At the end of the festive opening of the 19th Knesset on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got up from his chair and slowly made his way up the aisle. The first person to fall into his arms was brand new MK Yair Lapid.
- PM: Strong Israel Can Ensure Peace
- 'Obama Paving Way for Lapid Into Coalition'
- Arab Parties Balk at Backing Lapid
The Yesh Atid leader rushed up to Netanyahu and gave him a warm hug, introduced his No. 2 in the party, Shai Piron, and kept on patting the shoulder of the man he plans to replace "in another year and a half," as Lapid has been quoted as saying.
It's no wonder Netanyahu looked hesitant; Lapid's show of familiarity in front of the cameras didn't dampen the suspicions. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the hand that caressed him today will stab him in the back tomorrow.
Two weeks after the election, not only is there no government in sight, no one is willing to make a commitment, even privately, on how Israel's 33rd government will look. Each guess is as good as the next. Judging by Netanyahu's speech in Chagall Hall, he is looking toward the center-left parties; he needs at least one or two of them to have a functioning government.
Three or four times Netanyahu mentioned the word "peace," which is three or four times more than he did during the election campaign. He also spoke about lowering the cost of living, lowering housing prices, equalizing the burden on all citizens and changing the form of government.
Alongside the prime minister stood 11 other proud leaders of the parties in the Knesset, testimony to the malignant divisions and schisms in Israeli society. Countries such as the United States, France and Germany live quite well with two large parties, and at most two to three smaller ones. True, not everyone there is Jewish.
U.S. President Barack Obama's expected visit to Israel plays very well into Netanyahu's hands. The visit, which it is hoped will restart the peace talks with the Palestinians that have not advanced an inch in the past four years, will make it easier for the prime minister to convince Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz to join the government. Livni's Hatnuah and Mofaz's Kadima are not exactly a single entity. Livni will play hard to get, while Mofaz will speed into the government like a runaway train.
There are two main questions. First, how firm is the front between Lapid and Naftali Bennett, and have these two really agreed to enter the coalition together or remain together in the opposition?
Naftali and Yair may be brothers and cool together, but they represent two different groups of voters, two different tribes and two different factions. Lapid isn't part of the right-wing bloc, and Bennett can't stretch things too far. His voters expect him to be part of the third Netanyahu government - just as he promised during the election campaign.
Second, what will Netanyahu do without his natural allies, Shas and United Torah Judaism, whom he views as faithful partners who will never betray him? Parting from them will be difficult and painful. In the circles closest to Netanyahu, some are warning him against giving up on his natural partners and relying on a problematic, traitorous and ambitious customer like Lapid.
"Look back four years," said one source. "You finished four years without a single coalition crisis because of what? Because none of your partners in the coalition had a replacement, none had anywhere else to go. They had no ambition to replace you. The minute you let Lapid into your government, you will lose that security."
Netanyahu is wandering around between these two poles in uncertainty and ignorance. The last date for presenting the cabinet to the Knesset is March 15. Netanyahu will be prime minister in every scenario. But how the government will look, no one knows.
"There could be surprises," Shas co-leader Aryeh Deri told someone in the Knesset Tuesday. He of course meant a government with the ultra-Orthodox and without Lapid. But Deri is experienced enough to know that surprises can come in all forms. Otherwise they wouldn't be surprises.