Reaping the whirlwind

As the ‘Three Ls’ breathe down his neck, Netanyahu is becoming increasingly vulnerable

Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (photo credit: REUTERS)
Finance Minister Yair Lapid (L) and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni
(photo credit: REUTERS)
HE KNESSET’S winter session opened in late October as if it might be the current government’s last.
With the “Three Ls,” Finance Minister Yair Lapid, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, forming a string of adhoc alliances, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself, on a host of key issues, in a minority in his own government. The Three Ls command 38 seats in the 68-member governing coalition; with his Likud party and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi, Netanyahu has only 30. And on some issues, even Bennett has moved against him.
In normal circumstances, the prime minister’s unsplendid isolation would be enough to trigger new elections. The catch is that none of the main protagonists is ready to risk the ballot box. The centrists, like Lapid and Livni, who with Liberman hold the whip hand in government, are sharply down in public opinion polls; and Netanyahu, whose own position in the polls is shaky at best, prefers holding on to what he has.
On paper, the prime minister has other options. For example, he could fire Lapid and Livni and bring in the Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ), instead.
But as part of the triple L front, Liberman has put his foot down against any such move, and if he were to bolt, the government would fall.
Indeed, if the Three Ls could find a way of really working closely together they could bring Netanyahu down overnight without having to face a potentially strength-sapping election. With the resignation of Likud minister Gidon Sa’ar from the government and the Knesset, Likud lost another seat to Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu; that means the Three Ls plus Labor, Meretz and Kadima now have precisely the 61 seats needed for a vote of constructive no-confidence to oust Netanyahu and set up an alternative administration.
The fly in the ointment is that under the Israeli system, they would first have to agree on an alternative candidate for prime minister.
And it is hard to see Lapid, Liberman, Livni or Labor’s Yitzhak Herzog deferring to one of their number or accepting a compromise candidate from one their parties. It is also difficult to envisage Liberman and Meretz sitting in the same government.
In the meantime the Three Ls are working together to promote common agendas, often against Netanyahu’s express wishes. For example, Livni and Lapid are cooperating to curb settlement building and create conditions for a renewal of peacemaking with the Palestinians. In one recent instance, Lapid broke up a meeting on settlement funding chaired by Netanyahu by making it clear at the outset that he would not authorize the sums the prime minister wanted to allocate.
Lapid and Livni are also acting in concert to block what they see as anti-democratic initiatives, like a Bayit Yehudi bill challenging the authority of the Supreme Court by giving the Knesset the right through an absolute majority of 61 to reinstitute for a period of four years any law declared unconstitutional by the Court.
Most impressively, all three, Livni, Lapid and Liberman, are collaborating on questions of religion and state, where they bullied Netanyahu into accepting a radical initiative empowering municipal rabbis to perform conversions to Judaism. Netanyahu had initially promised to support the move, but backtracked in an attempt to mollify the Haredi parties with whom he is trying to mend broken political fences. The Three Ls countered by enlisting Bennett’s support leaving Netanyahu no option but to back the motion in government or face a resounding defeat in the Knesset.
Liberman, normally classified as staunchly right-wing, hinted at a possible move toward the center more in line with his newfound centrist partners when, in early November, he castigated right-wing Knesset Members for demonstratively going up to the Temple Mount, fueling the flames of Palestinian violence in Jerusalem and increasing regional suspicion of Israeli motives. It was, he said, a cheap publicity stunt and “stupid.”
The foreign minister’s unexpectedly moderate position was not lost on Labor Knesset Member Nachman Shai, who, only half in  jest, called on “the new Liberman” to form an alternative government with Labor and the rest of the center-left.
Netanyahu’s troubles are compounded by the emerging challenge of a new centrist party being formed by former communications and social welfare minister Moshe Kahlon, who left Likud in a huff after falling out with the prime minister. Kahlon, a popular Robin Hood-like figure who smashed the cellular telephone cartel in Israel, will campaign on fairer distribution of wealth and lower living costs, attacking Netanyahu’s weak socioeconomic underbelly.
POLLS ALREADY show him winning at least 10 seats, before launching a campaign or presenting what could be an attractive list of Knesset candidates. If joined by the other high-profile Likud government defector, Sa’ar, he could became a major force. The big question is who Kahlon would support for prime minister. He is ideologically on the right but despises Netanyahu. Could he become part of a new joint center-left/center-right “anyone but Bibi” campaign? In any event, Netanyahu is becoming increasingly vulnerable. His coalition is shaky, his hold on Likud is tenuous, and, after fighting an inconclusive war against Hamas in the summer and failing to curb the current wave of Palestinian violence in Jerusalem, he is no longer seen as “Mr. Security,” the vote-winning protective father figure.
Nor has his standing been helped by American anger at his “gutless” foot-dragging in the Washington-led process with the Palestinians – anger encapsulated in the late October “chickenshit” barb tossed in his direction by an unidentified senior administration official.
With the looming Palestinian approach to the UN and the impending US nuclear deal with Iran, can Netanyahu count on a post-midterm US President Barack Obama to see things his way on all or any of this? And should his ties with the Obama Administration deteriorate further, how will that play on the Israeli domestic scene? But it would be wrong to write Netanyahu off too easily. When it comes to political survival, he is a master tactician. To shore up his waning political power, he has been working behind the scenes to rebuild his strategic alliance with the Haredim, holding long meetings with Haredi party leaders.
He is also moving to reestablish control over the Likud. He hopes that after early leadership primaries in January and changes in the party constitution in his favor, he will again become the undisputed party boss.
Along the way, he has forged new alliances with party strongmen like Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, and his namesake, Haim Katz, who controls the large Israel Aircraft Industries vote in the Likud.
More importantly, Netanyahu is basing his survival strategy on a sharp turn to the right.
The policy entails high-profile announcements of new controversial building plans, deliberate disengagement from peacemaking with the Palestinians, relentless personal attacks on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and using American criticism the policy evokes to present himself as the ultimate defender of Israel’s security, ready to take on even the mighty US, if necessary. Netanyahu’s plan is to whip up nationalist sentiment, unify his right-wing base around his leadership and play on the strong rightward drift of the Israeli electorate as a whole.
On the face of it, his new policy challenges Bennett for a slice of the far right-wing vote; but it also paves the way for a possible electoral pact. According to some Likud insiders, Netanyahu and Bennett have already sewn up a deal for Likud and Bayit Yehudi to run together in the next election, with Bennett promised the defense ministry if they win.
But how will Netanyahu’s narrow far right-wing politics play with the wider electorate? Could the prime minister be painting himself into a tight lose-lose corner? After all, the rightward turn comes at tremendous cost to Israel’s overarching strategic interests. It means abandoning the two-state solution, missing new opportunities for regional accommodation, alienating Europe and infuriating Obama. In a worst case scenario, it is playing with fire, possibly leading to war, with American support hanging in the balance.
In early November, Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz of Livni’s Hatnua party, lashed out at the prime minister’s new hard line. Netanyahu, he claimed, had become “a prisoner of the extreme right”; he was “the problem, not the solution”; and, said Peretz, he would do all he could to see him replaced as prime minister.
Clearly Peretz is positioning himself, a former defense minister credited with the development of the Iron Dome rocket interception system and a former trade union leader with obvious socioeconomic credentials, as an alternative national leader.
Will his resignation be the first domino to fall, leading to the Netanyahu government’s collapse? As the cracks in the governing coalition widen, Labor opposition leader Herzog is also working to create a broad anti-Netanyahu front, the way Ehud Barak did in 1999.
This means finding a way to work together with the center left (Lapid, Livni) and the center right (Liberman, Kahlon) to oust the prime minister through constructive no confidence or, more likely, new elections.
Much will depend on whether Herzog can bring in new forces, like former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) head Yuval Diskin, a sharp critic of the Netanyahu administration, who could give the centrist ticket added security weight. Diskin says the ticket should offer the electorate a better alternative in five key areas in which Netanyahu has failed: providing security, genuinely seeking peace, working for the general good, enhancing social justice and reestablishing Israel’s international legitimacy.
Besides the degree of centrist bloc unity, Haredi post-election choices could be crucial. After the last election in January 2013, the 18-member Haredi bloc’s support for Netanyahu decided the outcome in his favor. But by leaving them out of his coalition, Netanyahu forfeited their future automatic backing.
Since then, Shas Chairman Arye Deri and UTJ leaders have had nothing but praise for Herzog. Will the Labor leader, the grandson of a chief rabbi, be able to keep them on the centrist side of the equation? Recent polls show that over 60 percent of Israelis don’t want Netanyahu to serve another term. Moreover, since Operation Protective Edge in the summer, the number of Israelis who see him as the politician best suited to be prime minister has dropped from close to 50 percent to just 27 percent.
As the rumblings of discontent in the government, the Knesset, the party and the public grow louder, it could be that Netanyahu may be about to reap the political comeuppance he has sown.