A sign of weakness: On the Netanyahu-Lieberman deal

Netanyahu is building his coalition before the elections rather than after them – and at a greater price. Avigdor Lieberman has made a huge step on his way to becoming the Likud’s next leader.

A few takeaways from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to run in the next elections under a large, ultra-nationalist bloc consisting of his own Likud party and Avigdor Lieberman’s Israel Beiteinu.

1. The joint bloc is likely to get fewer seats than the two parties could have gotten together if each of them ran on its own, because some voters from each party might be turned off by the presence of the other party’s candidates on the tickets. Likud could lose Mizrahi supporters to Shas and religious voters of the National Religious Party, while Lieberman might see some potential voters moving to Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, which will now be the only anti-Orthodox voice left. Common wisdom is that Lieberman has an equal share of Russian and Israeli-born Jewish supporters, with the latter not being long time right-wing voters, and therefore more likely to move away from him.

The only way the joint ticket might actually gain support will be if voters tend to prefer big parties to smaller ones, but this is less likely in the current elections, which seems to be more ideological than previous ones we had.

2. Netanyahu and Lieberman understand this risk, and they had different reasons to unite their parties. The prime minister is trying to form his coalition before the elections, and the joint ticket makes it clear that Lieberman will stay on his side, regardless of the result of the vote. This pact is a sign of weakness – Netanyahu wouldn’t have gone for it if he thought he would have more power after the elections. The price will be paid by Likud’s moderates and backbenchers.

The deal is meant to secure the prime minister role for Netanyahu even in a case of a relative failure in the polls. If the new list – named Likud Beitenu – gets around 40 seats (it has 42 now), Netanyahu is certain to be the only candidate who can form the next government, and other parties will have much less bargaining power after the elections.

As for Lieberman, running with the Likud puts him in an excellent position to succeed Netanyahu somewhere down the road. This has always been his goal. Furthermore, Lieberman’s numbers in the polls weren’t that great lately, and he would have been lucky to maintain his current strength. By running under Netanyahu he saved himself the troubles of being tested in the polls.

3. An instant poll conducted by Panels research company on Thursday had some interesting results. It showed the Lieberman-Netanyahu list with only 34 seats, and for the first time, the right-Orthodox block had only 60 seats – exactly half of the Knesset’s 120, and short of a secured majority. Panels conducts its polls on the internet with a relatively small sample, so some caution is needed here. But even if this were to be the outcome of the elections, the center and the left are so fragmented that it is hard to see anyone but Netanyahu forming the next government. The bottom line is that not much has changed.

4. I don’t share the feeling, expressed by Larry Derfner here or by Haaretz’s editor Aluf Benn, that the new bloc would result in a more aggressive coalition, one that is more likely to attack Iran, for example. Netanyahu will face the same reluctant army and skeptic ministers if he tries to push for an attack again, and this time he might not have Defense Minister Ehud Barak on his side. The Likud Beiteinu list, however, could be a much more dangerous party on domestic issues, where Lieberman has a clear agenda.

5. The unification of Likud with the ultra-nationalist, and often racist Israel Beitenu, should serve as a lesson to all those who somehow bought – and at times, pushed – the narrative of “the moderate Netanyahu.” Think of all the statements from Netanyahu regarding his desire to renew direct negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. At the same time, Netanyahu was actually negotiating with Lieberman, who wants to replace Abbas with a new, even more comfortable, puppet president.

There is no moderate flank to this government, just as there is no moderate side to Netanyahu. By now, he is the longest serving prime minister Israel has had, after David Ben-Gurion. On the eve of his third election victory, it’s time to see him for what he is: an ultra-nationalist who will do everything in his power to colonize and hold on to every inch between the river and the sea.