Who’s playing a game of chicken? - analysis

On the one hand, Likud denied making a final decision on going to elections. On the other, it ordered all MKs to report to the Knesset on Monday to vote to hold an election.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The headlines are dramatic. Another election is on the way! Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t form a majority coalition!
Keep in mind, though, that we still have some time – not much – before we know if that is really true.
Throughout Sunday, Likud played both sides of the reports.
On the one hand, the party denied making a final decision of going to elections.
On the other, it made steps in that direction, ordering all MKs to report to the Knesset on Monday for a vote to hold an election and calling a meeting of the Likud secretariat to cancel the need for new primaries, since they already held a vote earlier this year. Party insiders leaked the contents of a Likud ministers’ meeting in which Netanyahu said he wants to add Kulanu MKs to the list for the next Knesset. Netanyahu’s spokesman Yonatan Urich tweeted a thinly veiled threat to Yisrael Beytenu: “For my next trick, I will need NIS 10 million for ads targeting Russian-speakers.”
There’s also the fact that, instead of negotiating intensely weeks ago, talks under Netanyahu’s guidance happened at a leisurely pace, as though there wasn’t a deadline on the horizon, and all the while, he complained about his potential partners’ impossible demands and said they’re going to bring about another election.
But Netanyahu knows very well that another election is not really in his interest. It certainly isn’t in the country’s best interest. But politically, the prime minister is aware that even if the Right has a solid majority, one never knows how an election will turn out. He could once again increase the Likud’s seats at the expense of smaller right-wing parties. Turn-out could be lower and give the center-left bloc a greater piece of the pie. Either of those scenarios would mean he’d have an even more difficult time forming a coalition in October.
The logical conclusion of this Janus-faced behavior and the facts is that Netanyahu and the Likud negotiating team are playing chicken. These moves to prepare for an election are a way to put pressure on the other parties.
But there are other people playing with him – the other parties involved in negotiations.
Throughout the talks, the major dispute has been between the haredi parties, Shas and UTJ, versus Yisrael Beytenu about haredi enlistment in the IDF. Notably, Likud has yet to sign agreements with the other potential coalition partners, Kulanu and the Union of Right-Wing Parties.
Over the past weeks, haredi MKs complained that Yisrael Beytenu has only five seats while the haredi parties have a total of 16, and yet the former think they can dictate how the enlistment debate will move forward. They warned that Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman doesn’t really want to negotiate, he just wants to draw everyone into another election.
And yet, in this game of chicken, UTJ blinked first today, agreeing to a compromise after its Council of Torah Sages met and allowed it.
The real problem with this game of chicken is that Liberman is playing it.
First, it’s worth considering that haredi enlistment is not the real issue for him. Sources close to Liberman have mentioned that what he cares about most is being defense minister again, but with greater power. He was disappointed in the last term that, in the end, Netanyahu really had the final say about what happened. At a certain point, he decided he could not take the lack of a strong response to rockets and incendiary projectiles from Gaza and quit. Now, he wants real control, and Netanyahu won’t give it to him.
But, the sources explain, Liberman thinks haredi enlistment in the IDF will be a more popular public stance for him to take, with the haredim as the bogeyman and not Netanyahu.
No matter what he’s really pushing for in these talks, Liberman has proven time and again that he has no problem going all the way. His negotiating tactic is something Israelis call “the landlord has gone crazy” – he’ll do seemingly irrational things.
After the 2015 election, Liberman stayed out of the coalition, leaving it with a one-seat majority. That isn’t an option this time, because the coalition will be tied with the opposition at 60 seats. But he could take this all the way. He’s also a serial coalition-quitter. Most recently, Liberman resigned from the government and his beloved Defense Ministry in November, which got the wheels turning toward the April 2019 election.
And one shouldn’t put it past Liberman to be the catalyst behind another election later this year.
Then again, Liberman could be playing chicken, too, and swerve away from disaster at the very last second, with the vast majority of what he wanted, despite having only five seats.