Have the numbers have finally caught up to Binyamin Netanyahu?
Coalition building should have been easier this time around. Center-right and right-wing parties captured 72 seats in the new Knesset sworn in yesterday. But as we all know by now, the last few elections have nothing to do with right or left or even right and wrong.
The single issue is Binyamin Netanyahu. Twenty of the 72 MKs who would be natural coalition partners with the Likud have become unnatural sworn enemies of Bibi. Many of those 20 are also sworn enemies of other parties, which makes coalition-building virtually impossible.
For example, Avigdor Lieberman is a right-winger – on foreign policy at least – and he controls seven seats. He used to be a coalition member of what’s known as the national camp. But he refuses to sit with any chareidi party who won’t cave to his caveman mentality when it comes to the chareidi draft.
Then there’s Gideon Saar with six seats. Saar insists he will only join a coalition if Netanyahu drops out as Likud party leader. There’s only one problem with that prescription. The way to depose a party leader is to beat him in a party primary. Saar tried to do that. He failed. Bibi defeated Saar by a 3-1 margin. In the election two weeks ago, Bibi’s party got more than five times the number of votes as Saar did.
According to the numbers, if there’s anyone who should drop out of politics, it should be Saar. But things don’t always work according to the numbers.
Same goes for Naftali Bennett with his six seats. Bennett won 6% of the vote two weeks ago and fantasizes that should be enough to make him prime minister. You know what? Bennett doesn’t have a great track record in elections. He’s run for the Knesset in six elections in the last decade – never winning more than 9% of the vote. He ought to get the message by now that he’s not as popular as he thinks he is, but he hasn’t. And there’s an underlying reason for that. We’ll get to that shortly.
Lieberman and Saar have climbed too high of a tree to change their minds. The only one of the trio I’ve discussed with a chance to tag along and boost the national camp to 59 is Naftali Bennett who is sitting on a low fence watching Lieberman and Saar swing from the tree. But 59 is still two seats short of a majority.
Where can Bibi find an extra two votes?
The most likely source is the Ra’am Party. Ra’am is an Islamist party that doesn’t recognize the state of Israel as a Jewish state. In the Knesset, they call that an anti-Zionist party.
Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the Knesset’s Religious Zionist party, has six seats. Smotrich raised his right hand and swore on the proverbial stack of bibles that he would never sit in a coalition with an Arab party that doesn’t recognize Israel, even if the Arab party merely supports the government from outside the coalition.
How does Bibi get around this one?
Here’s where I see Bibi’s last chance to perform some of the political magic he’s become famous for.
He would have to pull off the equivalent of a domestic Abraham Accords and somehow get the religious Zionists and the Arab party to tolerate each other from a distance.
For Bibi, this would be win-win. He would have the center-right coalition. If domestic critics and Israel-bashers in the international community started blabbering about how Israel has a racist, or Kahanist coalition, Bibi could trot out the Arab party to show just how diverse his government really is. It would neutralize a lot of the knee-jerk, anti-Israel backlash.
However, this is easier said than done. President Trump was able to pull off the Abraham Accords because he thinks transactionally, much like the Arabs.
The UAE wanted F-35s to make peace with Israel? No problem. You got ’em! Morocco demanded recognition of their conquest of Western Sahara to recognize Israel. You got it! Sudan badly needed to get off the State Department’s list of terrorist states. You got that too!
Bibi doesn’t have any cards to play on that level with Ra’am. The only card he holds is to provide more funding for the Arab sector out of the budget so that Ra’am can claim the bragging rights for being the rightful leaders of Israel’s Arab community. But that’s about it.
And once Bibi puts himself at the mercy of Ra’am, folks like President Biden and Antony Blinken and the rest of the Arabists in the Biden administration will be chomping at the bit to try and push an Israeli government reliant on Arab support to go back to the days of painful concessions as the saying goes.
Smotrich knows this. He also knows that with Ra’am in the picture, you can forget any new construction in Yehuda and the Shomron, even if the Biden administration somehow turned a blind eye. Smotrich’s party isn’t in it for the money either and there’s no way of politically bribing him to play ball.
We all know how politically savvy Bibi is. He’s got four weeks to use his mandate to pull a political rabbit out of his hat. And this time, his own personal political survival is at stake.
When it comes down to it, if Israel has to go to a fifth election, the Likud just might have to do something extreme to break the political impasse. And that is to conclude that Netanyahu –as great a leader as he has been – is too much of lightning-rod and that the party is bigger than any one man.
Likud won 400,000 votes more than its nearest competitor. And that doesn’t take into account the 200,000 votes Saar drew from the Likud. They have a margin of error and can afford to take a risk to keep their name as Israel’s number one political brand.
Bibi has much less room to maneuver. Saar and Bennett know this and that’s why they are sticking to their maximalist positions and will probably continue to do so. Combined they got less than half the vote the Likud did, but sometimes, politics is not a numbers game, and it just could be this time, that the numbers have finally caught up to Binyamin Netanyahu.
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