This has led to circumstances that forced him to give the Likud spots away to other parties. Litzman took Danon’s spot when the Supreme Court forced Litzman to be promoted from a Deputy Minister to a Minister. Shalom and Yaalon’s spots were given to Yisrael Beitenu when they joined the coalition. Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi was able to take the spot of Kulanu’s Avi Gabai when Moshe Kahlon refused to name a new minister to replace the resigning minister and took Gabai’s Environment portfolio for himself. Netanyahu is still bound by the law of 20 ministers – unless he chooses to change it.
There is pressure from the Likud on Netanyahu to increase the government from 20 to 22 ministers. The coalition agreements require 12 Likud Ministers, so it would be difficult for the coalition partners to object. Four Likud MKs view themselves as candidates for the two spots – Former Minister Begin, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely, Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara, and Knesset Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Avi Dichter. The opposition would love the opportunity for a news-cycle where they can vote against the expansion of the government. Kulanu has the right to a third minister, should they request it, which could mean a cabinet of 23 ministers.
Instead, today, the cabinet will approve a mini-reshuffle. Elkin will get Gabai’s old portfolio, Chaim Katz will get the Labor part of the Economy Ministry, and Kahlon will take the Trade part of the Economy Ministry for himself. Hanegbi will remain a minister without portfolio.
Netanyahu doesn’t want to appoint Erdan, Katz or Steinitz as Foreign Minister. Netanyahu did not win the last three terms in a row by rewarding popular Likud Ministers with top jobs so they could build their résumé. Netanyahu has been careful not to give a Likud #2 a key position since his first #2 Defense Minister Itzick Mordechai contributed to his downfall in the 1999 Elections. Kahlon (2006), Gideon Saar (2009 & 2013) and Erdan (2015) have won the top spot in last four Likud Knesset Primary Elections. None of them received one of the top three or four portfolios during their time in the Likud. Instead Netanyahu has given the top jobs to Likud MKs that have not finished in the Likud top five such as his decision to give Steinitz the Finance Ministry in 2009 and Yaalon the Defense Ministry in 2013 and 2015. It was a factor that also helped install Edelstein, who was going to lose his minister position, instead of Rivlin, for the Speaker position in 2013. Erdan and Katz are very popular within the Likud and giving one of them the Foreign Ministry would create two potential competitors – one in a key government office and the other as an opposition leader who would become a daily thorn in Netanyahu’s side. Steinitz is less popular than Erdan and Katz, and Netanyahu passed over both the last time he gave Steinitz a senior portfolio. It would be difficult to get away with it twice.
Liberman was a key Netanyahu ally in the 1990s and became his first Prime Minister Office Director General. Liberman realized that he could get more out of Netanyahu from outside the Likud. Over the last three terms he has received the Foreign Ministry twice and is now Defense Minister, despite holding just five Knesset seats. Naftali Bennett was Netanyahu’s Chief-of-Staff during the important time he re-branded himself as Opposition Leader following the Second Lebanon War. Bennett, and Ayelet Shaked (Netanyahu’s Chief-of-Bureau) joined the Bayit Yehudi Party and are now both sitting on the Security Cabinet. Kahlon created his own Kulanu Party and finally receive the Finance Ministry that he desired. Previously Saar, and more recently Yaalon, have flirted with the idea of creating their own party in order to get a top portfolio position. For Saar it would be the first time he received a top post. For Yaalon it would be getting his position back.
Netanyahu doesn’t want to expand his cabinet. The opposition will have a field day. He has 20 ministers, he just had a reshuffle, and he still doesn’t have a portfolio to give the newest member Hanegbi. Even if he did increase his cabinet, how would he choose two of the four candidates and get away with it? If he does promote a Deputy Minister or a Knesset Chairman it would require him to reshuffle the backbenchers which he would prefer avoiding.
The Knesset will go on recess at the end of this week. Netanyahu will not need to worry about the Knesset until it reconvenes on October 31st. That is when Netanyahu needs his other 29 Likud MKs to start voting for his bi-annual budget that is designed to ensure the coalition lasts until at least late 2018/early 2019. Kulanu, Bayit Yehudi, Shas, UTJ and Yisrael Beitenu are loyal coalition partners who are all ready for this government’s biggest test. With the current infighting in his own party – it is Netanyahu who needs to worry if his house is in order.
The silver lining for the Prime Minister is that the Likud is leading the polls. The current KnessetJeremy Polling Average has Likud with 25.0 seats and Yesh Atid in second with 19.8 seats. The Zionist Union led by Opposition Leader Issac Herzog has dropped to fifth place, and the numbers of seats have been cut in half from 24 seats to 12 seats. The current coalition averages 68.5 seats to the opposition’s 51.5 seats.
If Netanyahu, who is a master politician, is able to survive the cabinet reshuffle that wasn’t, then he will push off elections until 2019.
Of course, even if he does, in Israel – anything can happen.