Benjamin Netanyahu has racked up another victory. Two weeks after the election, he has been tasked with forming a government despite not winning a majority at the polls.
Perhaps he’ll fail, and Israel will hold a fifth election this fall. But for now, there’s nobody who could replace him, and he isn’t going anywhere. He’ll remain prime minister, complete with the official residence, the armored convoy and control of the country.
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One person is clearly responsible for Netanyahu’s victory, and that’s Gideon Sa’ar. By refusing to recommend Yair Lapid to form a government, he ensured that Netanyahu would get the presidential nod.
Sa’ar promised a “new hope,” as he named his party, and termed replacing Netanyahu the most important national mission. But his hope lasted exactly two weeks.
At the moment of truth, he broke. And even though he still hasn’t acceded to Netanyahu’s clumsy wooing and his calls to return home to the Likud party, Sa’ar didn’t dare switch sides and hand the keys to the leftist bloc, headed by Lapid.
Sa’ar hasn’t suddenly fallen in love with Netanyahu and surely isn’t nostalgic for the humiliations he suffered at his hands. But loathing for Netanyahu isn’t enough for a rightist politician with rightist voters to stand together with the Arabs’ Joint List.
The exact same thing happened after the 2019 election. The “anyone but Bibi” parties had their dream majority – 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. But they couldn’t translate that result into a political achievement, because Avigdor Lieberman refused to join forces with the Joint List.
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By the time Lieberman softened, in the March 2020 election, this majority had shrunk, and defectors and vote thieves broke up the bloc and joined Netanyahu.
These events lead to three conclusions.
1. There’s no such thing as the “pro-change bloc,” the “anyone but Bibi bloc” or whatever else you want to call it. There’s a collection of parties that oppose Netanyahu, but representing their principles and their voters is more important to them than replacing the prime minister.
In Israel’s political situation, it’s impossible for the Joint List and the rightist parties to join forces. Their shared loathing of Netanyahu isn’t enough to bridge the chasm between these political extremes.
Even the fact that the Joint List shrunk from 15 Knesset seats to six in this election didn’t change the political outcome (the breakaway United Arab List said from the start that it wouldn’t recommend Lapid, but only the Religious Zionism party explicitly opposed cooperating with it. The other rightist parties remained vague).
2. Politicians’ love or hatred for each other is meaningless. It provides employment and interest for journalists, advisers, spokespeople, aides, the parties’ public relations people and employees of the Central Election Committee, who have to print the ballot slips. But at the moment of decision, what prevails is ideology, not emotions.
There’s no doubt that President Reuven Rivlin can’t stand Netanyahu and opposes what the prime minister represents and expresses. Nevertheless, at the moment of truth, Rivlin preferred to uphold his principles, follow the law and swiftly give Netanyahu the mandate to form a government instead of resigning in protest or refusing and causing a constitutional crisis.
Netanyahu’s ostensible punishment, receiving the mandate without a photo op at the President’s Residence, changes nothing. At most, he was spared another unnecessary ceremony.
3. Netanyahu isn’t supported by a majority of the public, but he doesn’t need a majority to rule. A cohesive minority that stands behind him is enough to enable him to stay in office time after time and buy a little more time as caretaker prime minister or as head of a “parity government” like the one he formed with Benny Gantz last time.
Sa’ar left Likud and formed his own party in the hopes of changing this reality, but failed. Now the ceremony is over, and all that remains is spin about the maneuvers lying in wait for Netanyahu if he fails to form a government and the mandate is given to Lapid or Naftali Bennett.