Benjamin Netanyahu Overplayed Hand in Talks With Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett

Premier Bungled Coalition Talks With Canny Rivals

Buddding Bromance: The two-headed Israeli team of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett represent different sides of the political spectrum, but have united to refuse Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to forge a coalition. Now the once-mighty premier is staring defeat in the face.
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Buddding Bromance: The two-headed Israeli team of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett represent different sides of the political spectrum, but have united to refuse Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to forge a coalition. Now the once-mighty premier is staring defeat in the face.

By Geoffrey Levin

Published February 27, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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It could have been easy.

January 22 was not a good day for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but it could have been far worse. The 2013 parliamentary elections meant that for the first time in his long political career, he would be leading the largest party in the Knesset. Though his joint Likud-Beitenu list won only 31 seats — around 23% of the vote — Israel’s center-left was fractured and it always appeared certain that Bibi would keep his job.

After all, despite his party’s underwhelming performance, there appeared to be two options for coalitions he could easily form. The so-called “right-wing bloc” made of rightist, religious nationalist, and ultra-Orthodox parties had won 61 seats, enough to form the narrowest of governments. Alternatively, Netanyahu could have formed a government of 64 with little effort, as the centrist Yesh Atid and Kadima parties seemed eager to enter a coalition with Likud-Beitenu and the national religious HaBayit HaYehudi as long as the Prime Minster would make military enlistment reform a priority.

This 64-seat core coalition, with perhaps one other party, seemed the most obvious option. Within days, informal discussions between Netanyahu and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, whose party came in second with 19 seats, appeared to confirm that a coalition was soon to be formed along these lines, perhaps even in record time.

But today, more than a month after the election, Likud-Beitenu has yet to sign a coalition agreement with any of the abovementioned parties — and people are now questioning whether any coalition will emerge at all. So what went wrong?

Netanyahu overplayed his hand. He fooled himself into thinking he could have it all. Netanyahu simply had two choices to make: The ultra-Orthodox or the fresh, secularist Yesh Atid? The pro-settlement HaBayit HaYehudi, or the pro-peace negotiations Tzipi Livni? Once those choices were made, the coalition negotiations would work themselves out, with government policies continuing in the traditional rightist direction and perhaps embracing enlistment reform that would require the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military or national service just like all other Israeli Jews — a policy that the election proved was quite popular.

But rather than focusing on the issues at hand, Bibi was thinking about the next election. He knew that enlistment reform would spoil his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, loyal partners that served as cornerstones in his past two governments. Going with the flow and partnering with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and Naftali Bennett of HaBayit HaYehudi would have set them up as formidable opponents for the Prime Ministership, a job the ultra-Orthodox never wanted anyway.


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