For Benjamin Netanyahu, it wasn't supposed to break this way.
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- Obama's Can Reach Israelis - Despite Bibi
Four months ago, when he called early elections, advisers assured the prime minister that his best-case scenario was also among the most likely:
Mitt Romney defeats Barack Obama in early November, vindicating Netanyahu and boosting the prime minister's campaign into an even more untouchable orbit; Netanyahu turns his only credible political rival, Avigdor Lieberman – his legal troubles firmly behind him – into an electoral asset, on a joint ticket likely to score commanding 45 Knesset seats; Yair Lapid, having peaked much too early, fades to irrelevance; former Netanyahu chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, is a distant memory, aiming for leadership of the moribund three-seat Habayit Hayehudi party, the Netanyahu household a happier place without him.
Then there was the other scenario, the impossible one. The one in which the polls are wrong and the center-left vote in stunning numbers; Avigdor Lieberman is indicted; Likud-Beiteinu repels its own voters with internal friction and mutual Mizrachi-Russian antipathy; and Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett fire the imagination of voters tired and suspicious of Benjamin Netanyahu.
The one in which it is Barack Obama, and not Mitt Romney, who takes office on the eve of the Israeli election, and who later announces that he will be coming to Israel in a matter of weeks.
In a stunning result, the mathematics of which are not lost on Obama, it is the scenario in which Lapid and Bennett, taken together, win fully as many seats as Netanyahu – 31.
At this stage, with coalition talks circling a stoppered drain, what scenarios may the Obama administration be facing in Israel's new government?
From the standpoint of a second-term White House, what may be the best-case scenario, is also the least likely. The basis of this scenario is the calculation that if Netanyahu fails to include either Lapid or Bennett in his coalition, and if Labor keeps its pledge to spurn Netanyahu's advances, the prime minister can only reach 57 seats – four shy of the 61-seat majority he must field in the 120-seat house in order to forge a government.
Netanyahu will avoid this at any cost, up to and including his wife's displeasure, because the resulting options would be new elections in July, or the possibility of someone else forging and leading a government in his place.
Either way, it would spell disaster for Netanyahu. Just as he was the odds-on favorite to come out on top in January, were elections to be held in summer, he would almost certainly lose. Then there is the loose-cannon status of the 11 seats Lieberman still controls within Likud-Beiteinu – and which he could take with him in a theoretical alliance with Lapid. Either way, Yair Lapid could become prime minister. That is a risk Netanyahu is not about to take.
For Obama and John Kerry, still holding out hope for a two-state solution, the next best scenario would be a government in which Lapid's Yesh Atid agrees to co-anchor the ruling coalition with Netanyahu. Lapid has set an immediate return to negotiations with the Palestinians as a condition of joining the government. Though Lapid's declarations on an undivided Jerusalem have sparked criticism in the center-left, subsequent statements by Yesh Atid senior MK and former Shin Bet director Yaakov Peri suggest that the party might prove much more flexible in the context of peace talks.
Whether pressured into it or honestly convinced that peace with the Palestinians is possible and desirable, Netanyahu can potentially command a majority of 69 (Likud-Beiteinu, 31; Yesh Atid, 19; an Aryeh Deri-moderated Shas, 11; Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah, 6l; and Shaul Mofaz's Kadima, 2).
This would be reinforced from outside the coalition by an additional 31 votes from the center-left and left (Labor, 15; Meretz, 6; Hadash, 4; UAL-Ta'al, 3; Balad, 3.)
While Likud-Beiteinu includes a number of the most unbending hardliners in the Knesset, past experience shows that peace moves are the prerogative and the province of the prime minister, who, if determined to pursue nearly any step, can assemble and lead a Knesset majority for it, one way or another.
At the same time, the worst-case scenario for Obama is very much still on the table. This would be a coalition that fights peace talks and fosters settlement at every turn. To take in Naftali Bennett, Netanyahu would have to swallow the displeasure of both the Oval Office and his own bedroom, but it gets him to 61 (Likud-Beiteinu, 31; Habayit Hayehudi, 12; Shas,11; United Torah Judaism, 7. He may, or may not, also be able to entice Livni, 7; Mofaz, 2; and/or four or five rogue Labor MKs to join what is essentially an anti-peace bloc.)
This week, with the clock ticking to the Obama visit and the deadline of the coalition talks, Likud-Beitenu officials declared that Netanyahu's party had nothing to fear from new elections. But neither of the smaller parties budged. Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi even countered with a threat to propose that a Likud-Beiteinu leader other than Netanyahu try to form a government.
Lapid and Bennett see the sweat beading on the foreheads of Netanyahu and Lieberman. They know, every bit as well as the prime minister, just whose side time is on now.