A last-minute glitch appears to be holding up the signing of the coalition agreement that would put Israel’s next government in place in time to greet President Obama next week. According to reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s attempt to deny Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett the largely symbolic title of deputy prime minister has jeopardized the deal. While minor issues such as this one have the potential to cause big problems in any political setting, the real clue to the seriousness of this dust-up is the fact that most people seem to be blaming it on, of all people, Netanyahu’s wife, Sara.
If true, it points to the fact that while the Netanyahu, Lapid and Bennett have much to gain from cooperating with each other, at least one of them hasn’t been able to rise above the personal feuds that seem to characterize relations between Israel’s leaders. That means that although all of the four parties (Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu, Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua) that have united to form Israel’s 33rd government since the first Knesset was elected in 1949 have every reason to keep it in office for a full four-year term, the jealousies, lack of trust and downright antagonism between the major players may cause its premature demise. Netanyahu’s ability to transcend petty tiffs in the coming days may tell us a lot about whether his second consecutive and third overall term as prime minister will last as long as he’d like.
President Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was seen by many as a missed opportunity for Obama. Israeli voters tend to punish leaders who can’t get along with the American president, and thus prime ministers are usually willing to work pretty hard to stay on the president’s good side. But Israelis across the ideological spectrum thought Obama’s treatment of Netanyahu was disrespectful, and they blamed the president more than they blamed Netanyahu for the state of affairs.
That gave Netanyahu a certain degree of leverage in his relationship with Obama that Netanyahu didn’t have during his first stint as premier when Bill Clinton was president. But both the recent Israeli and American elections tipped the scales somewhat back in Obama’s direction. Obama was re-elected and now doesn’t have to face the voters again, and Netanyahu won far fewer seats in the January Knesset elections than he had expected, and sits mired in negotiations to form a coalition in which his rivals are setting the agenda. Yet as a new poll from the Hill shows, Obama shouldn’t be enjoying the spectacle too much–he has something to lose as well:
Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new coalition government have not been going smoothly. The prime minister’s attempt to break up the alliance between the two big winners of the last election—the centrist Yesh Atid Party’s Yair Lapid and the pro-settler Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett—have flopped as the two have stuck to each other and their mutual support for a change in the military draft system that will compel for the first time the conscription of Haredim. Netanyahu knows he needs at least one of the two to form a government and if they stick together, he must not only take both but also agree to their demands about a reform that he appears reluctant to implement.
But as difficult as his position was until now, Netanyahu’s leverage in the talks just got even smaller thanks to another longtime antagonist. Israel TV is claiming that the White House has made clear to Netanyahu that President Obama’s long anticipated trip to Israel next month will be postponed if the prime minister does not have a new government in place by March 16. While some in Israel, where Obama remains unpopular, may not care much about the visit, Netanyahu is counting on it. That means the chances are that Lapid and Bennett will soon be signing coalition agreements on their own terms and that the ultra-Orthodox parties will be losing their ability to stymie reform.
Over the course of the last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a series of decisions that took what seemed like an unassailable political position and turned into a shaky re-election. He choose to make an alliance with the faltering Kadima Party that soon unraveled rather than seek early an election in the fall of 2012 when he was at his strongest. His public grandstanding about President Obama’s stance on Iran and the slights he received from the White House was interpreted as an intervention in the U.S. election on behalf of Mitt Romney that did neither the Republican nor the prime minister any good. Then he merged his Likud Party with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu Party prior to the January Knesset election that served only to drive secular voters into the arms of upstart Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.
Given the paucity of credible opponents for the office of prime minister and the collapse of Israel’s political left none of this was enough to cost Netanyahu the election but the Likud’s haul of Knesset seats was less than he might have gotten a few months earlier had he avoided these mistakes. But as the PM conducts the negotiations to form a new government, it may be that he is about to commit another blunder. Though one should take any of the reports leaking out of the talks between the Israeli parties with more than a few grains of salt, right now it looks as if Netanyahu is on the verge of outsmarting himself again and setting up the Likud for a potential electoral disaster at the next election.
In the week since Israelis went to the polls the consistent narrative about the election in the Western press has been that the vote was a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This was understandable since expectations for his Likud Party were so high going into the campaign. The 31 seats it won was fewer than the total that both the Likud and the Israel Beitenu Party led by Avigdor Lieberman, which had merged with Netanyahu’s faction, got in 2009 so it’s fair to interpret the result as being something less than a personal triumph for the prime minister. But many commentators have gone much farther than that and claimed the impressive showing for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party shows Israeli voters were dissatisfied with Netanyahu’s foreign policy. The spin coming out of much of the liberal press is to depict the vote as one that will mandate a change in Israeli policy toward the Palestinians and force Netanyahu to return to peace talks.
The problem with this theory is that Lapid made it clear he had virtually no disagreements with Netanyahu on the peace process. That makes the talk about an Israeli shift to the left on peace a transparent attempt to misinterpret an election in which security issues were not important. But recent developments in the subsequent negotiations to put together a new government make it even more clear the influence of the right in the next cabinet will continue to be strong. As Haaretz reports, Lapid is coordinating his positions on the talks with Naftali Bennett, the head of the pro-settlement Habayit Hayehudi Party that also did well last week. The consensus appears to be that the two are aiming to create a new coalition between Likud and their two parties that will unite around the issue of changing the draft system and excluding the ultra-Orthodox factions that sat in Netanyahu’s last government. If that’s the way it plays out, it will be a defeat for the religious parties and their stranglehold on aspects of the country’s budget as well as their ability to ensure that Haredim don’t have to serve in the army. But Bennett’s prominent role in the next cabinet means that the chatter about a more centrist or even left-leaning approach to the Palestinians is more a matter of wishful thinking on the part of the Obama administration and the international press than Israeli reality.
As Jonathan noted, Benjamin Netanyahu’s unexpectedly poor electoral showing resulted partly from his abysmal campaign. But it was also a clear vote of no-confidence in his policies. The problem, from the world’s perspective, is that what voters rejected wasn’t his foreign and defense policies. Rather, it was his domestic ones.
The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon has an excellent analysis of just how dominant domestic considerations were in this election. As he noted, the parties that significantly increased their parliamentary representation–Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home–campaigned almost exclusively on domestic issues. Even Bennett, who is unfairly caricatured overseas as representing “the extreme right,” ran mainly on domestic issues, capitalizing on his record as a successful high-tech entrepreneur. In contrast, parties that ran on diplomatic/security issues–Netanyahu’s Likud, Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima–did poorly, aside from one exception: Meretz picked up the diehard peacenik votes Labor lost by focusing on domestic issues.
The buzz in Israel at this hour is that leaked exit polls are showing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party may be doing far worse than expected in today’s election. The story is that Likud’s total of Knesset seats will drop below 30 and that centrist newcomer Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party will wind up in second place, with right-wing star Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home also doing well and the Labor Party possibly dropping to third or even fourth place.
If true, this would cause a major shake-up in Israeli politics. But President Obama and other American liberal critics of Netanyahu shouldn’t get too excited. Even if the rumors and leaked polls are accurate, there’s no doubt that Netanyahu will still be leading the next Israeli government.
The Israeli reaction to the much talked about Jeffrey Goldberg column that Seth wrote about yesterday wasn’t long in coming. Leading members of the Likud Party claimed that Goldberg’s reporting of critical comments about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu by President Obama constituted interference in the country’s elections that will be held next week. If true, some might see it as tit-for-tat since the Israeli’s decision to highlight a snub from the president and differences with him over dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat last September was widely seen as an attempt to help Mitt Romney’s doomed presidential campaign. Netanyahu would certainly have preferred to see Obama lose. But rather than intervening, he was probably thinking that putting pressure on Obama during the lead-up to the November election would force the president to take a tougher stand on Iran. Instead, Obama, who despises the prime minister, rebuffed Netanyahu leaving him looking like an incompetent meddler.
However, the accusations that the White House used Goldberg to get even with Netanyahu are probably untrue. As much as the president and his foreign policy team detest Netanyahu, they are probably aware that an American attempt to influence the vote in Israel would backfire. Obama is deeply unpopular in Israel and every time he has picked a fight with Netanyahu it has only strengthened the prime minister’s standing at home. Netanyahu is certain to lead the next government and though the president would probably like to do something to stop that from happening, he knows he can’t. Goldberg was, as he told the Jerusalem Post, only writing what everyone already knew about the president’s feelings. Obama believes he knows what is in Israel’s “best interests” better than the man elected to lead that country. But as much as the ongoing feud between these two personalities rivets our attention, the disconnect isn’t so much between Obama and Netanyahu as it is between the American foreign policy establishment—and many liberal American Jews—and the consensus of the Israeli people. It is that gap between what most Israelis see as obvious about the moribund peace process and the conventional wisdom that is routinely churned out by the mainstream media in the United States that is the real issue.
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.
If liberal American Jews weren’t already dismayed about the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is a shoe-in to be re-elected in next month’s election, the latest political news out of Israel may give them conniption fits. The results of new polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud and its coalition partners are set to exceed the strong governing majority they had in the current Knesset. But the really interesting numbers are those that show that the main party to the right of the Likud—the Habeyit Hayehudi or Jewish Home Party–is on track to be the third largest in the next parliament with only Likud and Labor (set to finish a distant second) ahead of it.
This will give residents and supporters of the settlement movement an even louder voice in the next Knesset than their already healthy contingent in the current one. This will be interpreted by some on the left as a sign of Israel’s depravity or indifference to peace. But the reason for it is clear. Whereas in Israel’s past it could be asserted that the Likud represented Israel’s right-wing constituency, it has, to the shock and dismay of many in the left-wing Israeli media, become the center. That is not because more Israelis are supporters of increasing settlement throughout the West Bank. They are not. Rather it is due to the fact that the Israeli center as well as even many on what we used to call the Israeli left have given up on the Palestinians. They know that neither Fatah in the West Bank nor Hamas in Gaza will ever recognize Israel’s legitimacy no matter where its borders are drawn. So they have abandoned those parties that hold onto the illusion of peace in favor of those with a more realistic vision while those on the right are now embracing parties like Habeyit Hayehudi in order to hold Netanyahu’s feet to the fire and prevent him from making concessions that will neither entice the Palestinians to the negotiating table nor increase its popularity abroad.