Analysis: A bold but risky gamble

Bold gamble, bespeaking concerns, and not without risks.

Liberman and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Liberman and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
On Tuesday night, according to Sudan and Iran, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave the order to drop bombs on an arms factory near Khartoum.
Israel has remained completely silent on the claim, neither rejecting nor denying it.
If, indeed, Israel was responsible, nobody saw it coming, it took everyone by surprise, and it was in the works for months.
The same can be said for the bomb Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman dropped on the political map Thursday night when they announced the merger of the Likud’s and Yisrael Beytenu’s electoral efforts: Nobody saw it coming, it took everyone by surprise, and it was in the works for months.
But it shouldn’t have come as that much of a surprise, really.
First of all, Liberman dropped some hints. In a radio interview earlier this month, when asked what job he wanted next in the government, the foreign minister said that his favorite position was when he served as director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term in office.
That answer was intriguing at the time, but the kind of thing you hear, think “hmm, that’s interesting,” and move on. In retrospect, it should have been a hint of what was in store.
Really, this move also shouldn’t have surprised anyone, because with all the recent talk of a formation of a Center-Left super-party, and the speculation surrounding whether Ehud Olmert would throw his hat back in the ring, and whether Tzipi Livni would come in out of the cold, it was illogical to think that Netanyahu and Liberman – no political neophytes – were simply going to sit on their hands.
So they preempted.
But this preemption also reveals weakness. It is hard to imagine that Liberman would be folding his party into the Likud if he looked at his own internal polls and saw Yisrael Beytenu cleaning up on Election Day. A move this dramatic does not bespeak a political leader overly confident in the prospects of going it alone.
Indeed, over the past few weeks, the polls have showed Liberman, in the best situation, maintaining his current 15 Knesset seats, and in the worst-case scenario dropping to 12. The party’s upward trajectory of the past few years, at least according to the polls, has been halted.
Part of this might be due to demographics. Yisrael Beytenu appealed heavily to Russian-speaking Israelis, but to the first generation of Russian-speaking Israelis. The second generation, those who grew up here, are less attracted to the party than their parents. This might explain why Liberman has taken off his gloves in going after Yair Lapid’s new Yesh Atid party, concerned that it might be siphoning off some of his core constituents.
Netanyahu’s decision to merge with the Likud also does not show a candidate sure of an easy victory. The prime minister’s political strategists have undoubtedly been replaying in their mind the results of the 2009 elections, when Livni and Kadima actually won the election with 28 seats to the Likud’s 27, and were given the first shot by President Shimon Peres at forming a coalition.
Had Livni been more politically adroit, she conceivably could have formed a government.
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Forming a super-party with Yisrael Beytenu all but forestalls history from repeating itself. If the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu maintain their current strength in a merger, they would win 42 seats, though that number could drop as low as 35 or – if Yisrael Beytenu’s polls are to be believed – rise as high as 51.
Either way, it is unlikely a Center-Left super-party crafted by Haim Ramon could beat that, meaning this move all but ensures the Likud will be the party asked first by Peres to form the government.
But this gamble is not risk free. Historically, when two parties combine, they do not win as many seats as when they ran separately. Unity does not always bring strength, as separate parties appeal to different parts of the electorate that might be put off by the merger.
Also, the move may serve as a catalyst to bring the Center- Left parties together, although as of press time there were no immediate signs of this happening.
Netanyahu’s political strategists, surely, worked through all these various scenarios, and concluded that the surprise union would both ensure that the prime minister will have the first shot at forming a government, and – that with a party that could swell to well over 40 seats – he will be able to form a government with fewer parties, reducing the asking price of each party – especially Shas – that wants into the coalition.
But that, of course, is if everything on the political landscape remains static, something which – if this move is any indication – is definitely not going to happen.