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.
Netanyahu is eager for the Obama visit because he views it as a perfect opportunity to help reset the strained relations between the two governments. More importantly, he’s also hoping the president will use it to make a strong statement in support of Israeli security and to re-emphasize his willingness to do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability. Losing that visit would be a blow to his prestige and undermine his efforts to have the allies present a united front on Iran and the peace process after four-plus years of Obama’s efforts to distance the U.S. from Israel. Since dragging out the talks in what would probably be a vain try to get his way on the next coalition would probably keep Obama at home, that means that the prime minister’s already faltering attempt to split up the Lapid-Bennett tag team is now officially doomed.
Netanyahu has his own reasons for fearing both Lapid and Bennett.
He’s clearly worried about Lapid’s boasts about replacing Netanyahu in the next election and dreads having to give him the key post of foreign minister as part of the price for getting Yesh Atid’s 19 seats onto the government benches. Though they are closer on ideology, he seems to have just as much antipathy for the charismatic Bennett, who once was chief of staff and broke with Netanyahu, allegedly because of the influence of the prime minister’s wife Sara.
But with Lapid and Bennett deciding that their mutual support for a more equitable system of national service outweighs any differences on other issues, Netanyahu now has no choice but to swallow hard and have both of these would-be rivals in the Cabinet.
Obama and the two party leaders may be doing Netanyahu more of a favor than he knows. Keeping both Lapid and Bennett inside the government tent is to the prime minister’s advantage. Saddling him with responsibility for government actions also lessens Lapid’s long-term appeal as a reformer even if the foreign ministry would give him the gravitas to be a credible prime minister in the future. Moreover, achieving a real breakthrough on the question of the Haredim and the draft would be a genuine achievement for Netanyahu and burnish his legacy in his third term as Israel’s leader.
It’s important to understand the big loser here isn’t the prime minister. It’s the ultra-Orthodox who have used their disproportionate influence on the country’s political system to perpetuate an unequal burden of national service as well as to funnel huge amounts of patronage and government allocations to their institutions. Keeping Shas and United Torah Judaism out of the government will create a team of rivals in the Cabinet that worries Netanyahu, but it will enable him to do something none of his predecessors ever achieved.