If yesterday’s media reports are correct, and Bayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett has indeed conditioned his party’s willingness to enter the next Netanyahu-led coalition government on a written pledge that definitively rules out any possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state, then Netanyahu has been handed a gilt-edged opportunity to head off potential international isolation and at the same time form a more balanced governing coalition.
Bennett’s insistence on such a written undertaking is surely going to prove almost impossible for the Prime Minister to accept and could mark the latest in a series of faux pas’ from the far-right Bennett whose party clearly suffered from a racist perception as a result of the Eli Ohana affair, and other comments/pledges during the bitter election campaign.
Netanyahu – who if he is to live up to his suggestion that he is a leader for all of Israel must find a way of forging a coalition that at least has some elements of center-right, rather than blanket far-right or religious ideals – would go a long way to appeasing the US and the international community should he leave Bennett out of his coalition.
Of course, the numbers need to stack up, but Friday evening’s comments from ‘kingmaker’ Moshe Kahlon that he would want Yair Lapid to sit in government if he is to join a Netanyahu coalition, might prove a win-win for Bibi.
Although there was a big clash of personalities between Bibi and Lapid during the last government, it should be remembered that Lapid stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Netanyahu during last summer’s Gaza war, something Bennett did not. Bennett – and to some extent Avigdor Liberman – briefed against the prime minister’s initial reluctance to engage in another conflict, then again on the decision to call a halt to hostilities, breaching the doctrine of collective responsibility that is so critical in times of war in not revealing any weakness or discord to the enemy.
In a comment last August clearly aimed at Bennett, Netanyahu at one point stated, “It is unthinkable that while our soldiers are fighting and while we are burying our dead, criticism will be sounded. At the end of the day we have a collective responsibility and there are places to express criticism.”
Netanyahu would be better off without the firebrand loose cannon Bennett on his team once again.
And it wasn’t Lapid, the Yesh Atid leader, who pulled the plug on the government, it was Bibi himself. Now, Bibi has been strengthened by the election result and Lapid is significantly weakened having lost eight MK’s, so the relationship between the two this time around might be very different.
Kahlon is already proving himself a smart cookie. He appears to feel he would be more credible in representing the center ground of Israeli politics and succeed in getting more economic reforms passed, if Lapid was part of a government in which he, Kahlon, held a key role. While the religious parties would certainly baulk at Lapid’s presence in a new government – having fought him all the way on the Haredi draft and other issues – one, or both are likely to be pragmatic and prefer to stay inside the government and have some influence, rather than outside for a second time in a row.
With 30 Likud seats, 11 Yesh Atid, 10 Kulanu (Kahlon), Shas (7), Israel Beitenu (6), giving Bibi a workable majority of 64 -56 without necessarily having to bring in Rabbi Litzman’s United Torah Judaism (6) – or swop them for Shas – Bibi could put together a coalition without Naftali Bennett, a coalition that would be more representative of Israeli center-right politics, (arguably Bibi’s more natural political ground), than the right and far-right coalition currently perceived.
It would leave the option of a Palestinian state on the table (although almost impossible to achieve given the present Palestinian dynamics), and bring Israel back from the brink of potential international isolation. It would also go a long way to repairing the undoubted damage in US-Israel relations, a partnership that is hugely important to both sides.
Will Bibi take this opportunity and, if not be a prime minister for all the people, at least be a prime minister for enough of the Israeli public to take the heat out of a potentially explosive political cocktail of divisive, right-wing, religious domination?