Unlike in the past when Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had many options to form a government, this time around he is facing a serious challenge in putting together a working coalition that can hold on for a long time.
Two factors surely complicate his task of forming a government. First, the huge success of Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid — who serve as heads of the Habayit Hayehudi and Yesh Atid parties respectively — in the latest Knesset election. Their anti-Netanyahu alliance seems to be a difficult nut to crack. Netanyahu is playing a game with both of them, but it does not seem to be working. Second, given the tug of war between them and Netanyahu, the latter is most likely to blink first. Indeed, there is a widespread impression in Israel that Netanyahu caves in under pressure.
It is not as if Netanyahu does not want both of them in his coalition, but not at any price!
To demoralize both of them, Netanyahu resorted to a tested game: Approaching other smaller parties to sign a deal with them, thus leaving bigger ones off-balance. Netanyahu reached a deal with Tzipi Livni — head of the newly established Hatenua party, which won only six seats in the latest elections — to drive a wedge between Bennett and Lapid. His strategy is based on playing one off against the other in order to pick them one by one at conditions favorable to Netanyahu.
Far from creating the desired effect, Netanyahu-Livni deal only cemented the alliance between Bennett and Lapid. Commenting on Netanyahu-Livni deal, Bennett was quoted to have said that the alliance with Lapid was very strong. In his words, the alliance is made of “steel” and that he would not join a government headed by Netanyahu without Lapid. He went as far as saying that he would rather go for re-elections rather than joining the government without Lapid.
Implicit in statements coming from different official sources, the question is all about who would blink first? Netanyahu’s problem lies in the fact that the inner circle around Bennett were part of Netanyahu’s team in the past and that they know very well that the prime minister can lose his concentration quickly. Some even talk about the paranoia that may take over the prime minister if he is pressured. Perhaps, this is exactly what Bennett and his close circles are trying to do.
Netanyahu knows that both of them want to join the government. And yet, it was nothing but Netanyahu’s attitude toward Bennett that pushed the latter firmly into Lapid orbit. Now the prime minister will have difficult time ditching the ultraorthodox and pick Bennett and Lapid instead.
It remains to be seen how Netanyahu is going to deal with this dilemma particularly with the deadline for forming a new government is fast approaching. Also, the imminent visit of the US President Barack Obama is poised to put more pressure on Netanyahu to establish a working coalition. Some observers even make the case that Netanyahu may fail to get his coalition done before the deadline. While his rivals are threatening to force new elections, Netanyahu may lose the ground for another rising star: Lapid. It seems that Netanyahu has a hard time learning the politics of Israel. Resorting to Livni may be a gambit that is doomed to backfire. Polls of last Friday suggested that if elections were held on that particular day, Lapid would be the prime minister.
Interestingly, the appointment of Livni as minister of justice and the chief negotiator with the Palestinians failed to create excitement outside Israel and did not push other parties to rush to Netanyahu after Lapid and Bennett demonstrated their alliance was made of steel. At best, the Palestinians see Livni as a fig leaf for Netanyahu. For the Palestinians and indeed the international community, the start of peace process hinges on freezing of all settlement activities, a step that Netanyahu failed to take. The inclusion of Livni to the peace team will hardly made any difference as long as Netanyahu is the one who calls the shots.
A part from the difficulty of jumpstarting a proper peace process, Netanyahu knows that if March 2 comes without a government, then Shimon Peres may give him another two weeks. Another failure will push Peres to ask Lapid to form a government. In other words, the endurance of Lapid-Bennett alliance can make Netanyahu’s colossal failure a possibility.