Benjamin Netanyahu's egotistical attitude to forming the government leaves only one solution to the imbroglio: new Knesset elections now, without waiting for the swift collapse of the government Netanyahu has yet to form.
Only about four months ago, in the wake of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's announcement of his resignation, Netanyahu refused to join the government President Shimon Peres asked Tzipi Livni to form. It was meant to be a national unity government, composed of Kadima, Labor and Likud.
The defense minister in that government was Ehud Barak, the same Barak whom Netanyahu is now dying to have remain in the government, although ostensibly they are diametrically opposed on the issue of relations with the Hamas government in Gaza. At the time, in October 2008, in light of the developing Iranian nuclear crisis, among others, Netanyahu opposed unity and preferred elections. The excuse, as always, was one of principle: The people will decide.
And now the elections are behind us, the situation has changed, President Peres has asked Netanyahu to form the government, and suddenly Livni's refusal to join a government headed by Netanyahu is presented as a whim. It turns out that the difference between a principle and a whim is 15 MKs. When Netanyahu headed a faction of only 12 MKs, unity was not so important. When he has 27, he condemns the person who has adopted the stance he held last autumn. For Netanyahu "unity" means that he is No. 1.
At the polls three weeks ago, the personal brand name "Bibi" suffered an embarrassing blow. Although it was based on the strong and familiar brand name "Likud," which has been a magnet for tribal loyalty for decades, Netanyahu lost to the new brand name, "Tzipi," which suffered from the millstone of the unexciting brand name "Kadima."
In order to claim overall victory in spite of his personal defeat, Netanyahu needs the votes of those who did not vote for him, from the religious and right-wing parties. In return for their recommendation, Netanyahu is handcuffed to his supporters.
He is bound to them like the two inept prisoners in New Zealand, who fled the law about a month ago and forgot they were handcuffed together when they found themselves on opposite sides of a light pole. If he severs the bonds, his numerical advantage disappears. Quantity or quality - that's his dilemma. So far, he has surrendered quality and stuck with quantity.
Netanyahu's calculation is transparent. If Kadima enters the mouse trap, its ministers will no longer want to leave - after all, what will Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz care if Livni is prime minister or only deputy prime minister (actually, he does care; he would be happy to cut her down to size).
But there is no Kadima without Livni, and she is right, both in essence and tactically, in her opposition to joining Netanyahu on his conditions. She cannot live with a diplomatic policy that the right wing in Netanyahu's government can live with.
Netanyahu is less close to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton than he is to MK Michael Ben-Ari, formerly a Kahanist and now a member of the National Union. Clinton, not Livni, is the foreign minister who is making things hard for Netanyahu.
On the eve of her departure for the region she mentioned the Quartet's positions and the Arab peace initiative as the foundations of American policy. If he agrees to discuss them, Netanyahu will lose both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu. If he refuses, he will prove that those who warned that he was on an inevitable collision course with the Obama administration were correct. In either case, his government will be short-lived.
In her opposition to joining Netanyahu, Livni is being more faithful than Netanyahu to the precedent of Menachem Begin. Begin insisted in June 1970, at the height of the War of Attrition and the debate over the peace initiative of then-U.S. secretary of state William Rogers, to resign from the government of Golda Meir, in order to remain faithful to his views. Livni, who is more moderate than Netanyahu, cannot now behave differently.
The mess can be solved only with swift new elections, British style. The voters will judge according to what has been said and what has taken place since the previous elections. Party slates that wish to do so will be able to freeze their composition, without internal elections. The choice between the Netanyahu bloc and the Livni bloc will be clear and simple, there will be a confrontation and the two leading candidates will promise that after the elections they will support the one with the larger slate.
In the absence of any willingness on Netanyahu's part for a rotation in the premiership, with Livni serving first, there is no other way out.
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