The deadline for parties to submit their final lists for the March 23 Knesset elections was 10 p.m. Feb. 4. By the time it arrived, it became clear that Netanyahu could take credit for two major tactical achievements, bringing him one step closer to victory.
The first was a decision by two groupings on the far right to join forces rather than to run separately. The Religious Zionist party, headed by former Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, reached an agreement to run together with the coalition of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) and Noam. The Otzma Yehudit-Noam coalition is headed by Attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, an acolyte of the late nationalist-extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Otzma Yehudit has long been a symbol of racist extremism, and Noam is opposed to LGBT rights.
It is no secret that Netanyahu actively worked behind the scenes to ensure that this agreement would be signed. He even promised Smotrich and Ben-Gvir that he would include a candidate of their choosing in the Likud party list and ensure that their party received powerful positions in government and the Knesset committees. The one thing that Netanyahu was unable to do was to unite these two far right parties with another party on the right, the more established HaBayit HaYehudi [Jewish Home]. Yet while this party did not join forces with the Religious Zionist party and Otzma Yehudit-Noam, just the fact that these two groups decided to run together was important. If Smotrich and Ben-Gvir pass the electoral threshold, it would be a net gain of seats for Netanyahu.
The second achievement was no less dramatic, even though it occurred on the opposite side of the political spectrum. This involved the breakup of the Arab Joint List, which was made up of four smaller Arab parties. By running together under the leadership of Knesset member Ayman Odeh, the party won an impressive 15 seats in the last election, making it the third-largest party in the Knesset and a powerful force in Israeli politics. After the election, the grouping played a key role in efforts to remove Netanyahu by recommending to the president that Blue and White’s Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government. Netanyahu came very close to losing power because of the Joint List’s historic decision to play an active role in the political gamesmanship — a move the Arab parties had avoided for years.
In the end, their efforts failed. Gantz eventually joined Netanyahu’s coalition, and the Joint List assumed some of the blame for this failure in political maneuvering. Inevitably, reverberations from this had a detrimental effect within the Joint List.
After several tense weeks, the chairman of the Raam faction of the Joint List, Knesset member Mansour Abbas, announced that his party would be running separately for the Knesset. Abbas has long had a complex relationship with Netanyahu, cooperating with him on programs that benefit the Arab sector, even if he came under harsh criticism for it from the other members of the Joint List. He argues that Israeli Arabs are fed up with the sense of exclusion and alienation from government. Believing that they want to participate in Israeli society at the highest levels, he decided to change his approach and negotiate with Netanyahu on matters that concern the Arab population. In this way, he says, he has been able to increase the budgets they receive and deal with the sector’s real problems such as high crime rates and inadequate infrastructure.
Despite Abbas’ claims of widespread support, it still remains to be seen whether his party will pass the electoral threshold. On the other hand, even if he doesn’t, Netanyahu stands to benefit from the Joint List losing strength (until recently, polls indicated it would win just 10 seats, but this has declined even further as a result of the split with Abbas). And if Abbas does pass the electoral threshold, Netanyahu will likely be able to rely on him for outside support as he puts together a future coalition.
Netanyahu played an active role in the Arab Joint List’s breaking apart, even if he acted behind the scenes. He helped engineer the split by taking advantage of Abbas’ openness to negotiating with him, even though the other Arab parties consider Netanyahu to be the “Great Demon.” Abbas was willing to come out publicly in favor of cooperation with Netanyahu while attacking his colleagues in the party for allegedly abandoning the Arab public by concentrating on the Palestinian cause instead. By saying this, he granted an imprimatur of legitimacy to the prime minister among the Arab population. Netanyahu then took advantage of the support Abbas was receiving by joining him for tours of Arab towns and villages. This culminated in a highly publicized visit to Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab city, where Netanyahu was embraced publicly by Mayor Ali Salem.
Much to the dismay of his opponents, particularly Knesset members from the Joint List, Netanyahu is suddenly a serious competitor in the fight for the Arab vote. He even went so far as to announce that under his leadership, the Likud itself could win two to three seats from the sector. Though he sounded like he was exaggerating — indeed he was — Netanyahu has nonetheless benefited from these recent developments.
Netanyahu could sleep easy last night. He barely lost any votes on the right, and he managed to inflict significant damage to the “Anyone but Netanyahu” camp by causing it to lose a part of its electorate. By running independently, Abbas is no longer obligated to reject Netanyahu as the Arab sector’s candidate for prime minister.
By collaborating with Abbas, Netanyahu crossed a series of red lines that he himself put in place. For years he warned of the danger posed by Arab Knesset members, claiming that they support terrorism. He was accused of fomenting incitement and racism, and rightfully so. Now, however, he is taking the cynical step of laying the groundwork for cooperation with them.
As sophisticated as these maneuvers are politically, they are also very controversial. There is no doubt that Netanyahu would not have taken these steps if he didn’t feel like he was pressed up against a wall. He may have done so indirectly, but he has already granted an air of legitimacy to Ben-Gvir, a far right activist, who is still remembered for the role he played in delegitimizing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in response to the Oslo Accords before Rabin was assassinated. The fact that Ben-Gvir was a disciple of Kahane, whose racist Kach party was disqualified from running for the Knesset, also contributed to his toxic image. Until now, even Netanyahu believed that it was in his best interest to distance himself from Ben-Gvir and his party.
But times have changed. There are more parties now that want to bring Netanyahu down, including two parties to the right of him: Yamina, headed by Naftali Bennett, and Gideon Saar’s New Hope party. Netanyahu is aware that under these circumstances, he needs to do the kinds of things that he never would have considered in the past. He knows it can be harmful to him, but having made the calculations, he seems willing to absorb any harm that might come of it.
Netanyahu will not be forgiven so easily by the parties committed to bringing him down. As soon as the deal uniting the right was signed, opposition leader Yair Lapid tweeted, “It’s signed. The prime minister of Israel brought a supporter of terrorism into the Knesset.”
Now more than ever, Netanyahu is operating on the extremes of the political spectrum, having made the calculation that this is the only way he can avoid defeat. As recently as a year ago, he would never have considered any of this. He certainly would not have agreed to cooperate with right-wing extremists and the Arabs. However, when it comes to political maneuvering, Netanyahu has proved yet again that there is nothing he will not do to sate his ravenous hunger for power.