All is not all quiet in Netanyahu's coalition. Having a strong and supposedly stable majority, having the poll numbers with which to sustain such a majority, the Prime Minister is still walking on thin ice. His future largely depends on John Kerry's ultimate draft proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan (the unsurprising details were leaked to Friedman), and on Mahmud Abbas' response to the American document. If Abbas accepts the American principles, and possibly even if not, Netanyahu will be forced to also accept them. If he does, he might lose his coalition. His party, the Likud, will become uncontrollable over both ideological objections and the fear of future primaries that will punish any supporter of the Kerry plan.
His coalition partner, Habayit Hayehudi, is already uncontrollable, and while its leader (Naftali Bennett) would be reluctant to leave his ministerial post so soon, mounting pressure from the voters and from within the party might leave him with no other option. In fact, he may even decide to ride this wave of objectionism and become the undisputed leader of Israel's right. This might explain the ugly confrontation between Bennett and Netanyahu in recent days (details bellow).
What happens if the coalition crumbles? Netanyahu can choose to form a new coalition, possibly with the Labor Party under its new leader, Yitzhak Herzog, as his new partner. Or he can opt out for new elections and run on a platform that includes the Kerry document as a key component. According to all polls, Netanyahu is the only political leader that Israelis deem fit to be the Prime Minister at this time, so it is likely that Netanyahu can win running on such a platform. Still, the question of Party affiliation is a tough one – would Netanyahu dare to leave the Likud Party? And going into election is always a tricky move: you can go in strong and end up losing (Netanyahu knows this more than most other politicians: his first great victory was the surprise upset of Shimon Peres' Labor six months after the Rabin assassination).
Some details about the fracturing coalition: the Kerry document is going to be submitted soon, that much is clear. But the type of reception it will receive is still vague. There are many difficulties as the two sides – Israel and Palestine – are digging their heels in the sand. One day the Palestinian send a message according to which the document will be a victory, and on the other they predict that they will reject the plan altogether. Netanyahu is also sending conflicting messages, and it is not always clear if it is Kerry he is trying to confuse or maybe the voters at home. After his meeting with Kerry in Davos, Netanyahu stated that he will not evacuate any settlement. That is hardly a script to which the Palestinians are likely to accept – not even if, as one of Netanyahu's aids explained the next day, the settlements that choose to stay will be under Palestinian rule.
If the message of no evacuation was the aspirin intended to calm down the right flank of the coalition, the message of settlers in Palestine seemed like the aspirin he was throwing to calm down the man to his left, Kerry. But the result was a major battle of big egos with Bennett. "The idea that Jewish communities will live under Palestinian sovereignty, as expressed by the Prime Minister's Office, is a very grave matter, and it reflects a panicked loss of values”, said Bennett of Netanyahu. He is right: it is a dangerous proposition. Yet he was wrong to make this a personal battle rather than one over a policy. Netanyahu and Bennet mutually disliked each other to begin with, and Bennett's combination of having a big mouth and a big ego makes it impossible for Netanyahu to forget how much he doesn't like him.
Following Bennett's comments on Netanyahu's "loss of values", the Prime Minister's office blamed the minister of damaging and disrupting Netanyahu's quest to "expose" Palestinian rejectionism. Today the PM's office upped the ante by hinting that if Bennett doesn't apologize to the Prime Minister he might lose his job – meaning his party will be thrown out of the coalition. There are "alternatives" to Bennett, as the people close to Netanyahu explain. That is possible, but not at all certain. And even if there are alternatives to Bennett, there are no alternatives to the Likud Party – and that party, the PM's party, is far from being a reliable backer of Netanyahu's policies.
Bennett was hardly alone in criticizing the Prime Minister for his suggestion that settlers might live under Palestinian rule. Some ideas, a senior Likud member told me, are better not said, not even as a clever distraction, not even as part of an attempt to "expose" Abbas' refusal to accept any plan. "Remember Ehud Barak's brilliant idea to expose Arafat and where it got us", he told me. Yes, he agreed, Arafat was exposed as a terrorist and as an unworthy leader, but the result was a wave of terrorism, and a later return to the proposals made by Barak. In recent days, very few senior Likud members have agreed to defend the PM's position in public (Tzahi Hanegbi is the exception).
Of course, all of this might be much ado about nothing. Yet the more screaming one hears from the right, the more one gets the impression that something is cooking that is highly troubling for its members. And the more Netanyahu plays hardball with Bennett, the more one gets the feeling that he is looking for either an excuse to reshuffle his coalition in a way that will make it possible for him to accept the Kerry document – or for a way to simply impress Kerry with his seriousness. Here is a Prime Minister that is willing to go as far as risking his coalition in his quest for peace.
Whatever the case, I'd bet on Netanyahu to win this round with Bennett. He is more experienced, has more tricks in the bag, and more cards to play with, at least for now (just remember how it took him very little time to make YairLapid – the supposed great rival – seem small).
Still, this round is only a prelude to more rounds. And it is a sign of a coalition in real trouble. Yes, according to the polls the coalition has a reasonable majority with which to pass legislation and make important decisions. But the poll picture doesn't tell the whole story (and we apologize for some problems with J Meter because of the transition to the new site, it will all be fixed soon. Nevertheless, our poll-trend page is updated – take a look). The real story is that the coalition is stable as long as it doesn't pass important legislation; it is stable if it doesn't need to make important decisions. The coalition is perfectly capable of ruling Israel – but not if Kerry has it right, not if Israel and the Palestinians truly are at a "critical point".
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