Winston Churchill once said that “Politics is not a game. It is an earnest business.”
As a great admirer of Churchill who reads biographies of the British statesman for fun, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has undoubtedly encountered this quote.
And he has apparently decided to completely ignore it.
When Netanyahu needs to treat politics as serious business, he knows how to do it. But he also knows that at least in Israel, politics is very often a game.
Like in any game, there are players and each of them must take their turn, playing their part.
This week’s short-lived battle between Netanyahu and his protégé-turned-nemesis, Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett, is a case in point.
When Netanyahu proposed leaving Jewish settlers in a Palestinian state, he was playing the international diplomacy game, recommending a proposal that has no chance of becoming reality but could make Israel look good to the world.
He was highlighting the fact that while Israel has a 20-percent Arab Muslim minority, the Palestinian state that the international community wants so desperately to create would be completely Judenrein.
Bennett, meanwhile, was playing to his right-wing constituency by fiercely attacking the proposal and popping the trial balloon before anyone could start taking it seriously. For him, that meant displaying the chutzpah his supporters like so much while ultimately showing respect to the prime minister.
Netanyahu looked like a strong leader to Israelis by compelling Bennett to apologize (albeit halfheartedly), and he looked moderate to the international community because he confronted the Right.
In such a game, Netanyahu and Bennett can both be winners, because they both achieved what they set out to accomplish.
As his former chief of staff, Bennett has spent many hours with Netanyahu, so he knows how to play with him – and how to get under his skin. He has learned so much from Netanyahu that it must irk the prime minister to have to deal with his own clone.
But there is one fundamental difference between the two men: Their wives are as dissimilar as it gets.
Sara Netanyahu is a political player, whose power, sources say, exceeds what has been described in reports that sounded exaggerated. When she found out that Netanyahu was paying Bennett’s expenses under the table when he worked for him, she made sure he was out of a job.
Had Netanyahu had any way of keeping Bennett out of his coalition, he would have, in order to maintain peace and security at his home.
Gilat Bennett is a pastry chef who shuns politics.
She is raising small children while her husband works extremely hard on his three portfolios.
Yet when Bennett issued his apology to Netanyahu and politicians started taking credit for persuading him, who did Bennett’s associates say really brought him down from the tree? None other than Gilat, who sources close to Bennett said told him to swallow his pride.
“Be the responsible adult,” she told him, as he was being driven from his Jerusalem office to a conference at the Dead Sea.
The mere mention of Gilat may have been an indirect way of reminding the public that Sara is in part to blame for Bennett’s bond with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, the unnatural coalition her husband was forced to build, and all the problems that have consequently emerged.
President Shimon Peres would have undoubtedly loved to have a chance to make final use of his powers to dissolve a coalition, initiate an election, and appoint a candidate to form a new government.
It is still theoretically possible before his term ends at the end of July.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has the power to bring down a government in Israel, breaking up a coalition that from the start was not homogeneous on matters of war and peace.
The alternatives that Netanyahu claims to have to Bayit Yehudi are not really there. Chances are that neither Labor, nor Shas would join his coalition in Bayit Yehudi’s stead, unless dramatic developments took place.
But a Knesset elected barely a year ago does not hurry to return to the campaign trail, so chances are the parties in the government will find a way to continue to get along just enough to enable the coalition to survive.
For the players in the political game, it is indeed earnest business. Therefore, the games must go on.