Netanyahu's Risky Consolidation

The merger between Israel's main right-wing parties could cost seats in the Knesset. What's the prime minister thinking?

The Knesset meeting hall.The merger between Israel’s Likud Party and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Is Our Home) is not merely a controversial political maneuver. The alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the most vocal opponent of the Oslo Agreement policy has broad implications that go beyond Israeli domestic politics. If the combined party—Halikud Beiteinu (Likud Is Our Home)—wins the election scheduled for next January, the next government likely will issue an official death certificate to the comatose negotiations with the Palestinians and the two-state solution. The result could be a regional war or a binational/apartheid state.

This Netanyahu alliance with a politician who gained international fame as a right-wing radical could jeopardize Netanyahu's effort to move beyond his own image as a controversial right-wing politician and emerge as a pragmatic, centrist statesman. This effort at personal image making led Netanyahu, after the last elections, to invite the more liberal Labor Party to join his government. He also pointedly excluded the Far Right party Halhud Haleumi (the National Unity). Netanyahu offered Ehud Barak, than Labor Party chairman, the powerful position of defense minister and consulted with him closely and respectfully. Netanyahu became the first and only Likud leader to speak publicly in favor of the two-state solution: a Jewish state next to a Palestinian state. Netanyahu persuaded President Shimon Peres, the architect of the Oslo Agreement, to travel to the White House to convince President Obama that the prime minister was willing to accept the political risks needed to reach a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian.

During that time, whenever Foreign Minister Lieberman issued negative or skeptical statements designed to undermine final status negotiations with the Palestinians or criticized the EU, Egypt or Turkey, Netanyahu rushed to distance himself from the Yisrael Beiteinu leader. Despite Lieberman's loud objections, the prime minister occasionally offered Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas minor concessions, such as removing roadblocks or the early transfer of custom revenues to the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu kept Lieberman away from the sensitive negotiations with the United States on Iran’s nuclear program and, in trying to resolve the flotilla crisis with Turkey, bypassed Lieberman in favor of another member of his inner cabinet, Moshe Yaalon (a deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs).

This alliance represents a revival of sorts as Netanyahu, during his first term as prime minister in the late-1990s, appointed Lieberman to the job of director general of the prime minister’s office. It is unlikely that Netanyahu, an experienced politician, is unaware of the damage that this alliance revival will cause to the image he was working so hard to create. Certainly there will be political consequences from his merger with a party that calls for a swap of settlers and Arab Israeli citizens, whereby Israeli Arabs will move to the occupied territories in exchange for Israeli settlers there. This almost inevitably will limit Netanyahu’s future ability to convince the Labor Party and even central parties to join his next coalition.

Further, Lieberman's campaign against the exemption of young Orthodox men from military service and his support for civil marriage (in Israel, marriage and divorce are under the exclusive jurisdiction of religious institutions) arouse deep concerns among Likud orthodox partners regarding his future prominence in the next cabinet. His offensive statement against the social-justice campaign of summer 2011, which saw half a million Israelis in the streets demanding cheaper housing and more affordable prices, alienated many Israelis who supported that protest.

On the other hand, Yisrael Beiteinu’s partnership with a prime minister who spelled out the phrase “Palestinian State” is likely to alienate right-wing voters, especially settlers from Yisrael Beiteinu. They may end up in the arms of the two other radical right-wing parties, Habayit Hayehudi (the Jewish Home), which is currently a member of the coalition, and Halhud Haleumi, part of the opposition.

Netanyahu, a master of political polling, presumably studied the merger’s potential impact on his government's prospects in next year’s elections. Thus, it’s interesting to note that recent polls published in the Israeli media indicate that if the Likud ran separately, it could expand its number of Knesset seats from twenty-seven to thirty or perhaps even thirty-two. Meanwhile, Yisrael Beiteinu could add an extra seat to its current fifteen, according to these media polls. That compares to survey evidence that the joint party is likely to receive only between thirty-five to forty-two seats. Further, earmarking a significant number of slots in the joint party for members of Lieberman's crew stirs deep disquiet among Likud candidates, who fear their own prospects will decline in such circumstances. In other words, the merger is a bad political decision.

There is speculation in Israel that Netanyahu's decision was motivated by a desire to ensure the Likud's emergence as the leading party after the coming elections. This does not hold water. In the last election, Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, received one seat more than the Likud, and yet it was Netanyahu who formed the government. This is the consequence of the Israeli parliamentary system, which gives priority to the party able to gather at least sixty-one votes in the Knesset. According to all the polls, the current Left-Center block is five to six seats short of reaching this threshold.

So what is Netanyahu’s rationale? Why did he invite a partnership with a controversial politician who may soon be indicted for a series of alleged felonies? The explanations vary. He may be concerned that a possible attorney general's decision to press charges against Lieberman before election day will dismantle the latter's party; in that event, Lieberman’s support could flow to the ultranational opposition party, which cannot be considered a coalition partner.

Netanyahu may believe that, if he can command forty members of the Knesset, a third of the parliament, he will gain extra domestic and global legitimacy. Israeli and international support is essential for dramatic steps such as attacking Iran, initiating major settlement activity or an annexation of significant slices of the West Bank.

Then there is the “Nixon goes to China” speculation. Under this scenario, Netanyahu couldn’t find a better partner than Lieberman, the provocative settler, if the aim is to have him walk out of the occupied territories, ensuring Israel's future as a peaceful, democratic and Jewish state. But just because Nixon went to China doesn’t mean this scenario is likely.

Akiva Eldar is the chief political columnist and an editorial writer for Haaretz. His columns also appear regularly in the Ha'aretz-Herald Tribune edition.

Image: IsraelTourism.