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Netanyahu, Lapid and Syria

The reported Israeli attack on an arms convoy in Syria plays into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hands to form a government with Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox parties, writes Mazal Mualem.
Yair Lapid, leader of the Yesh Atid (There's a Future) party, leaves the podium after delivering a statement to the media, following his meeting with Israel's President Shimon Peres (unseen) in Jerusalem January 30, 2013. Peres on Wednesday began consultations with political parties over the formation of a new coalition and appears certain to pick incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to assemble it. Lapid's new centrist party stormed to second place in last week's election by winning 19 seats. REUTER

The attack in Syria that, according to foreign sources, was carried out by Israel in the middle of last week [Jan. 29], is expected to fill an important role in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Sisyphean efforts to establish as broad a coalition as possible, including Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid, the ultra-Orthodox and — if possible — Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, too.

In fact, anyone who kept track of the prime minister’s announcements last week, even before the assault in Syria, can easily identify the connection Netanyahu makes between Assad’s loss of control in Syria and a possible solution to his own personal political headache.

At the opening of the government’s first post-election meeting, three days before the attack in Syria, Netanyahu chose to issue a warning regarding the danger of losing control of the tremendous weaponry in the territory of the neighboring state.

“The Middle East does not wait for election results,” he said solemnly, facing the television cameras, and concluded his words with a vow to take action to establish a wide government to cope with these kinds of challenges.

Netanyahu’s raising of the security threat at the top of the agenda is not, of course, a coincidence. It is directed mainly at Lapid’s ears, at all 19 of his mandates. In other words, Netanyahu is trying to tell him that yes, middle-class hardships are important, but we have here additional burning issues that we must address first — otherwise, the price of housing is the last thing that the middle class will worry about.

Please do not misunderstand: I am not saying here that the attack in Syria, if Israel is really behind it, is a Netanyahu spin to solve his political troubles, due to the bleak election results from his point of view. Nevertheless, once it happened and was publicized, it seems that Netanyahu does not intend to squander this opportunity to bring Lapid into his government. After all, during the Yesh Atid campaign, its leader called himself “an Israeli patriot.” Lapid also took care to soften his political views and, as a result, attracted about three mandates from the Likud. Netanyahu is counting on this. He reckons that the new political prince will not remain apathetic in the light of burning security issues.

These are the reasons for Netanyahu’s security focus in the speech he delivered on Saturday night, Feb. 2 during the ceremony in which President Shimon Peres conferred on him the task of forming a government. The prime minister declared that the first mission of his third government will be to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and toward that goal — yes, you guessed correctly — he needs a broad national-unity government under his leadership. This is so as to cope with “so many missions of such extensive scope,” because “when so many forces want to split the State of Israel apart, we must be united.” The speech was so predictable, it was almost embarrassing.

This is not the first time that Netanyahu has made political use of regional security threats. Speeches belonging to this frighten-the-public genre have accompanied him in recent years, since the days when he was head of the opposition. In effect, throughout Israel’s political history, security troubles were always the glue that connected coalitions that seemed, at first glance, inconceivable. The “security excuse” was what allowed leaders of left and center parties to join Likud governments. The last of them was outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who dragged the Labor party to Netanyahu’s government in 2009 to stop Iranian nuclearization.

Now Netanyahu needs Yair Lapid, and he will do everything to lower his price and not give Lapid sole control over his coalition. That means to assemble a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, Bennett and even Hatenua leader Tzipi Livni and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, so that Lapid cannot bring him down single-handedly.

In effect, what Netanyahu is doing now is making it clear to Lapid, both directly and indirectly, the extent of national responsibility that rests on Lapid’s shoulders as head of the second-largest party in size, when threats from Syria and Iran are only intensifying. Netanyahu will use this tactic to attempt to recruit Lapid to his government, while enticing him with promises of being his “secret partner” in the most restricted of defense forums. But he also has another objective: In the event that Lapid does not evince signs of flexibility and continues to demand a narrow government of 18 ministers and legislation of the equal-burden law (to draft the ultra-Orthodox), Netanyahu will portray him to the public as childish, as someone who only sees his personal wants and who is unwilling to mobilize himself for the vital national interests of his country.

The first signs of this are already evident. Netanyahu’s people have started to attach labels to the Yesh Atid chairman such as “a handsome face” and “an inexperienced version” of the “responsible adult,” Netanyahu.

The victory party of Yesh Atid held on Saturday night in Kibbutz Netzer Sereni, at the same time as the official ceremony in which Netanyahu received the mandate to assemble a government, provided much ammunition for Netanyahu’s entourage.

The news broadcasts gave extensive coverage to showing Lapid on stage with a guitar, dressed in black like a rock star, while he performed the Beatles' hit, “With a Little Help from my Friends” (not a bad rendition at all). This earned him the nickname of “the singer” in Netanyahu’s entourage.

“With all due respect to Lapid’s Woodstock Festival,” said one of the prime minister’s people scornfully, “we have a state here beset by with many problems that need to be addressed.”

But despite all the spins and tricks, it seems that "the singer” evinces toughness in the unofficial coalition negotiations taking place over recent days.

But this is just the beginning. The public pressure on Lapid is expected to increase as the coalition negotiations advance. It will be interesting to see whether under these circumstances, Lapid, who was elected to promote a civil economic agenda, will avoid falling into the security-spin honey-trap, the one which many good men have fallen into before.

Mazal Mualem started her journalistic career during her military service, where she was assigned to the Bamachane army weekly newspaper. After her studies, she worked for the second leading Israeli daily Maariv. In 1998 she joined Haaretz, covering local governance, and later, she was appointed chief political analyst of the paper. After 12 years with Haaretz, she returned to Maariv as their chief political analyst.

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