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Will Netanyahu Surrender To Lapid and Bennett?

Prime Minister Netanyahu blames Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and HaBayit HaYehudi leader Naftali Bennett for his failed attempts to form a coalition, but he will soon have to accept the fact that he is unable to form a government without them, writes Mazal Mualem. 
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem March 3, 2013. More than a month after Israel's election, Netanyahu is still without a new coalition, his hopes of enlisting traditionally loyal cabinet partners - ultra-Orthodox factions - challenged by a pact between an odd political couple. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool (JERUSALEM - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3EII7

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made many mistakes during the election campaign he led, which resulted in a humiliating defeat at the polls. One of the most significant among them was his attack on the chairman of the HaBayit HaYehudi Party, Naftali Bennett, after the latter expressed support for disobeying military orders on ideological grounds.

Against the advice of many of his aides, Netanyahu mounted frontal attacks on Bennett, giving special interviews and threatening that anyone who mentions insubordination would not have a seat in his cabinet. The message was clear. Netanyahu was certain that this attack would cause grave damage to the leader of HaBayit HaYehudi, who had eaten away at chunks of the Likud electorate, but in the following days he realized that all of the damage was to his side. Bennett, his nemesis, continued to soar at his expense.

Last Saturday night, when Netanyahu asked the president for a 14-day extension to form his coalition, he made the exact same mistake, once again: he blamed his failure to form a government on the “two rising stars” of the recent elections, Bennett and [Yesh Atid leader] Yair Lapid, and accused them of “boycotting the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel”. Once again, Netanyahu got dragged into an unnecessary fight, which bore no gains for him, only losses. Once again he contributed to the strengthening of the already strong alliance between Lapid and Bennett, who announced on his Facebook page, this time, that he would not join the government without Lapid (until then, he had only been quoted indirectly on the subject). At the same time, Bennett also reminded Netanyahu that he was the one who boycotted him first, when he refused to conduct coalition negotiations with him. The kindergarten atmosphere continued the next morning on the width and breadth of the radio talk programs, with representatives of Bennett and Netanyahu arguing who had started the fight.

Toward noon on Sunday, when Netanyahu understood that the attacks on Bennett-Lapid were useless, he went back to his old, most beloved spin: the Iranian threat.

At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting he reminded everyone that Iran had not stopped on the road to its bomb and hinted at the chemical weapons held by the disintegrating Syrian regime. In a serious vein, as befits such weighty matters, he said: “while our enemies are uniting their efforts against us, we must join and unite all our forces. Regretfully, that's not what is happening. In the coming days I will keep trying to unite and unify the forces in preparation for the heavy duties, national and international, that we face.”

But here, again, Netanyahu is mistaken. Chances are slim that the battered Iranian-Syrian spin will work and break up the Lapid-Bennett alliance. Following the attack carried out on Syria (by Israel - according to foreign reports), Netanyahu already used this spin in his speech [4 weeks ago] at the President's residence when he was charged by President Shimon Peres with putting together a government. Netanyahu spoke then about the need to join ranks and called for a broad-based government in order to stop the Iranian threat, as well as the threat from Syria.

True, Lapid and Bennett are political novices, but they are proving to be pretty good poker players, who know the nature of their cards. They know Netanyahu's weakness well and are not impressed by the attacks or his security-related spins. “What's the connection between the security threats and a government with the ultra-Orthodox?” they ask, and rightly so. Both Lapid and Bennett regard themselves as Israeli patriots, Zionists, so that they don't for a minute buy into the idea that only a government with the ultra-Orthodox can stop the Iranian nuclear threat.

This, in fact, is the real threat that is causing the prime minister sleepless nights: not the Iranian threat, but the “steel alliance” forged by Lapid and Bennett: they either join the government together, and without the ultra-Orthodox, or they go together to the opposition.

With Lapid and Bennett in and the ultra-Orhtodox out, they become the owners of the third Netanyahu government, the strongmen. They are the ones who will determine the life span of the government, they will determine its agenda, and they are the ones who will constitute a real existential threat to Netanyahu's term.

When Netanyahu formed his previous government some four years ago, he built it so that none of its elements except himself would be able to bring it down. This provided him with rare coalition stability and enabled him to last an almost complete term. This time, on the verge of his third term, Netanyahu does not have such a choice. “I will put Lapid and Bennett in, give up on the ultra-Orthodox and within a year they will break up everything and will head for elections”. Netanyahu raised this concern in recent days with those closest to him. This time, it's not a spin, but a real fear of losing control over his government. Netanyahu often makes mistakes out of futile paranoia, but this time he's right. If he forms a government with Lapid and Bennett, he will immediately become vulnerable within his coalition, especially since Lapid has already announced that his next target is the premiership, no less. Netanyahu fears that he will build up Lapid with his own hands, thereby bringing closer his personal demise.

In the meantime, Netanyahu is still fighting to forestall this result. At noon on Sunday he met with the heads of [the ultra-Orthodox party] Shas, and explained to them that despite his desire to include them in his government, he cannot do so as a result of the boycott against them. At the same time, behind the scenes, his envoys have not stopped trying to pressure [Labor leader Shelly]Yachimovich to join the coalition - at an inflated price. It appears that Netanyahu is the last one to realize that he does not have the luxury of choosing different options and that the election results are forcing on him the coalition he most fears. So that even if Netanyahu's fears are well-grounded, there's not much he can do, except, in New Age-speak, “embrace his fears”.

As long as the chairwoman of the Labor Party Yachimovich does not go back on her commitment to join the opposition – and all signs point to this course – Netanyahu will be forced with a heavy and fearful heart to do without the ultra-Orthodox, at least during the first stage. When this happens, he might still discover that he is heading an effective government that will approve the necessary budget cuts (Shas will have a hard time with social budget cuts), will pass a law mandating military draft for the ultra-Orthodox and will promote civil reforms such as a change of the electoral system.

He might also discover that Bennett and Lapid are responsible on defense issues regarding strategic threats.

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. Parallel to her writing activities, Mazal Mualem presented a weekly TV show on social issues. She holds a masters degree from the Tel Aviv University in security/political science, and lives with her daughter in Tel Aviv.

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