How Netanyahu can save his coalition despite Kahlon and Bennett's threats

Netanyahu has few options to avoid an election, but he is known to make political magic. Does he have a rabbit to pull out of his hat?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, November 18, 2018 (photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting, November 18, 2018
(photo credit: EMIL SALMAN/POOL)
An election seems inevitable at this point. The chain of events that began with a botched operation in Gaza, followed by Hamas shooting more rockets in a sole day than ever before, a ceasefire, and Avigdor Liberman resigning as defense minister have led us straight to other coalition partners saying there is no way to salvage this government.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was still trying to keep the coalition intact, and has a meeting with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on Sunday evening to that end.
What tricks does Netanyahu have up his sleeve?
Publicly, Netanyahu is using the tactic known as “gevald," a Yiddish expression of alarm, which in the political context means he is trying to scare people.
His repeated mention of the events of 1992 are a sort of guilt trip for the Right. A quick refresher on what that year means to many on the Israeli right: In 1992, the Tehiya party left prime minister Yitzhak Shamir’s coalition, because he attended the Madrid Peace Conference, at which the Palestinians were also present – disregarding that Shamir had faced heavy pressure from US President George H.W. Bush, whose administration threatened to refuse to grant loan guarantees necessary to absorb an influx of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, if he didn’t do so. The government fell apart, an election was called, and Labor won. Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister, signed the Oslo Accords, theoretically leading Israel on the path to a two-state solution, but also marking the start of Palestinians using suicide bombings as a tactic.
It’s hard to say how effective invoking 26-year-old history half a dozen times in one weekend is on the public, but it’s clear that guilt has not been enough to motivate Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon or Education Minister Naftali Bennett to change their stances. Kahlon said on Saturday night that he’s not in the Likud anymore, so these threats don’t work on him, and that he doesn’t need to take a test to prove he’s right-wing. Bennett took a different tack, saying that this government is no longer implementing right-wing politics, and therefore, he is not dismantling a right-wing government.
Netanyahu has few options to present to Kahlon that would entice him to stay:
One is this afternoon’s cabinet vote on an NIS 22 bn. budget cut from all ministries, meant to pay for an increase in police officers’ pensions.
The theory is that, if the cabinet throws this bone to Kahlon, retired police officers will vote for Kulanu as a result, and the finance minister will be sufficiently motivated to stick around long enough to see this through.
The weakness of this argument is that budgets have to be cut in order to pay for the pensions, and Kahlon will have to start an election season amid protests about slashed government services. Also, there are no guarantees that the retired police officers will, in fact, vote Kulanu.
Convincing Kahlon would not be enough. Netanyahu would also have to give the defense portfolio to Bennett, since that is the latter’s ultimatum to remain in the coalition.
Kahlon said Saturday night that he is not involved in political appointments – meaning, he did not say he opposes Bennett’s appointment, though he did not enthusiastically endorse him, either. Bennett claims that in his meeting with Netanyahu on Friday, the prime minister said he would not be opposed to Bennett as prime minister.
But Netanyahu released multiple statements in recent days saying he will retain the defense portfolio for himself. This will help Netanyahu to avoid a maelstrom within his Likud party, where Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz already said on Sunday that “there are a number of worthy candidates” for the position in the Likud.
Netanyahu seems to have few outlets, and even those could lead to dead ends.
However, the Likud in recent years has nicknamed Netanyahu “the wizard” or “the magician.”
As Kahlon himself said: “Let’s see what rabbit he pulls out of his hat – even though I don’t think there’s a rabbit or a hat at this point.”