Scrambling to meet a midnight deadline, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a narrow governing coalition Wednesday with only a razor-thin majority in parliament.
Netanyahu’s control of just 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset is a far cry from the 67-seat majority he was expected to command after his Likud Party won an overwhelming election victory in March. The one-vote margin left his new government vulnerable to collapse if just one of the partners withdraws.
“A coalition of 61 will be very fragile, and Netanyahu will find it very difficult to make major reforms. That’s the ironic outcome of the election,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, an independent research center.
Netanyahu said he hoped to win additional partners.
“Sixty-one is a good number – 61 plus is even better – but it starts with 61, and we will get started,” he said.
Netanyahu said he’d notify President Reuven Rivlin that he’d succeeded in forming a coalition by Wednesday’s deadline and would present his new Cabinet next week.
When he called snap elections following dissension in his outgoing Cabinet last year, Netanyahu had been confident that he’d emerge with a more manageable coalition. But weeks of post-election political horse-trading and an eleventh hour desertion by a former ally, outgoing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, had left Netanyahu struggling to close a deal with the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party to cement the coalition.
“Now we’re ending up with a situation that is even less stable than before,” Plesner said.
“A narrow government is big trouble for the Knesset,” said Yuli Edelstein, the speaker of the Knesset and a member of Likud.
Along with the Likud and Jewish Home, the coalition comprises two ultra-Orthodox religious parties and a center-right party, Kulanu, whose leader, Moshe Kahlon, campaigned on a platform of economic reforms and will serve as finance minister.
Jewish Home, which supports Israeli settlement in the predominantly Palestinian West Bank and calls for annexing part of the territory to Israel, is expected to have two ministers in the next Cabinet, although it won only eight parliamentary seats.
In a last-minute concession to Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu agreed to appoint Ayelet Shaked as justice minister. Shaked has sought to limit the powers of the Israeli Supreme Court and to change the composition of its judges, arguing that it wields too much authority.
Netanyahu’s predicament was in large measure the result of an unexpected defection by Lieberman, the outspoken foreign minister, whose relationship with the prime minister has soured.
On Monday, Lieberman announced that he was stepping down from his post and wouldn’t join the coalition, depriving Netanyahu of the six seats won by Lieberman’s Israel is Our Home party, which would have given the prime minister a comfortable 67-seat majority.
Commenting on Netanyahu’s reversal of fortune, Ben Caspit, a columnist in the newspaper Maariv, wrote that the prime minister had been convinced after the election that forming the next government would be like slicing “a knife through butter.”
“In the meantime, the knife is in his back and the butter is on his forehead, in the hot sun,” Caspit wrote.
Plesner, a former party whip in parliament, said governing with a narrow majority would be a “constant balancing act, and quite a nightmarish scenario for whoever wants to be in charge of such a coalition.”
“It won’t last for long,” he predicted. “It will either be expanded or disbanded.”