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Netanyahu snatches defeat from jaws of victory

Instead of composing a large and stable coalition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself with only 61 coalition members and must try to persuade the Zionist Camp to join his government.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C), Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon (L), and Energy and Water Minister Silvan Shalom attend a session of parliament in Jerusalem May 4, 2015. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday he would not join the new coalition government being formed by Netanyahu, citing disputes over legislation. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun  - RTX1BHVV

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fourth government came into being May 6, just an hour and a half before the legal deadline by which he was required to inform President Reuven Rivlin that he had formed a coalition. Right after Netanyahu swept the elections March 17, it seemed to everyone — but especially to him — that the impending coalition negotiations would be decisive, quick and short. As people surrounding the prime minister said, “We intend to form a government within two or three weeks.” In fact, the reality was totally different.

Drunk on his electoral victory, Netanyahu was gripped by typical hubris, made every possible mistake and was caught off guard by his former partner and current nemesis Yisrael Beitenu head Avigdor Liberman. Liberman waited until right before the deadline was up to announce that he was resigning from the Foreign Ministry and withdrawing from the coalition. A natural coalition of 67 Knesset members evaporated immediately, and a very narrow government came into being instead. It was a painful process that involved very serious concessions. With the absolute minimum of 61 seats, the new government that was born had a right-wing-nationalist-religious agenda. In other words, it could be characterized as diplomatic hell and economic adventurism, or in short, a political nightmare. Suddenly, Netanyahu's great victory in the last election turned into a defeat.

Netanyahu is now coming under harsh criticism within his own Likud Party. “It’s a good thing Netanyahu isn't managing the negotiations between the superpowers and Iran,” one senior Likud official told Al-Monitor this week. “Given his negotiating skills, the Iranians would now have quite a few atomic bombs.”

People in the Likud are asking what happened to Netanyahu’s famous statement that "no deal is better than a bad deal." While it was reiterated incessantly, when the superpowers were negotiating with Iran, it completely vanished as soon as Netanyahu engaged in his own negotiations to form a coalition. One senior Likud official even quipped that “the United States is considering the possibility of threatening Israel with appointing Netanyahu head of the negotiating team with Iran.”

All joking aside, those same senior members of the Likud are left alone with a very broken reality. Netanyahu gave up on almost all the party’s assets and almost all the senior portfolios. In fact, not a single important ministry was left for top Likud leaders (apart from the Ministry of Defense). He was even forced at the very last minute to give up what he considers to be the government’s most significant asset (according to Netanyahu's own perception), the Justice Ministry. Making matters worse, he gave it up to the people he detests from the HaBayit HaYehudi Party.

It is now believed that Netanyahu will invest everything he has over the next few months in an attempt to convince the Zionist Camp to join his coalition. Sources in the Likud confirm that the goal is to pass a state budget by the end of the year, and then to “replace the government.” Of course, Netanyahu will have to forgo plenty of banner issues to entice Zionist Camp leader Isaac Herzog and his colleagues to join him. He will have to give Herzog the Foreign Ministry and apparently, a sizable bundle of additional portfolios. He will have to make a commitment to renew negotiations with the Palestinians. He will have to grit his teeth and accept some kind of a rotation agreement, with Herzog serving as prime minister for at least a year, and he will have to agree to a government in which the Zionist Camp’s representation is almost on par with that of the Likud. The current assessment in the Likud is that Netanyahu will be in such a desperate, almost terminal mood that it will be relatively easy for him to make these concessions. Nevertheless, we must never forget that we are talking about the Middle East, where everything but prophecy is possible except for predicting what the future has in store.

Meanwhile, starting now, Netanyahu will have to manage with a very narrow, very right-wing, very nationalist government, forced to contend with the beginnings of an international siege, a deteriorating relationship with the United States, a volatile security situation and pressing economic issues. Furthermore, not one of the party heads in Netanyahu’s new coalition really admires or even likes him.

HaBayit HaYehudi Chair Naftali Bennett has taken more than his fair share of humiliation over the past two years. Not once has he set foot in the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem, because of a veto by Sara Netanyahu. The same is true of HaBayit HaYehudi Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, who will soon be appointed Israel’s justice minister. Kulanu Party head Moshe Kahlon actually quit the Likud because of Netanyahu. Shas leader Aryeh Deri would prefer anyone else instead of Netanyahu. And we haven’t even mentioned the senior Likud members, who are all eager to get rid of Netanyahu as quickly as possible for their own personal reasons.

But with all due respect to the above, the worst news, as far as Netanyahu is concerned, is Liberman, the one person who has been with Netanyahu from the very beginning, since the late 1980s, and who has made it his life mission to bring Netanyahu down. Liberman will pour all his energy into undermining the Netanyahu government, and Liberman has a lot of energy. He will try to form a large political bloc that will take Netanyahu down to fewer than 20 seats in the next election and perhaps even take over the government. This bloc could include people like Kahlon, Bennett and even former Likud Minister Gideon Saar, who resigned from the government and Knesset last year, and is waiting for the right moment to return. For the first time in his life, Liberman will even be willing to forego the No. 1 slot in this potential list to achieve his real objective: putting an end to Netanyahu’s interminable rule in the State of Israel.

Netanyahu knows that he faces hard days ahead. The survival of the government has now become a day-to-day task. The coalition has a majority of just a single Knesset member. Being that the coalition is so divided and at odds, the possibility of it instituting reforms (as Kahlon plans) or spearheading anything significant tends toward zero. Netanyahu knows that a diplomatic precipice lies ahead, while the security situation means that there are landmines all across the field, making it even harder for him to maneuver. Such sensitive times are usually destined for trouble.

As of now, the leaders of the Zionist Camp utterly reject the possibility of joining the government and saving Netanyahu from himself. As things stand now, some people fear that a heightened security situation will allow Netanyahu to take advantage of the sense of emergency. He could then bring Herzog into his government and arrive at safe shores.

Yes, it is the typical Middle Eastern paradox. It would take a heightened security situation to reach safe shores. Something like that could only be said in up-in-flames Middle East. No, it does not mean that Netanyahu would actually go to war to expand his government. Netanyahu is a timid prime minister who shies away from military adventures and makes do with the minimum in terms of security. It is more a matter of nuances and minor adjustments to the overall resolution. An Israeli prime minister must make quite a few decisions that influence national security, and he must make them on a daily basis. All it takes is for something in Netanyahu’s innate sense of caution (the source of which is simply fear) to be released for him to allow himself a modicum of adventurism in his daily management of Israel’s security struggles on the various fronts (just this week the foreign media said the air force attacked arms depots in Sudan again). This would, in turn, increase the risk of a conflagration.

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