The blow suffered by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as a result of the defection from the governing coalition of coalition whip MK Idit Silman brought him down to earth after several weeks of breathing the rarefied air of summits and being portrayed as an important international leader who even mediated between Russia and Ukraine.
His current state of being is survival, survival and survival yet again. In under a year he has in effect found himself in the same situation as his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who for several years has been preoccupied mainly with political survival. Netanyahu reached that point on account of his legal woes, Bennett because he lacks a real political base – both inside and outside the Knesset.
It’s reasonable to assume that Bennett is asking himself what Netanyahu would have done in his place. There are two options. First, if Netanyahu thought he would benefit by calling early elections, he would do so. But for Bennett, nothing good will come of holding elections now, so that possibility is off the table.
The second option, since nothing will be gained by calling elections, is to do everything possible to survive – woo rebellious lawmakers, offer the world to coalition partners who might throw him a lifeline, bribe the ultra-Orthodox parties and scatter unfounded promises indiscriminately.
But Bennett has neither the political power nor the ability to deliver favors. He’s completely dependent on his partners’ willingness to understand him and his situation – and of course their own situation too, as people who don’t want to see Netanyahu return to power.
So Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman will give MK Abir Kara a win in the form of payments to self-employed people to compensate them for losses due to the omicron wave of the coronavirus. For MK Nir Orbach, he’ll cancel a plan to stop day care subsidies for families with only one working parent. The defense and justice ministers, Benny Gantz and Gideon Sa’ar, respectively, will rush to connect illegal settlement outposts to electricity. And Bennett will thereby achieve temporary calm in his oddball party.
This is a minuscule price compared to what Netanyahu would have paid in terms of government funding, appointments and promises if his tenure were threatened. And that raises the question of whether Bennett has heavier ammunition in his arsenal that could guarantee the government’s survival for at least a year. After all, the main ambition of all Israeli prime ministers is to delay the next election for as long as possible, just as the chief of staff’s goal is to delay the next war.
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The answer is that he doesn’t. In fact, his ammunition supply doesn’t depend on him at all, but on his partners – first and foremost Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Lieberman – and on the question of how far they’re wiling to go to expand the governing coalition.
If it were Netanyahu, he wouldn’t hesitate to bribe the ultra-Orthodox parties with a dream package of generous funding for yeshivas and increased child allowances. He would have no problem promising a group of deserters from the opposition two or three senior ministries, the most senior ones available.
That’s why he appointed Lieberman defense minister back in 2016, even though the latter’s party won only five Knesset seats. And that was before it became the in thing to get a senior portfolio with so few seats.
For Bennett to succeed in stabilizing his government and extending its lifespan, he’ll need very creative and expensive moves. And such moves could undermine the governing coalition’s integrity from other directions.
In reality, this poses a dilemma mainly for Lapid and Lieberman. Are they capable of going against their instincts, their voters and what they believe in by offering the ultra-Orthodox the deal of the century – preserving and funding their way of life for years to come?
If Netanyahu were faced with this dilemma, he obviously wouldn’t think twice. His survival would trump any another consideration.
But Bennett and Lapid pretended to pose an alternative – no more sleights of hand and turning a blind eye, but sane management of the country, with all its challenges. And that can lead them in only one direction – survival, but at a reasonable price, until this government reaches the end of its road. They aren’t Bibi.