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Netanyahu's New Headache: Avigdor Lieberman Is Dragging Him Down

JERUSALEM--Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a confident note at the official launch of his re-election campaign last week, but to anybody who’s been watching Israeli political developments, it’s clear that with three weeks until Election Day, the prime minister suddenly has reasons to be fearful. Not for his job, of course—Netanyahu’s hold on the premiership remains unchallenged—but of the headaches he is suddenly likely to face as he assembles his next governing coalition.

Netanyahu’s re-election was supposed to be a pain-free affair. In late October, Netanyahu shocked the political world when he and hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced that their parties, Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”), would be running on a joint list in the elections. By adding Lieberman's party, Netanyahu hoped to create a large unified rightist bloc that would minimize the concessions small parties usually extort from election victors looking to build a coalition. (Currently, Likud controls only 27 of the 66 Knesset members in the government.)

Initially, the gambit appeared to be paying off. Even after the Likud’s Tea Party-esque primary results last month, "Likud Beiteinu" looked set to duplicate or surpass the 38 seats former Likud prime minister Ariel Sharon won in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada. But in recent weeks, the alliance has steadily hemorrhaged support, and it’s not clear that the bleeding has stopped. Three polls published last week had the list at 34 seats, and another had it down to 33—still nearly double that of the nearest competitor (the center-left Labor Party), but nowhere near the 42 seats the parties currently hold or the 45 forecast by the merger’s mastermind, American political consultant Arthur Finkelstein. (It wouldn't be Finkelstein’s first failed prophecy. Netanyahu was reportedly shocked by the U.S. election results after Finkelstein predicted a four-point Romney victory).

Why the sudden drop in support? Two primary factors seem to be at work.

The first is the surprise fall of Lieberman, who resigned as foreign minister on December 14 after being indicted for working to promote a diplomat who had passed him information about a Belarussian inquiry into his business dealings. The indictment, which followed twelve years of investigations into much more serious offenses (including bribery and money laundering), looked at first like a temporary setback for the Moldovan-born politico (“Indictment is nothing but a small bump in Lieberman’s career,” Haaretz declared on the night of the indictment). Most initially expected Lieberman to reach a plea bargain that would allow him to quickly resume his post with a legal slap on the wrist. But new leads and fresh testimony led the attorney general to strengthen the indictment on Sunday, and the current betting is that it will be several months—if not years—before Lieberman again serves in any ministerial role (if convicted of a crime bearing “moral turpitude,” he will have to resign his Knesset seat as well; if sentenced to a prison term of at least three months, he will be barred from holding office for seven years).

Lieberman has for several years enjoyed a loyal support base, mostly of fellow immigrants from former Soviet countries, but the indictment is clearly hurting his popularity (and Likud Beiteinu’s poll numbers). When asked in a recent Haaretz poll which politician they trusted most, only 5 percent of respondents picked Lieberman, who came in seventh on the question (7 percent wanted to have a beer with Lieberman most and 2 percent said they’d buy a used car from him). One analysis from the Panels polling firm found that, of the 34 seats Likud Beiteinu is projected to win, only five will come from those who voted Yisrael Beiteinu in the last election. Considering how those 34 seats would be apportioned under the union agreement—13 for Yisrael Beiteinu (a loss of just two from its current Knesset strength), 21 for Likud (a loss of six)—it’s clear who’s getting the better deal. Had Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu run separately, Netanyahu could have used Lieberman’s legal troubles against him and probably gobbled up a good chunk of his voting base; now, he has no choice but to defend his running mate.

The second factor behind Likud Beiteinu’s slippage is the rise of Naftali Bennett, the charismatic 40-year-old leader of HaBayit HaYehudi (“The Jewish Home”), the political home of Israel’s national-religious camp. The party, which enjoys strong backing from Jewish settlers in the West Bank and their supporters, is running on a joint list with National Union, the other major pro-settler party. It has only three seats in the outgoing Knesset, but gained much support last month due to right-wing dissatisfaction over Netanyahu’s quick ceasefire with Hamas (Bennett had called for a ground invasion to topple the Hamas government). Likud Beiteinu’s towering lead over its rivals, as well as Bennett’s promise to join a Netanyahu-led government, also seems to have given many right-wing voters the luxury of supporting their first choice (in the same Haaretz "Who do you trust?" question, Bennett scored 14 percent--just six points behind Netanyahu).

Many pundits thought Bennett had pushed his luck when he said in an interview that as a soldier he would refuse orders to evacuate West Bank settlements. Bennett later retracted the remark, but it turned out to be Netanyahu, who subsequently threatened to leave Bennett out of his government, who overplayed his hand. Likud-Beiteinu’s losses have accrued almost exclusively to Bennett, whose party is now polling as high as 15 seats (just one seat behind Labor in one survey). Netanyahu’s recent settlement announcements are widely seen here as an effort to win back some of those voters.

Bennett, who served briefly as Netanyahu’s bureau chief during his last stint as opposition leader, is said to be loathed in the prime minister’s household, particularly by his wife Sara, whose interference in political affairs Bennett apparently tried to stop. In an ideal world, Netanyahu would probably love to construct a coalition without him. But a cursory glance at Israel’s political map reveals why that won’t even be an option.

Assuming no major political earthquakes over the next three weeks, Netanyahu will have two basic routes to a government. Netanyahu’s path of least resistance would be to construct a rightist coalition like his current one. After all, every poll shows Likud Beiteinu, Bennett, and the ultra-Orthodox parties together getting more than the 61 needed for a majority. But if he chooses this route, Netanyahu will almost certainly look to his left to pad that majority, both to claim the mantle of national unity and—more importantly for him—to deny any single party the power of toppling the coalition.

With the departure of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his tiny Independence Party, the most likely candidate to fill that void is journalist-cum-politician Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party is polling at around 10 seats. While Lapid has periodically blasted Netanyahu for the diplomatic standstill with the Palestinians, their positions on core issues are fairly similar. Lapid is opposed to any division of Jerusalem and has talked up the importance of Israel’s major settlement blocs (he unveiled his diplomatic platform in Ariel, the most contentious of Israel’s major settlements). Lapid, however, has been the most outspoken proponent of ending the military-conscription exemption for the ultra-Orthodox, so Netanyahu would have a difficult time reconciling his demands with those of Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Netanyahu’s second option is to create a coalition excluding the ultra-Orthodox parties with the aim of ending the exemption and all other freebies they have won over the decades by joining governments of right and left. This would be a high-reward proposition, as the vast majority of Israelis resent the various privileges given to the ultra-Orthodox. But to make the coalition math work without the 17 seats Shas and United Torah Judaism are expected to get, Netanyahu would have to include not just Lapid but another center-left party (either Labor or the new party of former foreign minister Tzipi Livni). There are indications that Netanyahu is exploring this option (one report said that he had sent emissaries to Livni to discuss her joining his next coalition, though Netanyahu—facing a backlash within his ranks—quashed the rumor).

Such an arrangement would be highly unstable, as either Livni or Bennett would have the power to bring it down. How Netanyahu could manage to please both, with their diametrically opposed views on the peace process, is unclear, though stranger bedfellows have coexisted in previous Israeli coalitions. The odds for such a coalition will increase if Netanyahu can add a few seats from Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a renegade Shas MK who was expelled from the party for calling on his fellow ultra-Orthodox to work and join the army, but most current polls show his party Am Shalem (“Whole Nation”) falling just short of the 2.5-percent threshold needed to enter the Knesset.

The common variable in these two coalition arrangements is Bennett, a man whom most Israelis couldn't pick out of a prison lineup just two months ago. A son of immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett has been doing the rounds on American television lately, making appearances each on CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News (he can been seen here on Huckabee, holding a Fox News microphone and reporting from the Israel-Gaza border during the latest hostilities). Haaretz ran an in-depth interview with him over the weekend. Bennett is, among other things, a vehement opponent of Palestinian statehood and a supporter of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities: In another Huckabee appearance, he asked President Obama to “please let Israel do the job.”

Middle East watchers should become acquainted with Bennett. On January 22, he may become the second most powerful man in Israeli politics.

Ben Birnbaum is a writer living in Jerusalem.