The elections are over, the votes have been counted, the banners folded away. Benjamin Netanyahu will continue as prime minister. His messages have changed slightly. During the campaign, Netanyahu wanted “a strong prime minister and a big party.” Now he talks about “a broad and stable government.” All the rest is as it was. It’s the same Bibi, with the same worldview, the same experience and the same objectives.
Netanyahu has not changed his assessment nor the policies that derive from it. Just as before the elections, Netanyahu still believes that Israel is in growing danger due to the disintegration of the neighboring countries and their fall to the Islamic movements. He was and still is convinced that any area Israel withdraws from will become a “base for Iranian terror,” and he still sees his historic mission as stopping the Iranian nuclear program before it can produce an operational bomb.
In his victory speech on election night, Netanyahu reiterated his well-known messages. Topping the list were “security strength” and preventing Iran from getting the bomb, “economic responsibility” and “political responsibility in seeking true peace.” Translation: The public has left me in office to continue in the same direction. The defense budget will not be cut, and as long as it depends on me, a Palestinian state will not arise on the West Bank and no settlement will be evacuated. And no taxes will be imposed to revitalize the dismantled welfare state.
To his old repertoire, Netanyahu added “equal bearing of the burden” and lowering housing prices. The adoption of these slogans from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party are nods to Lapid’s position at the head of the center-left bloc. Netanyahu ignored Lapid’s demands for changes in the system of government, which the ultra-Orthodox parties despise. In this way he signaled to the latter that he would not keep them waiting interminably outside and would not bring Yesh Atid into the coalition instead of them.
Netanyahu showed in his previous term that he acts, or refrains from acting, only under public or American pressure. That why he reduced cellphone rates, built the border fence with Egypt and brought Gilad Shalit back – to satisfy the folks at home. That is why he froze construction in the settlements for 10 months and did not attack Iran – for fear of President Barack Obama. But these were the exceptions. Most of Netanyahu’s energy was devoted to maintaining “stability” and preventing political shocks that would endanger his continued rule and his reelection. The outcome showed that he was right: Despite the poor campaign he waged and the blow his party took at the ballot box, the foundations of his rule have not been challenged.
Now Netanyahu is working to lower the price his future coalition partners are demanding. His goal is to create a broad base that will prevent a lone partner from bringing him down. Everything is focused on this: the leaks that supposedly “Sara vetoed Naftali Bennett,” the demonstrative embraces with Lapid, the statements about an emergency situation in the north. Netanyahu is going into political negotiations from a position of strength, while Lapid and the ultra-Orthodox are of equal strength and their rivalry preventing them from ganging up on him.
As a default option, Netanyahu has 63 MKs in a rock-solid coalition (Likud-Beiteinu, the Orthodox parties and Shaul Mofaz ). He needs Lapid, and perhaps Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah as well, in the role Defense Minister Ehud Barak played in the outgoing government – as a double shield, both against Obama and the extreme right with its demands for steps toward annexation and settlement, which will deepen Israel’s isolation internationally.
But not at any price. Lapid is too weak to force on Netanyahu his plan to suppress the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, which will lead to mass forced labor (“civilian service” ). In any case there is no real need for “equal bearing of the burden,” beyond finding a formula that will satisfy the High Court of Justice. The ultra-Orthodox politicians understand this, and Netanyahu hopes they will agree to sign some hollow document, out of fear of losing the child allowances and funding for their yeshivas and elementary schools.
The political circumstances are working in Netanyahu’s favor. Now it remains to be seen whether he will manage to harness them in his favored, familiar direction, or slip on a banana peel the way he did in his campaign.