The election campaign season comes to its real conclusion this week with the formation of the government and an unadulterated victory for the right. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recovered from the blow he took at the ballot box and managed to extract the maximum out of the coalition negotiations he conducted with Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi head Naftali Bennett. The old fox schooled the political greenhorns.
Netanyahu began the negotiations after a month of futile idling that was meant to weaken his partners' negotiating positions: the highly publicized tiff with Bennett, the crocodile tears over separating from his Haredi former coalition partners, the offer of the Finance Ministry to Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich and the promise of renewed talks with the Palestinians to Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni. When all the political spin had settled, the dice came out in Netanyahu's favor: Foreign and defense policy will remain in the hands of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, Lapid has been kicked over to the Finance Ministry and Habayit Hayehudi will be a junior coalition partner.
The coalition negotiations were characterized by an excessive preoccupation with minor distractions like the hatred for Sara Netanyahu, the number of ministers in the new government or the production of a Lapid victory photo without Haredim. Substantive topics like foreign or defense policies were pushed aside in the discussions, except for Netanyahu's weekly warning about the Iranian nuclear threat and the dangerous situation in Syria. Even economic policy was pushed aside to the margins, if it was discussed at all.
Netanyahu cut his rival and partner Lapid down to size. The prime minister presented him as a vacuous politician chasing after respect and ratings, as someone who wanted to be pampered at the Foreign Ministry instead of finding out "where the money" is going in the Finance Ministry, as he frequently asked ahead of the election. At the end of last week Lapid surrendered to the pressure campaign in the media and assumed the troublesome task he had tried to shirk. He also failed in ridding the government of unnecessary ministerial portfolios like "Jerusalem" and "Diaspora Affairs."
Now the game has ended and real life will begin. The third Netanyahu government has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of "a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria." This magic number will thwart the division of the land and prevent once and for all the establishment of a Palestinian state. The defense, and housing and construction ministries that are relevant to this issue will be given to Likud MK Moshe Ya'alon and Habayit Hayehudi MK Uri Ariel. They won't be assuming these positions in order to freeze settlement construction, but rather to implement the Levy report which determined that Israel was not legally-speaking an occupying power in the West Bank and the Habayit Hayehudi platform; or in other words, to gradually absorb the West Bank into Israel.
Netanyahu has used the term "the math" to explain the political difficulties that prevented him from being more flexible toward the Palestinians. That was in the previous Knesset term, when moderates like Ehud Barak and Dan Meridor were in senior government positions. In the new government, the math acts with abundant force against a compromise in the territories. The radical right wing is strengthened and united, and those who would claim Netanyahu's mantle need the settlers' support and will do everything in order to bribe them and make them happy.
Lapid and Livni are supposed to represent the foreign policy moderates, but they will have a tough time competing to be heard over ministers Ya'alon, Bennett, Gideon Sa'ar, Avigdor Lieberman and Yair Shamir. Lapid will be bought with trifles like the Sharing of the Civic Burden Law so that billions of shekels will continue to flow into the settlements, and Livni is too weak to have much influence.
Netanyahu's key task will be buying some quiet on the Palestinian issue to permit the expansion of the settlements at the small price of international condemnation. He will continue with the successful ploy from his previous term: threatening an attack on Iran and Syria, which are drawing American attention. Barack Obama is busy with calming the Iranian front and preventing an eruption in and around Syria, and is ignoring Israel's actions in the territories. This is the deal that Netanyahu will strive to achieve with Obama during their meetings next week in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has lost his drawing power at the ballot box but leveraged to his benefit the rift in the opposing camp and formed a government that is outwardly aggressive and inwardly nationalistic. He has bound to himself the ambitious Lapid and Bennett, who will make an effort to prove themselves, and left out in the cold the hungry-eyed Haredim who will seek to utilize every crack in the coalition to crawl back into government. And as a final bonus, Netanyahu lowered the expectations of the Likud's incumbent ministers, who gave up their dreams of an office upgrade and pleaded to be allowed to stay in their old ones. Impressive results in comparison with the disappointing election campaign of the "strong" Prime Minister Netanyahu.
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