Published on Parliament Magazine, Written byon 12 May 2015
After forming a new coalition government, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was congratulated by EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini.
The coalition has a slim majority of one seat (61 out of 120) in the Knesset – Israel’s parliament – which includes five parties: Likud (the prime minister’s party, which won 30 seats), Bayit Yehudi (Jewish home, which won eight seats), Kulan (10 seats), Shas (seven seats) and United Torah Judaism (six seats). However, Netanyahu has left the door open to broadening the coalition.
Netanyahu’s attempts to form a coalition were disrupted when foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that his YisraelBeitenu party would sit with the opposition, rather than joining what he called an “opportunistic” government.
As a result, Jewish Home’s eight members of the Knesset were needed for Likud to form a slim single-seat majority government. This prompted a feverish day of negotiations between the two parties, who scrambled to reach an agreement before the deadline.
Led by Nafatali Bennett, Jewish Home increased its demands, and these were largely met, most notably with the appointment of Bennett’s number two, Ayelet Shaked, as justice minister. Shaked, who had previously spearheaded steps to limit the power of the supreme court, will have considerable influence over future legislation and judicial bodies. She will also join the security cabinet.
What was more interesting was Netanyahu’s comments about his desire to expand the coalition beyond its 61 members in theKnesset. “61 seats is a good number. 61-plus is a better number. But it starts with 61, and we will begin with that. […] We have a lot of work ahead of us”, he said.
According to a Likud official, the prime minister plans on taking on the foreign ministry portfolio, in the hope of later turning over the top government position to leader of the Zionist union Isaac Herzog.
Following the formation of the government, Mogherini said, “the European Union will continue to work together with Israel on a mutually beneficial bilateral relationship, as well as on important regional and global issues of joint interest.”
But at the same time, she stressed that “the inauguration of the new government will also allow to relaunch the Palestinian/Israeli peace negotiations as soon as possible”, reiterating the EU stance that talks should be aimed at achieving “a comprehensive agreement towards the creation of an independent, democratic, contiguous and viable Palestinian state living side by side with Israel in peace and security.”
Israelis and Palestinians “will have the European Union by their side”. “I am ready to personally engage in order to facilitate further progress and look forward to working with the new (Israeli) government”, the statement reads.
Meanwhile, at almost the same time, EU ambassador to Israel Lars Faaborg-Andersen positioned himself as ‘the bad guy’, by saying, “any agreement must reflect Israel’s security interests, but there is definitely growing frustration among the EU countries that there is no progress in the peace process.”
While acknowledging that the EU “understands that the responsibility for the failure to reach an agreement is not Israel’s alone, and that a partner is needed to reach an agreement”, he reiterated that the EU “cannot accept steps which move us backwards, especially the issue of settlement construction”, an issue which has been a constant stumbling block in EU-Israeli relations in recent years.
Faaborg-Andersen noted that the EU favours dialogue and is against isolation, adding that the EU expects the new Israeli government to advance the peace process.
Praising the relationship between the EU and Israel, he said Israel is the EU’s closest partner.
“The EU and Israel share a deep relationship in a wide variety of topics. We have trade relations, cooperation in science and technology, relationships in the tourism sector and other industries” he said, adding, “unfortunately, what resonates are the points of disagreement between us, especially in the diplomatic field.”
On several occasions, the EU has insisted on the need to relaunch talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Federica Mogherini last month announced the appointment of a new special EU representative for the Middle East, FernandoGentilini, further signalling Brussels’ interest in advancing the peace process. The EU has continually underlined that deepening its relations with Israel would depend on developments in the peace process.
However, Israel insists that the EU needs to have a better understanding of Israel’s security concerns in the context of a very unstable and hostile regional situation, with issues around Hamas, Hezbollah, Isis, Syria, Iran and Yemen.
Fulvio Martusciello, chair of the European parliament’s delegation for relations with Israel, has warned against any attempt within the EU to isolate Israel following Netanyahu’s reelection, pointing out that, “with isolation from the international community, religious fanaticism can flourish”.
“It is now Israel’s responsibility to weave the common threads that link it to Europe and we, as the European Union, are ready to reciprocate,” he told the European Israel press association.
“Most Israelis are disappointed that a national unity government could not be formed at a time when we are faced with daunting political and diplomatic challenges, particularly the ongoing tension between Israel and the Obama administration” writes Israeli commentator Isi Leibler, in Israel Hayom.
In the coming months Israel is likely to face enormous pressures not only from the US administration, but also from the EU, meaning Netanyahu will need to put up a united front, which Herzog’s Zionist Union will have to be a part of.