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Moreover, the budding partnership between the young and charismatic Lapid and Bennett — one to the left of Bibi and the other to the right — made the Prime Minister very uncomfortable. United around the issue of enlistment reform, the two parties combined have as many seats as Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitenu list, and together could set the pace of the government despite Netanyahu’s role as Prime Minister. Bibi desperately wished to avoid this, especially since Lapid unwisely stated that he hopes to lead the Israeli government soon.
Once it became clear that Lapid would not yield on his trademark issue of enlistment reform — a concession that would have allowed Netanyahu to bring in the ultra-Orthodox parties and thus diminish Lapid’s leverage with the coalition — the Prime Minister changed course. It’s rumored that Netanyahu considered offering Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich the Finance Ministry. And he cynically tried to peel Bennett away from his partnership with Lapid by offering HaBayit HaYehudi numerous cabinet positions, both to no avail.
He tried to preempt Lapid and co-opt Yesh Atid’s signature issue by putting forth a watered-down enlistment reform bill. But before it was even written, it was already rejected by one ultra-Orthodox party as out of hand, foiling a supposed plan to build a 57-seat near-coalition and offer Bennett a ultimatum: Join us now, or force another election — one the Right could lose.
The surprise announcement that Netanyahu would be partnering with his former rival Tzipi Livni and make her in charge of peace negotiations was a central part of his plan to gain leverage vis-à-vis Bennett and Lapid. It had had the added benefit of potentially alleviating international pressure of on the peacemaking front. But the decision backfired. Polls this week show that rather than being intimidated into avoiding an election, Bennett’s party would gain and Lapid could even win!
With one poll showing that Netanyahu’s list would drop to a mere 22 seats, it’s now him who should be scrambling to avoid a second round of 2013 elections, not his opponents.
Voters are frankly tired of the Prime Minister’s cynical maneuvering. They don’t think any of his opponents are experienced enough to have his job, but they don’t appreciate when Netanyahu insults their intelligence, strategizing about a fourth term and bringing in Livni as a prop for international audiences rather than yielding to the will of the people on issues like military draft reform .
Netanyahu thought he could outmaneuver his opponents by playing them against each other, but the numbers simply do not work in his favor. Had he sat down in his prime ministerial seat and negotiated with the obvious partners, he could have sighed in relief and celebrated his modest reelection.
It’s still not too late for Netanyahu to change course and yield to Lapid and Bennett. Given his survival instincts, he most likely will ultimately do so to avoid a new election. Because if he doesn’t accept his humble victory right now, he may soon suffer a grand defeat.
Geoffrey Levin is a Bologna Fellow and Schusterman Israel Scholar Award recipient at the Johns Hopkins University Department of Political Science. You can follow him on twitter @geoff_levin.