If you have been following the last three weeks of negotiations, you may be under the impression that the formation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s new governing coalition hinges on the exorbitant demands of Religious Zionism co-leader Bezalel Smotrich for the most senior of cabinet posts. Smotrich’s delusions of grandeur are certainly a sticking point, but he is not the main figure in the talks. And neither is Netanyahu.
Eight days have passed of the 28 allotted to Netanyahu to form a government, and Likudniks are already speculating that he may have to ask President Isaac Herzog for a two-week extension on his mandate.
Meanwhile, the pivotal player emerging – the man who will ultimately pull the cart out of the mud and tailor the new coalition to his own personal measurements and needs – is Shas leader Arye Dery.
Unlike Smotrich, who claims to be talking for all 14 Knesset members of Religious Zionism but at most can command only his faction, which is half that size, Dery has the total loyalty of all 11 Shas lawmakers and is the leader of the second-largest party in the coalition.
More importantly, he is the only politician in the prospective cabinet that Netanyahu trusts implicitly. He has been involved in building and dismantling coalitions since Shas’ foundation in 1984, when some of those who expect to become ministers soon were still in diapers.
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For the past 10 days, there has been a constant spin that Dery is demanding the Finance Ministry. But that is merely to put pressure on the parties. He has no desire to be the “bad guy” in this government, in charge of taxes and cuts. It would ruin his “man of the people” act and force him to pick fights with the powerful Treasury officials, union bosses and oligarchs. And Dery doesn’t believe in having fights – certainly not in the open.
He wants the twin portfolio he had in the previous government: interior minister and minister responsible for the development of the Negev and Galilee. Both are relatively low-profile departments with massive budgets and opportunities for patronage, which he knows how to navigate.
But the spin is necessary so he can pretend to “give up” the Finance Ministry for the sake of the coalition, forcing Smotrich to relinquish his own demand to be defense minister.
Dery isn’t even officially taking part in the talks, which are ostensibly being conducted by “negotiation teams.” However, not a single draft proposal, of any of the parties, is passed on without him being updated, and Likud’s proposals are all coordinated with him.
And while there are daily headlines caused by leaks from the other coalition partners on their demands and counterdemands, Shas has remained disciplined. The only news emerging from the party is that it insists on immediately amending the legislation relating to the suitability of candidates for ministerial jobs, so Dery can get one.
He needs this coalition to sort out his legal problems even sooner than Netanyahu does. Under the terms of his plea bargain last January, in which Dery admitted to tax evasion, it is unclear whether his conviction includes a “moral turpitude” component that would disqualify him from holding public office for seven years.
Still, most legal experts believe that if the case were to be brought before the High Court of Justice if Netanyahu appoints him as a minister, there would be petitions against him – and the ruling would probably be against him. This is why Shas wants the coalition to vote on an amendment even before the government actually exists.
But Dery doesn’t just want to create a temporary loophole to allow himself to return to his old job. He craves public recognition as a unifying figure of the nation. Even though he engineered Shas’ sharp turn to the right and its unshakable alliance with Netanyahu, he still desires the affirmation of the center-left and the secular media.
Unlike many of his soon-to-be coalition colleagues, he hasn’t adopted the angry attitude of “We can do what we like and the leftists can stuff themselves.” More than anything, he wants to be perceived as the man holding back this new government’s crazies; as Netanyahu’s sensible and moderating right-hand man.
Over the 17 months in opposition, he admitted more than once that it had been a mistake (also of Netanyahu’s) not to stick to the coalition agreement signed in 2020 with Benny Gantz, and that he assumed some of the blame in not working harder to keep that national unity government together.
What kind of government does Dery want now? On the one hand, he needs the coalition with the far right to ensure that he does become a minister again. On the other, he would much prefer – as would Netanyahu – having a centrist faction like Gantz’s National Unity Party to balance out or possibly replace Religious Zionism. He sees Smotrich and his co-leader Itamar Ben-Gvir as dangerous troublemakers who could very soon cause more damage than they’re worth.
Dery’s strategy at this point seems to be to maximize the potential of the current prospective coalition, for his own benefit, as soon as possible, but to pivot away from it at the earliest possible opportunity.
Either way, it will be a coalition of his making.