Jason Greenblatt, the special envoy of U.S. President Donald Trump, is a soft-spoken man but remains resolute and focused on the goal. It took him two meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to plant a mine in the heart of the right-wing governing coalition and bring Israel to the brink of early elections.
The statement published at the conclusion of their meetings revealed a serious disagreement between Netanyahu and the Trump administration over construction in the settlements. After all, had there been an agreement, they would have announced it enthusiastically. Instead, Netanyahu reported that they had a “frank, genuine dialogue,” the shopworn diplomatic euphemism for a substantive disagreement.
Translated into plain English, it means Trump wanted more of a construction freeze than Netanyahu is prepared to give with his current coalition. If he accedes to the Americans, his rival Naftali Bennett, head of the Habayit Hayehudi party, will rise up against him, topple the government and convince right-wing voters that they must not give the trickster from Caesarea another chance. You wanted a right-wing government and you got left-wing policies, Habayit Hayehudi’s campaign slogan will say.
Netanyahu cannot replace Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi with Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Union party, thereby establishing a centrist government that would please Trump. It’s too late for that complex maneuver. It’s doubtful that Herzog, who has had his fill of previous disappointments with Netanyahu’s false promises, could bring his party into the current government when it is about to collapse.
Consequently, Netanyahu sought a pretext for dismantling the coalition that would not paint him as a leftist in comparison to his rival Bennett but would spare him a confrontation with Trump, supposedly his good friend. The battle against the “left-wing” public broadcasting corporation fit the bill perfectly. The Americans couldn’t care less about such nonsense, and Netanyahu, at least to his fans, can portray himself as taking a “right-wing” stance. If the government falls over this corporation, it will give him a few months of quiet on the settlement front.
The political system has been moving toward early elections for several months now, even before the police investigations of the prime minister became public knowledge. Netanyahu’s alliance with Bennett simply isn’t working: Their shared ideology isn’t enough to paper over their mutual loathing and distrust.
Moreover, the balance of power between them has shifted since the last election. Bennett, the education minister, heads a small party, but he controls the agenda of all the Hebrew-language media outlets aside from the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom. The headlines on internet news sites and daily papers speak Bennett’s language, and most ministers and Knesset members from Netanyahu’s Likud party have followed suit. So, too, has Netanyahu himself, who, time after time, has found himself being dragged along behind his rival.
All this bothers Netanyahu. He sees the “leftist media” working with the leader of Habayit Hayehudi in their shared goal of ousting him from power, or at least weakening him.
Into this morass stepped Trump, with his demand for a settlement freeze and renewed negotiations with the Palestinians about a “deal.” Netanyahu can’t stave off the current president with the help of Congress the way he did with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama; he is totally dependent on Trump. Thus he would rather avoid conflict with the White House and risk elections, after which he can form a coalition that would be less confrontational toward Trump.
Netanyahu faces only one real challenger, and that’s Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid. Nobody else has the motivation, the public recognition and the organization necessary to run against a sitting prime minister.
Lapid believes Netanyahu’s policies are popular with the public, which is enjoying the quiet on the security front and the economic growth. Therefore, he will focus on his rival’s personality, in the hope that the relevant voters have gotten tired of the endless stories about Bibi and his wife Sara, and are willing to give a chance to a well-known figure who’s a bit different from the current leader.
But when the campaign ends and the votes are counted, the winner – whether Lapid or Netanyahu – will face the same dilemma that Greenblatt confronted Netanyahu with last week: how to freeze the settlements and make progress toward a deal with the Palestinians without risking an internal schism that will tear the Israel Defense Forces apart and scar Israeli society for generations. Because Trump will still be there after the Israeli elections, and he’ll submit his bill for payment.