To Fend Off Unity Government, Netanyahu Strives to Merge All Parties to the Right of Likud

Netanyahu needs 61 Knesset seats, made up of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the other ultra-Orthodox parties, or he will bid his seat goodbye

Benjamin Netanyahu listens to Brigadier General Avi Blot, his military secretary, during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 2, 2019.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s announcement on Saturday night on Channel 13 News that he would work to establish a unity government instead of a right-wing government took the political world by surprise, except for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is.

For a while now Netanyahu has seen more and more evidence that Lieberman, who is chairman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, is working to take him out and that he has a thought-out, long-range plan the entire purpose of which is to separate Netanyahu from the prime minister’s chair.

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On May 14, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu believes that Lieberman and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon from Kulanu party have been working together to keep him from establishing a government. Netanyahu still suspects Kahlon, and of course suspects that Likud rival Gideon Sa’ar is part of the conspiracy.

Lieberman’s announcement brings the upcoming election into sharper focus: Netanyahu needs 61 Knesset seats, made up of Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the other ultra-Orthodox parties, or he will bid his seat goodbye.

>> Read more: This what Israel's center-left has to do if it wants to take Netanyahu down in the next election ■ 'A promise is a promise,' but as Israel's defense minister, Lieberman left many unfulfilled

Netanyahu has a strategy for victory. First of all, despite his utter abhorrence of Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the leaders of the breakaway Hayamin Hehadash party which did not make it into the Knesset in April election, he does not intend to let them run on their own this time. As he did in the previous election with the Union of Right-Wing Parties and Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir’s party, Netanyahu will get his hands muddy and unify them into one party that will surely pass the electoral threshold. He will tempt them with a variety of ministerial portfolios, positions and promises that only Netanyahu knows how to make (and not keep). All in all, in the previous election Hayamin Hehadash, Zehut and Gesher let 330,000 votes go to waste. Netanyahu intends to make sure that all right-wing voters have a safe address.

Another matter on Netanyahu’s agenda is Kahlon. Netanyahu paid an exorbitant price to bring Kulanu into Likud and ensure that they voted to dissolve the Knesset. He understands that he might be able to buy off Kahlon, but not his voters. Kahlon’s 152,000 voters will be the most sought-after group in the upcoming elections.

As for Lieberman, Netanyahu intends to win votes from Lieberman’s home court of Russian Israelis. Sources in Likud say Lieberman will cross the electoral threshold because he will grow stronger at the expense of Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan, and that his party is trying to shave off two more Knesset seats from the core of the latter party’s Russian-Israeli voters.

The atmosphere in Kahol Lavan, in contrast, is dormant. One of the lessons learnt in the last campaign is the problematic nature of its many improvisations. This time, Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz has no problem being teased on Twitter about his love of poetry and the general lethargy he shows, if only he comes up in the last two months with a well-organized plan.

Kahol Lavan rejoiced on Sunday over Lieberman’s statement that as far as he is concerned, the head of largest party will be the prime minister. Kahol Lavan feared the leakage of left-wing votes to Labor and Meretz because of the idea that the election will be based on blocs, not the largest party. Now Lieberman has brought back into the discussion the idea of the largest party and in order to win, Kahol Lavan intends to break right even more than it did in the previous election.

Lieberman himself is enjoying every minute. After two poor campaigns, he is now at the height of public attention. But he made a risky announcement on Saturday, because if Likud and Kahol Lavan get 61 seats, the government could be established without him. In the meantime, he is promising his colleagues a major decline for Kahol Lavan and a slight decline for Likud, and in either case, that they will need to depend on him.

Lieberman has made a huge gamble in embarking on this election. And like every good gambler, he raises the stakes higher and higher, beaming with happiness until the moment he shows his hand.