Bibi’s Dark Turn


With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now settled down to a new coalition government – his fourth – with what is literally the slenderest coalition possible, there’s a raft of stories like this one in the Israeli press about how Netanyahu has gone from a shattering resurgence to ignominy and helplessness in less than two months. It is, as I put it a couple days ago, a government already at war with itself.

There’s one point in the article I linked above that I found particularly striking. The article is by Gil Hoffman in The Jerusalem Post. Here’s the passage.

It started with Kulanu, which compromised on nothing during coalition talks, receiving literally everything it demanded.

Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon reportedly was briefed by MK Avigdor Liberman that his Yisrael Beytenu party would not be joining the coalition, which emboldened him in the negotiations.

I suspect this has been reported more explicitly elsewhere and I just missed it because I’ve been focused on other things recently. (If you know where, please let me know.) This seems to suggest that weeks in advance of his shock announcement not to join the new government, Lieberman had tipped Kahlon off to his intentions. Lieberman’s announcement came on May 4th; Kahlon signed a coalition agreement with Netanyahu on April 29th. So at a minimum he gave Kahlon a significant advance warning to inflict further damage on Netanyahu. The logic of the passage suggests it was actually done weeks earlier, since this would be necessary for Kahlon to make use of this information in his negotiations with Netanyahu.

Coalition negotiations are not necessarily hostile but by definition they involve all parties playing for maximal advantage. In Israel, the culture as well as the structure of parliamentary government dictate that all players are simultaneously half friends and half enemies, and liable to become deep friends or deep enemies at any moment, depending on the contingent advantage. But this morsel of information suggests that from the start Netanyahu’s would-be partners were not only strategizing together – as Bennett and Lapid did the last time around – but something more like plotting against Netanyahu himself – and out of something short of malice but much more than a mere positioning for advantage.

One thing this turn of events should recall is the unique and confounding nature of Netanyahu’s March victory. It was a stunning victory. There is no question about this. Netanyahu out-did the poll predictions by as much as 50%, 10 seats! A week of commentary taking stock of his demise in the past tense were suddenly meaningless and irrelevant.

Naftali Bennett

But there was always another part of the equation, as we discussed in earlier posts. The right-wing bloc actually shrank, albeit only by a few seats, from 2013 to 2015 elections, as indeed it had from 2009 to 2013. Netanyahu won by gobbling up a much bigger share of the slightly diminished right-wing bloc. That was a critical and huge tactical achievement. It guaranteed he would be given the task of assembling the next government. But in gutting and, in one case, perhaps destroying his ‘natural ally” parties he sowed the seeds of animosity and grievance which set the stage for the current predicament. Coalition partners will always play for maximal advantage but Bennett and Lieberman approached it as much as a matter of settling scores as maximizing their take of the spoils of office.

Here’s Nahum Barnea – one of Israel’s premier political columnists on the Netanyahu/Bennett dance

Netanyahu and Bennett played a game of Russian roulette. Each held a gun to their respective temples. Bennett took the risk of being accused of thwarting the establishment of a right-wing government and paving the way for the establishment of a coalition headed by Isaac Herzog; and Netanyahu took the risk of having to go back to the president and inform him of his failure to form a government.

Bayit Yehudi officials, meanwhile, were hard at work on an alternative plan: Barring an agreement with Netanyahu, they were set to advise the president to ask a different member of the Likud to form the next government – Moshe Ya’alon, Silvan Shalom or anyone else the Likud chooses.

Netanyahu didn’t have a contingency plan. His threat, to approach Herzog, wasn’t taken seriously. There was no way he’d be able to make good on his threat in the day or two before the deadline expired. Left without a choice, Netanyahu folded. He swallowed all the bitter pills Bennett concocted for him – and first and foremost, the appointment of Ayelet Shaked as justice minister. It was a knockout victory, a drubbing.

Let me end though with one possibility that runs against much of the conventional wisdom in the Israeli press and much of what I’ve written in recent days. It is very hard to see a 61 seat government surviving for very long or achieving very much. On balance, I stick to that prediction. But what this new government lacks in seats it makes up in ideological coherence – something the previous government did not remotely have. Similarly, just an any back-bencher from any party in the coalition can bring the government down on a whim, the upshot of doing so would be to have Netanyahu create a new coalition which either marginalizes or excludes the rightwing parties or, more likely, trigger yet another election. We saw in March the perils of underestimating Netanyahu. But it would be hard for any of Netanyahu’s partner parties – with the exception of Kulanu – to imagine they would do better in the next government than they did in this one, or even that the next government might not shift to the center or center-left.

So who knows? The only thing clear is that that Netanyahu’s new government begins as a cockpit of animosity and zero-sum plays for advantage, with a leader whom they despise and hold in the sort of contempt that weakness encourages. Most governments get that way sooner or later. Few begin that way on day one.