When he bestowed on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the mandate to form the next government on Wednesday night, President Reuven Rivlin expressed his hope that following the election, “the time of us and them is over, and now it is just we.”
But from Rivlin’s tone of voice, it was clear that he knew that his hopes were wishful thinking at best.
In a multiparty parliamentary system like Israel’s, even when a prime minister wins so convincingly, the moment the votes are counted and finalized, a new battle begins immediately, as parties jostle for positions in the government being formed.
Netanyahu did not even wait to officially be tasked with building a coalition before meeting with the heads of all the parties that are likely coalition partners who were in the country.
With Passover approaching, Netanyahu knew he had to start early. Trauma from past experiences has taught him that the longer he waits, the more his coalition partners’ prices go up.
So before the politicians have even had time to brush off the mud from their suits and have them cleaned for Passover, they are already slinging it again.
There are fights among the winners and fights among the losers. The only difference is that the winners can smile when they attack each other.
THE FIRST fight that broke out among the winners was over the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) conscription bill. No one remembers anymore, but the inability to pass that bill by the Supreme Court’s deadline was the official reason the election was moved up.
In this fight, the haredi parties, emboldened by their rise from 13 to 16 seats, are facing off against Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman, who became the villain in the haredi press.
Both sides already threatening to use their ultimate weapon: forcing another election. For many Israelis, there is nothing scarier than that.
The threat is theoretically false, because if Netanyahu cannot form a government, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz would be given a chance and could succeed. But the threat to Netanyahu is real. If he gets to his last day to build a government on May 29, Liberman could decide that instead of extorting better portfolios like Bayit Yehudi did in 2015, he could prevent Netanyahu from forming a coalition and end his political career.
In his speech to Yisrael Beytenu activists Monday night, Liberman declared victory. With five seats, against whom did he claim to win? The media, of course, which eulogized his party throughout the campaign.
Netanyahu also declared victory over the media, in his victory speech the night of the election, not mentioning Blue and White and Gantz, who he actually did defeat.
The haredim, who are obviously big winners in the election, will undoubtedly test the limits of their success. Flexing muscles doesn’t feel like the right phrase with them, but they could use their additional power to take steps against religious pluralism, construction and infrastructure repairs on Shabbat and other religion and state issues.
The Union of Right-Wing Parties could also test the limits of its power, especially if US President Donald Trump’s peace plan has more meat on it than people are expecting.
But the biggest fight for the winners will be the immunity bill of URP cochairman Bezalel Smotrich. Coalition parties ruled out the so-called French Law, which would prevent investigating a sitting prime minister. But the immunity law is more palatable.
All the bill does is restore the law to what it was until 2005, when MKs automatically had immunity, and they had to have a vote in order to remove it. Since then, MKs have needed a vote to obtain their immunity.
Change the law back, and Netanyahu could theoretically be prime minister for many more years. After all, he is only 69, and his father, Benzion Netanyahu, died when he was 102.
So much has been written about Netanyahu passing up David Ben-Gurion as the longest-serving prime minister in July. What about also passing him as the prime minister who served the most terms? He served eight. Netanyahu is already on his fifth, and shows no signs of stopping.
THAT LEADS to the fights among the losers of the election. The fight in the Labor Party has become cliché. Political correspondents know that between Knesset races, they cover the election for head of Labor. They might as well keep a guillotine at Labor headquarters.
The fight in the New Right is fresh and raw. After failing to cross the threshold, activists loyal to Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett have started attacking one another. But it will be interesting to see whether Shaked and Bennett themselves deteriorate into a public political divorce.
The final fight among the losers is in Blue and White. If it is going to the opposition for only a year, until Netanyahu gets indicted, its quartet of leaders can stay together and try to keep their disagreements to themselves as best as they can.
But if Smotrich’s bill passes, this party could split into more than the three parts that formed it. Candidates who were in the low 40s on the list may get in yet, once it becomes clear to the new MKs how powerless they are, sitting in the opposition for four years.
Former IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi did not enter politics in order to submit parliamentary inquiries. Former Histadrut labor federation chief Avi Nissenkorn didn’t go from heading the country’s most powerful union to sitting on the Knesset Economics Committee.
There was already a fight in Blue and White’s WhatsApp group of incoming MKs about how much the party will fight the haredim.
But the real battle is taking place among the party’s strategists, and it is brutal. They each take credit for building the party so fast and coming within striking distance of beating Netanyahu. They blame each other for Blue and White’s undeniable failure.
They accuse each other of bad advice, “sabotage” and being the mole who leaked Gantz’s taped conversations and his maiden speech in politics to ace TV reporters Sefi Ovadia and Amit Segal. They threaten lawsuits if their names will be used along with the accusations.
They took polygraph tests after the speech was leaked to Segal. They lament that there were no lie detectors following the leaks of the taped conversations to Ovadia. They claim to have proof of who was in contact with Netanyahu’s associates during the campaign. And they are saving screenshots of WhatsApp messages in order to prove their innocence.
There were strategists for Gantz: Ronen Tzur, Israel Bachar, Itai Ben-Horin, Tal Alexandrovich.
There were strategists for Lapid: Shalom Shlomo, Mark Mellman, Hillel Kubrinsky and Lapid himself.
The arrows go back and forth between those two camps, especially because there was a different strategy depending on who was in charge in each of the three phases of the campaign.
When they were separate, every strategist ruled his fiefdom. When they joined forces, they briefly worked together in harmony.
But when Blue and White went down in the polls, Lapid and his strategists took over the campaign and the Gantz strategists took a backseat role, except for Bachar, who persuaded Gantz to merge with Lapid and was more able to navigate between the camps.
“We can’t afford to split the vote with Lapid, and if we join together, we will win 35 seats,” Bachar told Gantz.
Ben-Horin and Tzur opposed the merger, according to Bachar, who said becoming the largest party and winning by four or five seats was the only way to compete with Netanyahu for the mandate of the president to form the government. This view was shared by Shlomo, one of the country’s leading political strategists.
The strategists united behind the philosophy that getting stronger would force Netanyahu to steal votes from his satellite parties on the Right and drown them under the 3.25% electoral threshold. It worked partially, with some 300,000 votes for the New Right and Zehut thrown away.
Had one more party not crossed the threshold and more Arabs voted, the strategists believe Gantz would have been tasked with forming the new government.
Bachar said the party’s mistakes included not succeeding in drafting Gesher leader Orly Levy-Abecassis, not promoting a socioeconomic agenda, and the leaks. Other strategists add Gantz’s phone being hacked by Iran and a disastrous interview from Washington in which he appeared to stutter when addressing Channel 12 anchorwoman Yonit Levi.
Tzur has complained that Netanyahu was not attacked enough on security issues. He felt that having three former IDF chiefs of staff was not utilized enough, but other strategists disagreed.
They said “you have to attack a weakness, not a strength,” and noted that when a missile leveled a home in the Sharon region, Netanyahu actually went up in the polls.
“Ronen’s philosophy was to use more negative, but the media was already so negative against Netanyahu that it wouldn’t have helped,” Bachar said. “If we had been negative on Bibi, his base would have rallied around him.”
That strategy was based on the surveys by Mellman, a respected American pollster, whom Lapid sees as a guru. Mellman’s polls found that Netanyahu was stronger than ever and would be very hard to beat.
But Mellman also found that there were plenty of people who were sick of Netanyahu and looking for new leadership.
While Labor accused Blue and White of not doing enough to shift voters from the Center-Right to the Center-Left camp, plenty was actually being done on that front behind the scenes, led by Shlomo, who had been Netanyahu’s longtime political adviser.
Shlomo called them “switchers,” and they were targeted with text messages under the eye of the media. The effort succeeded in taking three seats from the Right – from the Likud, Kulanu and Zehut. But that ended up not being enough to win the election.
One of Gantz’s original strategists said Lapid’s group needed to take responsibility for the defeat, because they wanted to run the show on their own. Lapid’s strategists disagree.
“Our strategy was still right,” one of them said, opening fire at his fellow strategists who worked with him until April 9. “They need to decide whether to take credit for the success or blame us for the loss. They can’t have it both ways.”
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