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.
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.