Likud is no longer the largest party in the Knesset

Netanyahu now has the same number of seats as his main coalition partner, Yair Lapid. This leaves him at the mercy of his arch-rival, President Reuven Rivlin, if the coalition would need to be reshuffled without new elections being called. 

Up until mid last month, Netanyahu’s coalition enjoyed a reasonably obvious hierarchy. The Likud-Beitenu list led with 31 seats; Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid followed with 19; Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home barely caught up with 12; and Tzipi Livni’s Hatnua closed the list with 6.

This classical enough arrangement suffered its first blow in mid- July, when Avigdor Liberman unilaterally broke off the Likud-Beitenu alliance, taking his party’s 11 seats and leaving Netanyahu with 20. But since last Wednesday even this flimsy pyramid unraveled, sliding instead into a gridlock alliance between several identically sized parties: Likud now has 19 seats, as does Yesh Atid; and Yisrael Beitenu has 12 seats, just like Jewish Home. Tzipi Livni still has 6.

The following is a timeline of how this came about:

December 2013:  Carmel Shama-Hacohen, a junior ex-MK who narrowly lost his seat in the last elections (and thus would be next in line if someone in the Likud-Beitenu was to give up their seat), is offered the position of Israel’s ambassador to the Paris headquarters of the OECD. The offer is made by Avigdor Liberman, then-chair of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

28 May 2014: After several increasingly divisive attempts to undermine the presidential candidacy of former Knesset chair, Reuven Rivlin, Netanyahu is forced to admit defeat and offer Rivlin his support.

29 May 2014: Liberman (now reinstated as foreign minister)  declares his party still won’t support Rivlin, while publicly accusing Netanyahu of going behind his back. The rift is now official.

10 June 2014: Rivlin is elected President, and automatically resigns his Knesset seat, which is passed on to Carmel Shama-Hacohen.

7 July 2014: Liberman splits up the Likud-Beitenu alliance, leaving Netanyahu at the head of a 20-seat faction instead of 31, and taking 11 seats for himself.

6 August 2014 Carmel Shama-Hacohen takes up the OECD ambassador post and resigns his seat in the Knesset.

6 August 2014: Owing to a clause of the electoral agreement between Yisrael Beitenu and Likud, Shama-Hacohen’s place is taken by Yisrael Beitenu MK Alex Miller.

Likud 19, Yesh Atid 19, Habayit Hayehudi 12, Yisrael Beitenu 12, Hatnua 6. 

This is not a death knell for  Netanyahu, who became prime minister in 2009 by offering a more generous coalition deal to the ultra-Orthodox parties than did Tzipi Livni, even though she had the lead over Netanyahu by one seat. Nor does it pave Liberman a path to premiership: 12 seats is still 12 seats, and he is still despised by the Israeli electorate who sees him as the right-wing leader least suitable to be prime minister. In fact, it is not immediately clear what Liberman gains in the short term from all this maneuvering, other than greater independent leverage and the freedom to attack Netanyahu without being accused of disloyalty.

But it does put Netanyahu in a tricky situation. If the coalition was to fall without new elections being called, he would have only as good a claim to be entrusted with composing the new coalition as Yair Lapid, and the man to make the call would be Reuven Rivlin. This is the same Reuven Rivlin whom Netanyahu humiliatingly dismissed from his previous post as speaker of the Knesset, and all but committed political suicide to stop from becoming president.

Rivlin has always preferred party over personal interest, so he would probably lean toward Likud regardless. This still makes Netanyahu’s position pretty precarious; if it became apparent that the rift with Rivlin is what stands between the Likud and the next cabinet, the Likud itself would want to get Netanyahu out of the way. The Likud is famously pride of not being as patricidal as its traditional rival, Labour, but Netanyahu is already well on the path from leader to liability, with discontent growing among the rank and file.

If Netanyahu was to be eased out, the most likely consensus candidate to succeed him would be Gideon Sa’ar, touted already for some time as the heir apparent and coincidentally the man who rallied Likud back around Rivlin, delivering him the presidency in the nick of time. Other possibilities, such as Lapid ganging up with the increasingly “centrist” and “pragmatist” Liberman also shouldn’t be discounted.

Either way, Netanyahu is now with his back against the wall – he is at his weakest in any of his three terms, and nearly as weak as Shamir was in the infamous deadlock unity government with Shimon Peres in the 1980’s (Netanyahu’s stunning disregard for international opinion over Gaza should be seen also in this context – he is simply infinitely more concerned about critics much closer to home).

One way to break out of the deadlock would be to call early elections; Netanyahu’s approval ratings are sky high, while Liberman and Lapid, at least, are slumping. Even if someone in his circles is already pushing the idea, elections a mere two years into a term is never a good sign, and at any rate, would seem too self-centered to call when the war isn’t technically over. But unless something in the composition of the coalition changes dramatically in the next few months, he might have no other reasonable choice.

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