Netanyahu, the Man With the Moves

Let’s talk numbers. Benjamin Netanyahu successfully led the outgoing government and kept the coalition stable for close to four years, and did so while leading a party of merely 27 MKs, not even the largest political party in the Knesset. His predecessor, Ehud Olmert, steered his government with a sure hand during a period filled with crises from a ruling party of 29 MKs. The conclusion couldn’t be clearer: According to the worst-case scenario polls (from Netanyahu’s perspective ), Likud-Beiteinu will get 33-34 seats in the next Knesset. Even if the party loses one or two seats along the way, Netanyahu will greatly improve his position and enlarge his nucleus of power appreciably.

Polls predict that the united party of Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman will be weaker compared to the current Knesset in which the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu operated as separate parties. The dwindling of seats is worrying Likud politicians who are already looking for someone to blame for the faltering campaign. But this loss is insignificant. The seats spilling over from Netanyahu to Naftali Bennett and Shas remain in the fortified right-wing bloc and in no way represent a risk to Netanyahu’s future as Israel’s leader.

After the election, Netanyahu will have to choose among three possible coalitions: a straight-up right-wing coalition with Habayit Hayehudi, Shas and United Torah Judaism; a right-wing with the same partners but with the added appeal of a center party, such as Yesh Atid or Hatnuah; or a center-right option with Shas, United Torah Judaism, Labor and Yesh Atid, with Naftali Bennett and perhaps even Tzipi Livni left on the outside. These, of course, aren’t the only possible combinations. Netanyahu, though, will be able to maneuver any way he wants, and his choice will depend only on how much he’ll have to pay and maybe also on international pressure to form a less extreme government.

People close to the prime minister say that the first candidate to be invited to the coalition will be Yair Lapid, who seems like a handy partner. They apparently assume that the political rookie will sign anything just for a Volvo and a security detail. Lapid is worried about serving as a fig leaf for the Likud and is now threatening to go the opposition way “unless our demands are met.” Netanyahu is preparing for such an eventuality and promises to handle the housing situation by “equal sharing of the burden of army service and working,” two of Yesh Atid’s core principles.

As is his wont, Netanyahu abhors risk and likes to present himself as a conservative. His campaign slogan – “a strong prime minister” – is addressed to people who are happy with the situation and see no need for change. On his Facebook page, where Netanyahu communicates with the public, he gives pride of place to photos of fighter jets, women in flight overalls, and of himself surrounded by commanding officers of the IDF. Netanyahu is addressing the common denominator of the Jewish center in Israel: support for the army and the admiration for combat soldiers and fighter pilots. This is true also of Bennett, Lapid, Livni and Yacimovich: All would like a spot on the half-track or in the cockpit. Militarism is what sets the “center” apart from “the left and the Arabs” opposed to war, and that’s the most important message of this election campaign.

The prime minister is riding to the ballots on a wave of militarism. According to him, his first task after the election will be “to stop Iran’s nuclear program” and he promises “to build the IDF’s offensive and defensive capabilities” and to cover Israel with anti-missile defense systems. These goals contradict his second self-imposed task, namely making drastic cuts to the state budget. It’s very tough to cut the budget without touching defense spending, which hit a new high in Netanyahu’s current term. It is no less tough to inject more money into the army without enlarging the deficit. A possible compromise could be strengthening the air force, now starring in Netanyahu’s election campaign, and weakening the ground division by claiming that as the Arab nations are currently busy with internal problems the danger of a ground war has faded.

Netanyahu will have to maneuver between the military lobby and the social justice demands of his coalition partners. The polls are on his side: The ruling party will get stronger and the divisions among the other parties will give him the freedom to play one off against the other. What more could he ask for?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

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