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Netanyahu's government: from here it's all downhill

The current government has reached the end of the road. Soon, Netanyahu will have to chose between changing his coalition to new elections

Benjamin Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister’s office determined not to repeat the mistakes of his previous term, those that led to his premature downfall in 1999. This time, he enjoyed a better starting point: unlike his first term, Netanyahu has a strong rightwing majority in the Knesset, and he was able to cover his left flank by pulling Labor into the government.

But things didn’t work out as Netanyahu expected, and people familiar enough with Israeli politics already predict that the current government has reached the end of its road. Knesset Speaker and Likud member Rubi Rivlin even predicted that by the end of the current Knesset session, six months from now, the date of the next elections will have been set.

The cracks in Netanyahu’s coalition are easy to spot. Netanyahu’s most important coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, was quoted today In Israel’s leading tabloid, Yedioth Ahronoth, criticizing the Prime Minister for his demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“We don’t need an aggressive Winston Churchill now, but a De Gaulle,” said Barak, according to Yedioth. Churchill is Netanyahu’s role model; De Gaulle is the President that ended French occupation in Algeria.

Barak is the weakest link in the coalition, and he is just about to break. He has been under pressure for supporting Netanyahu from the day he entered his government, and he can’t hold out much longer. A Haaretz editorial already called for the resignation of Labor ministers because of the Loyalty Oath bill, top labor officials have left Barak’s camp one after the other, and Maariv’s top story today was a declaration by MK Avishay Braverman that he will run for Labor’s leadership.

Barak feels the heat. He stopped defending Netanyahu in public a while ago, and it seems as if he is preparing the ground for his departure from the coalition (the other option, that he would leave Labor and stick by Netanyahu, doesn’t seem very likely now).

Netanyahu’s senior partner on the Right, Avigdor Lieberman, smells blood as well. When Lieberman was on Netanyahu’s side, he kept quiet and never doubted the peace process in public. Now he does it at the UN, much to the dismay of the Netanyahu. Lieberman might be forced to leave the government soon because of a police investigation on corruption charges, and he probably wants his exit to be noisy. Like Barak, he wants to show voters that he left power behind for ideological reasons.

There are other signs that the Prime Minister doesn’t enjoy the same respect within his coalition or even his party. Politicians have a great sense for weakness, and if Netanyahu wasn’t getting weaker, Knesset Speaker Rivlin – who wants to succeed Peres as president and needs the Prime Minister’s support for that – would have never challenged him publicly. The game has changed: now Netanyahu needs Rivlin more than Rivlin needs Netanyahu.

What’s now?

One thing is clear: in the current Knesset, the only possible Prime Minister is Netanyahu. Tzipi Livni (Kadima) cannot have a majority without either Lieberman or Netanyahu himself as partners, and she probably won’t have any of them. Assuming there is no immediate breakthrough in the peace process (or a war…) and Labor does leave the government, we are left with the following scenarios:

A. New centrist government: Netanyahu declares he wants to move forward in the peace process, and invites Kadima to join him. Even if Livni agrees, such a deal won’t last for long, as Kadima might think that it’s in her interest to break the partnership sooner than later. Netanyahu knows that, so he hesitates on turning to Livni. UPDATE: as I’m writing this, Haaretz reports that Netanyahu is considering having Kadima join his government.

B. New extreme-right government: Labor leaves the coalition and Netanyahu relies on the right for staying in power. That would make him the most “lefty” element in his coalition – a very bad position for a PM. The settlers would make his life miserable, and the international pressure would become unbearable. Result: early elections.

C. Elections: according to Israeli law, when the government falls, new elections must be held in three months. In reality, when the government is about to fall, it sets up a date for new elections much further away (usually in six to eight months), so the Prime Minister can remain in power and engage in a long campaign which is not dominated by a crisis atmosphere. If Netanyahu is cornered, he might go for elections, especially if he feels that there is not a powerful challenger around. Right now, there isn’t any one, but if Tel Aviv’s mayor Ron Huldai chooses to run [Heb], he might be the strongest candidate the Left had in years.

I think Netanyahu hasn’t made up his mind regarding the choices he faces. He views the current coalition as the best one for him, so he’ll probably wait to see how the midterm elections in the US affect him and hope that the blame for the failure of the peace process will fall on the Palestinians (Israeli representatives in Washington are already working to make sure it does).

Eventually, and without some sort of external development that would save him, I think Netanyahu would prefer to change his coalition than to have early elections. If Kadima enters his government, we might have another round of meaningless talks with the Palestinians before things break up again.

If, however, Netanyahu turns to the Right, things might get really crazy.

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