With a Likud victory and a Kadima defeat all but certain, why did Bibi throw Mofaz an eleventh-hour lifeline?

When Avigdor Liberman threatened to bring down the Netanyahu government over Haredi service in the IDF, Bibi called his bluff. In September elections, the polls indicated that two things were virtually certain: a win for Likud; and a major setback for Kadima.

So why the midnight deal to delay elections?

With Israel’s latest journalist-cum-candidate Yair Lapid coming at him from the center, and Shelly Yachimovich’s reinvigorated labor party stealing his socioeconomic thunder from the left, Mofaz’s prospects in the September elections were not promising. It was doubtful that Mofaz would lead the opposition, and all signs indicated that Kadima was taking on water. When Netanyahu threw Kadima an eleventh-hour lifeline (sans ministerial portfolios), Mofaz grabbed it.

What was behind Bibi’s sudden bailout? For one thing, the PM can’t have been overjoyed by the prospect of dissolving his fourth-year government in response to Liberman’s bluster over replacing the Tal Law. If anyone can lay claim to the title of Netanyahu’s rival on the right, it’s Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party has been gaining steam in election after election. With its appeal broadening beyond Russian immigrants to include security hawks and secularists, Yisrael Beiteinu may one day contest Likud’s hegemony over the right.

Anything but smooth sailing. Netanyahu and Mofaz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Anything but smooth sailing. Netanyahu and Mofaz (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

By bringing in Mofaz, Netanyahu robbed Liberman of his role as coalition kingmaker, at least for the time being. Moreover, by agreeing to a Mofaz-brokered deal on haredi service in the IDF, Netanyahu robbed Liberman of his leadership position on an issue that enjoys broad support among (non-haredi) Israelis. Liberman may still be the only credible threat to Netanyahu’s rule of the right, but that threat is now  significantly diminished.

At the same time, Netanyahu has extricated himself from an embarrassing imbroglio within his own party. The surprisingly successful hardline challenge to Bibi’s presidency of the Likud convention would have severely weakened the prime minister’s hold on his Knesset faction after a new round of elections. Party pressure would have forced Netanyahu to run a party list influenced by the concerted pressure of the Likud’s right flank, as opposed to the candidates of his choosing. With elections cancelled, Netanyahu no longer has to worry about a new, more assertive, right-wing faction in the Knesset. For the moment, Netanyahu has succeeded in dodging the intra-party bullet.

The Mofaz-Netanyahu coalition is no warm partnership, but a cold détente. Netanyahu has postponed a confrontation with the Likud’s right flank, while weakening his main external rival on the right– Avigdor Liberman. At the same time, Mofaz has managed to keep his party afloat for a little while longer — perhaps long enough to convince the electorate that there’s still a reason to keep Kadima around.

Now that Israel’s mega-unity government has placed Barak, Liberman, Mofaz, and the haredi parties in the same boat, the rest of Netanyahu’s term will be anything but smooth sailing.

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