Earlier this week, Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu met secretly with Avigdor Lieberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel, Our Home”) party, and separately with Eli Yishai, chairman of Shas (“Sephardi Torah Guardians”). His goal? Nothing less than to steal the upcoming Israeli elections, which he appears to have despaired of winning the conventional way. Yishai and Lieberman, both of whom can perform simple arithmetic, listened politely (more or less) to Kid Brother’s proposal, thought for a millisecond or two, sent Bibi away empty-handed, then revealed all (or enough, anyway) to the press.
Bibi’s brilliant idea was to form such a firm alliance among the three parties (and presumably the combined National Union / National Religious Party as well) that after the election, he could be presented to Israeli President Moshe Katzav as the leader best able to form a governing coalition – even though the Likud is expected to be only the third-biggest party in the next Knesset. While there is no law against such a maneuver, it would be a complete violation of the tradition that the largest party in the new Knesset is invited to make the first attempt at forming a coalition.
According to current polls, the new Knesset is expected to look something like this:
Kadima 37 seats Labor 18 seats Likud 16 seats National Union / National Religious (NU/NRP) 10 seats Shas 10 seats Yisrael Beiteinu 9-10 seats Arab parties 8-9 seats United Torah Judaism (UTJ) 6 seats Meretz 5 seats
So a right-wing coalition consisting of Likud, NU/NRP, Shas, Yisrael Beiteinu, and UTJ would control around 51 seats. According to Netanyahu’s logic, if the Right could improve these numbers a little, they could conceivably manage to get up to 61 seats – the minimum needed to form a government. Assuming (A) that the polls consistently underestimate support for the Right, and (B) that a substantial number of Kadima voters could be persuaded to switch allegiance to one of the right-wing parties, it would be possible to cobble together a right-wing government with Bibi as Prime Minister.
Now there’s nothing wrong with a little pre-election scheming and plotting; after all, if the parties didn’t prepare the ground before elections, it would take forever to set up governing coalitions afterwards. Further, Israeli voters are smart enough to adjust their votes based on how the various political parties are positioning themselves as potential coalition members. But unless the polls are far less accurate this time around than they’ve been before previous Knesset elections, Netanyahu’s scheme was bound to create a disaster – either for his own reputation as a political leader and strategist, or for Israel if he happened, by some dark miracle, to succeed.
Since we know how it turned out – Netanyahu got a lecture from his former subordinate Lieberman about “stress and panic” not being helpful to a politician trying to win a national election, while Eli Yishai told him, “Yeah, right – see you after the votes are counted” – it’s obvious that the affair was a disaster for Bibi. He was caught trying to subvert the Israeli electoral system, and (by implication) admitted that his rump Likud is headed for a resounding defeat. Worse, he looks like a fool, since his idea was an obvious non-starter from the beginning:
- The scheme would work only if every party to the right of Kadima participated and refused to enter a Kadima-led coalition. The problem is that this broad, cooperative, united right-wing community is a figment of the far-Right’s imagination. Shas, for example, despises Netanyahu’s economic policies, as does United Torah Judaism – both represent Haredi (“ultra-Orthodox”) constituencies that are undergoing considerable hardship due to Netanyahu’s slashing of government support for large families. Both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu have expressed willingness for some form of territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and even more willingness to participate in a coalition government with Kadima. So while all the right-wing parties might be willing to join a coalition if the Likud actually won the election, only the NU/NRP can be relied upon to join a third-place Likud in trying to block the formation of a Kadima-led coalition.
- While Netanyahu’s plan wasn’t actually illegal, it was enough of a departure from normal procedure that President Katzav would almost certainly have refused to go along with it, even if Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu had signed on.
- Just when the Likud is struggling to maintain its position as a mainstream force in Israeli politics, Bibi’s scheme would have frightened away whatever moderate center-Right voters were still loyal to the party. By positioning the Likud only as the leader of a right-wing-to-ultra-right-wing coalition and not as a potential partner to Kadima, Netanyahu has made it very clear that a vote for Likud is, in essence, a vote for the National Union. Anyone who wants a moderate-right-wing voice in government but doesn’t want the NU extremists to run the show would be forced to vote for Shas or Yisrael Beitenu; others might bolt to Kadima and hope that Ehud Olmert veers to the right after the elections, or else just stay home and spend the Election Day holiday hiding under the covers.
If Netanyahu’s scheme had worked, Israel would have been in trouble indeed – quite apart from considerations of whether the Right’s policies are correct. Even under the most optimistic scenario (barring major miracles, at least) the coalition envisioned by Kid Brother would be barely large enough to govern. The departure of any one of Netanyahu’s four coalition partners would bring his government crashing down – and he would not have any way of cobbling together a new coalition, since there would be no “reserve parties” in the Knesset willing to join Bibi’s government. (This is in contrast to Ariel Sharon’s coalition with Labor, when Shinui was ready to re-enter the coalition or support the Disengagement from outside, or a possible Kadima-Labor-Shas coalition that could draw on Yisrael Beiteinu or Meretz at need.)
Netanyahu’s previous term as Prime Minister demonstrated that he is completely incapable of exercising effective leadership with a fractious coalition like this; every coalition party would have an effective veto on everything the government attempted to do, and Bibi does not have the force of personality to subdue the extortionists. If Bibi seems to be twisting in the wind now, it’s nothing compared to what his life would be like if his little scheme had worked!
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)