How did Netanyahu’s election night “victory” slip away, what was his biggest mistake, and what’s the strategic threat he faces?
On the night of the March 2 election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stage and declared a great victory. Exit polls showed that his right-wing bloc won 60 seats and was inching toward a majority. The crowds were cheering. But a day later everything changed.
As the results poured in, Netanyahu’s bloc fell to 58 seats. This two-seat decline blocked his path to a narrow right-wing government. Moreover, it made the job of hunting for defectors in other parties much harder. He now needs more defectors, and there’s a greater incentive for them to resist his offers.
The Israeli political system is still stuck, but one thing is now clear: Netanyahu made a big mistake by attacking his former partner Avigdor Lieberman so aggressively. Despite going through ups and downs over the years, the two were always able to find a way to cooperate. Until Netanyahu made it personal.
Lieberman believes (and is likely right) that the Netanyahu campaign was behind legal complaints filed against him and his children in 2019. There is no forgiveness for this behavior, he said this week. And without Lieberman, Netanyahu’s quest for a majority has hit a brick wall.
Netanyahu is now preparing for the greatest political battle of his life. The entire opposition is united against him, and may try to pass a law that bars him from serving as PM. However, the biggest strategic threat he faces is cracks in his own camp.
Netanyahu Fears Rebellion
Netanyahu currently has many right-wing partners, but few friends. Senior Likud figures are eager for him to leave so they can move up, and possibly replace him. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett is quietly waiting to take his revenge for numerous humiliations. Even the religious parties are not in Netanyahu’s pocket and will go with Gantz if it benefits them.
Netanyahu’s secret ingredient for keeping his coalition together was his ability to win elections. But repeated failures to form a government bring a rebellion closer. And once the first brick falls, the entire wall could quickly collapse.
Netanyahu is fully aware of the dangers, and will again attempt to outmaneuver everyone. He remains Israel’s best political player, and will try every trick in the book to ensure his political survival. This will include lavish offers to political rivals, and efforts to disrupt Gantz’s anti-Netanyahu alliance.
Another possibility for Netanyahu is to work out a good deal for a unity government. Right now Gantz resists, but the pressure on both of them will build up quickly, especially as the Coronavirus crisis deepens.
The coming weeks will be dramatic and eventful, with lots of behind-the-scenes moves. Netanyahu is in a desperate fight with his trial about to begin, and could take unpredictable steps. Will he again outsmart his opponents, or will his bloc start to fall apart? Soon we will find out.