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Netanyahu’s Problem: He Can’t Lose

There’s a lot about this month’s election in Israel that is yet to be decided, as the polls indicating the number of Knesset seats the parties will win have fluctuated from day to day. However, the big question as far as the rest of the world is concerned—the identity of the country’s next prime minister—is the one thing that isn’t in any doubt. Current PM Benjamin Netanyahu is certain to form the next government of Israel with his Likud party having the most seats of any in the Knesset. But, in a stroke of irony made possible by Israel’s proportional election system, that is also Netanyahu’s biggest problem. Since there is no scenario in which he will not be the next prime minister, many Israelis who might otherwise be inclined to cast their ballot for Likud will instead vote for one of the smaller parties that will probably form part of Netanyahu’s coalition.

That means that rather than his own list taking more than a third of the 120 seats in the Knesset, his total may be considerably less than the 42 that Likud and Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu (which recently merged with Likud) won in the last election. That won’t stop Netanyahu from staying in office, but it could make his life miserable not only when putting together his next Cabinet but also over the course of the next few years, when he will be forced to cope with the growing strength of parties that are to his right on issues such as settlements and the theoretical terms of peace with the Palestinians.

Netanyahu had the same problem four years ago when he won his second term as prime minister. Rather than vote for the Likud, many on the right then gave their votes to Lieberman. This time around those voters are flocking to the new Habayit Yehudi Party of Naftali Bennett as well as to the even more strident Otzma Leyisrael.

Bennett, the son of American immigrants who went on to be a member of the same elite army unit that produced Netanyahu and outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and then made millions on an Internet company, served as the prime minister’s chief of staff during his last time in opposition before they quarreled. He provides Israel’s right with its first truly charismatic figure since Netanyahu’s emergence a generation ago and his party’s astonishing rise in the polls shows that his appeal is broader than the settler constituency that was thought to be its only source of support.

However, rather than being forced to really choose between Netanyahu or Bennett, Israeli right-wingers can pick the latter without any fear that their defections will result in a left-wing government.

Though the results of the numerous Israeli polls vary to some degree, they all show the various center-right and religious parties that make up Netanyahu’s current government gaining in the vicinity of 70 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset. The only question is what percentage of those will be won directly by Netanyahu rather than Bennett.

The smaller the number gained by Netanyahu’s allies the more likely that he will be able to give them more insignificant Cabinet posts or replace them altogether with centrist lists like the new party led by journalist Yair Lapid or even the one led by Tzipi Livni, an otherwise bitter foe of the prime minister but one whose differences with him are more a matter of posturing and rival ambitions than ideology.

However if, as some surveys now indicate, Bennett’s party becomes the third or even the second biggest party eclipsing Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich, who is likely to lead the opposition in the next Knesset, then Netanyahu’s options will be limited.

The reasons for Bennett’s rise are the same that has led Netanyahu to his preeminent position in his country’s politics. The Palestinians’ rejection of every peace feeler and embrace of violence and Hamas has created a new political reality in which the once predominant left has been marginalized. Though some Americans may wrongly see Netanyahu as an extremist, his views are now firmly in the center of the Israeli spectrum. Those to his right, such as Bennett, are merely slightly right of center rather than being viewed as beyond the pale. Though most Israelis do not share Bennett’s vision of West Bank settlement annexation, they see no reason to think about giving them away to the Palestinians in order to create another terrorist enclave like the one Hamas has in Gaza. 

Netanyahu might prefer to govern without Bennett’s interference, but the same set of circumstances that will keep him firmly in office have made it likely that his former aide will be a major factor in Israeli politics for years to come.


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