“He’s a magician, he’s a magician,” Likud members have been known to cheer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at party events.
Netanyahu the magician pulled a rabbit out of his hat, even though, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said over the weekend, it looked like there was no hat and no rabbit.
Here we are, after nearly a week in which an early election looked like the inevitable conclusion, and Netanyahu is running a victory lap.
“We have a whole year until the election,” Netanyahu told the Likud faction, saying he is “pleased the efforts bore fruit” in trying to keep the coalition intact.
This isn’t final, of course. Kahlon still warned that his coalition is not going to work, and predicted an election will take place in March. He still sees a 61-seat coalition as destabilizing and especially disastrous for the balancing budget, because backbenchers will be empowered to make unreasonable demands.
Netanyahu worked his real magic on Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and once Bayit Yehudi wasn’t leaving the coalition, all the pressure falls on Kahlon.
Kahlon will have to show great political courage to go it alone if he is pushing for an election in the short term, and it’s not clear that he’s able to do that. There have been times he put his foot down and swayed the coalition, but more often than not, he brought minor changes that allowed him to support moves he had previously opposed, while saving face.
At this point, it looks more likely that Kahlon will wait a few weeks for the coalition to combust on its own.
As for the trick Netanyahu pulled on Bennett: First Netanyahu gave a speech
wholly focused on Israel’s security on Sunday night. Yes, he defended his actions thus far, saying that the ceasefire with Hamas, frustrating as it may seem to some, was based on factors he cannot share with the public.
But Netanyahu also vowed that he will take action.
Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and many of their advisers – at least the ones they listened to – took that vow of action as a turning point, that “now Netanyahu will really act right-wing,” as one Bayit Yehudi source put it.
Netanyahu said quitting was irresponsible and could only be based on petty, personal politics. He warned against repeating past mistakes when right-wing governments were toppled and replaced with left-wing ones.
Netanyahu’s tough talk backed Bennett into a corner and Bennett’s base bought it. Looking at the comments on his social media, people didn’t want Bennett to quit. They wanted Netanyahu in the driver’s seat, with Bennett having a hand on the steering wheel, as Bennett himself put it in the past.
The prime minister brandished another magic wand, out of the public’s eyes: Influential religious-Zionist figures to warn Bennett against quitting. Since Bennett made his ultimatum last week , the United Task Force for the Land of Israel, which organized the mass right-wing rally before the 2015 election and includes well-known settlement activist Daniella Weiss, contacted prominent religious-Zionist rabbis such as Rabbi Haim Drukman, Rabbi Zephaniah Drori and Rabbi Ya’acov Medan asking them to talk Bennett out of it.
Then, some in the United Task Force gave some of Netanyahu’s advisers the idea to talk to the rabbis as well. The message they relayed was a religious-Zionist version of Netanyahu’s chastising ministers that quitting now would be irresponsible. They explained that serving the country is the core of religious-Zionist ideology, and that the idea isn’t for Bennett to put himself at the fore, it is to do what Israel needs. Nobel Prize winner and game theory expert Prof. Robert Aumann – who’s also a right-wing, religious-Zionist icon – also advised him to stay, saying it was for the good of the country.
And it worked.
Bennett really did the best he could under the circumstances, even if it looked like he folded. His base really would not have forgiven him for leaving a right-wing government, as Netanyahu made sure to remind him repeatedly. And sources with the United Task Force expressed satisfaction, saying Bennett showed leadership in setting his ego aside.
Plus, if his goals are ideological and not just for political advancement, as he said, then quitting would not have helped. He would have no real leverage to pressure Netanyahu to be more hawkish.
Of course, now that Bennett is staying, he comes off as someone who doesn’t follow through on his threats, and that weakens his ability to pressure Netanyahu as well.
And Netanyahu made it amply clear that he isn’t letting Bennett have any control, telling the Likud faction twice that he “doesn’t need any supervision.”
The truth is, Netanyahu and Bennett have a semi-symbiotic relationship. Bayit Yehudi voters won’t tolerate a full abandonment of Netanyahu. And Netanyahu, although he personally can’t stand Bennett or Shaked, knows that he would pay a political price for fully pushing them out of the government, because the Likud likes being the core of a right-wing coalition.
That’s Netanyahu’s magic trick. He saw what was there all along between right-wing voters, Likud and Bayit Yehudi, and he played it exactly right.
It remains to be seen whether he has some magic left for Kahlon, or if the last resisting coalition partner will bring it all down.
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