Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Pyrrhic victor

Netanyahu snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and will end up with Labor in his bosom

Wide view of the Knesset (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Wide view of the Knesset
This was not the plan.
Back when he went to early elections last fall, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s assumption was that the Likud’s satellites would remain in its orbit, no matter what result the election delivered.
That is how it has always been, with only one exception - which actually proves the rule. In 1992, Shas joined Yitzhak Rabin’s government, back when the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef still espoused Labor’s foreign policy. That arrangement lasted hardly two years, as Shas – sensing its constituency’s disdain for the Oslo Accords – jumped ship.
The politicians’ conclusion since that experiment has been that the Right, while splintered into more particles than the Left, is nonetheless cohesive when it comes to joining coalitions, because its assorted parties’ voters want their politicians alongside the Likud.
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This assumption was overturned this week when Avigdor Liberman stunned the political system with a bombshell no one saw coming, least of all its main victim and intended target – Netanyahu.
Liberman’s announcement, after six weeks of intermittent talks, that he is resigning as foreign minister and joining the new Knesset’s opposition, both reshuffled and dwindled Netanyahu’s deck of cards. Politically besieged, the recent election’s Pyrrhic victor now presides over the narrowest majority algebra allows, while staring at a legislature whose enmity, trickery and schadenfreude will likely keep him busier than Iran.
Overnight, six weeks of celebrations have given way to hangover.
The celebrations were not only that of Netanyahu and his party, where jubilation over what was seen as a decisive electoral victory was natural.
Jubilation was also felt among pundits – not in the sense of festivity, but in the sense of admiration.
Netanyahu’s stratagem when he called Israel’s earliest election in more than a half-century suddenly seemed both daring and visionary. With everyone assuming that the right-wing bloc would remain intact, Netanyahu emerged as politics’ high priest. He didn’t like the centrist partners with whom he found himself in a straitjacket following the 2013 election, and he had successfully replaced them with natural partners.
The pundits were indeed confounded, including this one who warned that in every decade since 1961 someone in Israel had called an early election, only to lament its aftermath. Until this week, it seemed this decade’s ill-conceived early election had yet to arrive; now, it seems Netanyahu has walked down the path that has led so many before him to remorse, and in some cases also to political demise.
Netanyahu is not facing demise. His ill-fated early election is not quite that of Labor in 1977, which resulted in its first-ever loss of power; or Shimon Peres’s in 1996, in which he was upset by a youthful Netanyahu. Yet Netanyahu emerges from this ploy facing a political landscape that is far less favorable, and far more hostile, than the one he faced until last fall.
ON BOTH sides of the political divide, Netanyahu now faces emboldened rivals.
In the opposition he faces his early-election maneuver’s major victim, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid. Netanyahu manipulated Lapid three times: First when he appointed him finance minister, an assignment that did not come naturally to the former TV anchor; then when he did not help Lapid to succeed in that role; and then when he pushed him overboard. The bad blood such a history leaves is difficult to forget, and the trust it shattered will be difficult to restore.
Then, of course, there is the opposition’s new star: Liberman.
The 23-year working relationship between Netanyahu and Liberman, in which they were boss and aide, rival party heads, joint party heads and estranged coalition partners, now culminates in unbridled enmity. Somehow, Netanyahu managed to chase a crucial ally away from his fold.
For his part, Liberman has dealt Netanyahu and the Likud such a devastating blow they will doubtfully ever forgive him. His main explanation for his move, Netanyahu’s overtures to the ultra-Orthodox parties, is seen in the Likud as unconvincing. The man who only last year was seen by many as the Likud’s next leader is now seen there as a traitor who premeditated his departure, cunningly timing it so Netanyahu will be forced into a narrow government.
For his part, Liberman was apparently driven by the electoral trouncing which left him bitter and convinced that the criminal investigation many in his party face was Netanyahu’s concoction. In any event, this pair will not be tangoing again anytime soon.
Then there is the new coalition, such as it is.
Netanyahu’s victory was hailed not only for its decisive defeat of Labor and for marginalizing Liberman, but also for dwarfing Bayit Yehudi and its leader, Naftali Bennett. The latter’s loss of one-third of his electorate consigned him to the status of a spare wheel in the Ferrari Netanyahu was preparing to drive.
Instead, Netanyahu emerged with a three-wheel pushcart in which Bennett is the middle wheel. Capitalizing on his suddenly revalued stock, Bennett snatched the Justice Ministry in addition to the Education and Agriculture portfolios, and two seats in the security cabinet.
During cabinet sessions with this pair, who became Netanyahu’s rivals back when they were his aides, Netanyahu might be prompted to longingly recall the government he disbanded less than halfway through its term.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s narrow government will be an uneasy partnership between a collection of current Likud ministers and former Likud minister Moshe Kahlon.
The finance minister-designate now emerges as even more pivotal in the new government. His resolve to immediately push forward ambitious reforms in the housing market and banking industry are likely to make him a major newsmaker in upcoming months.
This will be anathema to people like Interior Minister Gilad Erdan and Transportation Minister Israel Katz, who will have to suspect that Kahlon might return to his native Likud and evolve as Netanyahu’s successor instead of them. Had Netanyahu produced the solid coalition the voters offered him, his leadership would not have been in doubt. Now, he emerges weak, and his party colleagues are prone to suspect his political longevity – and force each other to jockey accordingly.
All this will be happening while a 61-member coalition regularly limps from one close vote in the plenary to another in any of the Knesset’s 16 committees, while out in the world Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah continue to demand their fair share of Netanyahu’s attention.
It will be no way to run a railroad.
Israel has had a 61-member coalition in the past.
Such was the government with which Menachem Begin emerged from the election of 1981. Its legacy was trauma. Having waged an ambitious and costly war in Lebanon while lacking broad public support, Begin soon faced a protest movement that animated his tragic departure to the reclusion in which he died.
Netanyahu’s narrow government will be in no better public position. Chances it will deliver serious economic reforms have suddenly plunged. What it will be in a theoretical position to do, an ambitious peace deal, is unlikely to become even just a prospect in the current Middle East. At the same time, challenges will abound both at home and abroad, and they will demand the kind of authority a 61-member coalition will never wield.
The only way out of this will be bringing Labor on board.
Labor’s arrival in his bosom will be pretty much the diametrical opposite of what Netanyahu had in mind when he dumped Lapid and Zionist Union co-leader Tzipi Livni, yet that is where the dynamics he triggered now lead.
The idea has already been publicly backed by influential voices like Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and Hebrew University’s Shlomo Avineri, dean of Israel’s political scientists. Israel has extensive experience with broad governments, some bad, but mostly good.
The bad experience was the government of 1988-1990, in which Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister and Shimon Peres finance minister. Lacking a shared goal, it broke up after Peres tried to lure a Likud lawmaker to defect and create with him a narrow government.
It was the exception. Other unity governments had specific goals that they reached impressively. Such were Levi Eshkol’s emergency government that won the Six Day War, Shimon Peres’s rotation government that defeated hyperinflation and Ariel Sharon’s unity government that won last decade’s war of terror.
A unity government today will be successful if it sets out to treat what makes it necessary in the first place: the political system.
The Likud and Labor share a disdain for the small parties that in recent decades have repeatedly weighed heavily on Israeli governance. The current situation is a telling instance. Liberman and Bennett were condemned by the voters to the political landscape’s margins, but instead now emerge as its designers.
Similarly, Ayelet Shaked, 39, a politician whose public career adds up to barely two years as a backbencher, will next week join the security cabinet – where decisions of life and death are taken habitually; and also preside over the Supreme Court and the rest of the legal system. It is the kind of anomaly the big parties loathe, and now have a chance to address.
Netanyahu and Herzog had a good relationship and are known to support reforms that will empower the larger parties. Sooner or later, they will team up to do this.
That is, of course, without taking into account the possibility of an external event creating a sense of emergency – something even bigger and more unpredictable than Avigdor Liberman.