Kahlon is still the key to the coalition, but Netanyahu managed to back Bennett into a corner, away from election threats.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves as he arrives at the Elysee Palace after the commemoration ceremony for Armistice Day, 100 years after the end of World War One, in Paris, France, November 11, 2018. (photo credit: REINHARD KRAUSE/REUTERS)


“He’s a magician, he’s a magician,” Likud members have been known to cheer Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at party events.

Netanyahu the magician pulled a rabbit out of his hat, even though, as Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said over the weekend, it looked like there was no hat and no rabbit.

Here we are, after nearly a week in which an early election looked like the inevitable conclusion, and Netanyahu may have staved it off.

This isn’t final, of course. Kahlon remains the wild card. He is the only one who called for an election and has not yet backed down. He still sees a 61-seat coalition as destabilizing and especially disastrous for the balancing budget, because backbenchers will be empowered to make unreasonable demands.

But Kahlon will have to show great political courage to go it alone in pushing for an election, and it’s not clear that he’s able to do that. There have been times he put his foot down and swayed the coalition, but more often than not, he brought about minor changes that allowed him to support moves he had previously opposed, while saving face.

In any case, Netanyahu worked his real magic on Education Minister Naftali Bennett.

First, Netanyahu gave a speech wholly focused on Israel’s security on Sunday night. Yes, he defended his actions thus far, saying that the ceasefire with Hamas, frustrating as it may seem to some, was based on factors he cannot share with the public.

But Netanyahu also vowed that he will take action.

Bennett, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and many of their advisers – at least the ones they listened to – took that vow of action as a turning point, that “now Netanyahu will really act right-wing,” as one Bayit Yehudi source put it.

Netanyahu said quitting was irresponsible and could only be based on petty, personal politics. He warned against repeating past mistakes when right-wing governments were toppled and replaced with left-wing ones.

Netanyahu’s tough talk backed Bennett into a corner and Bennett’s base bought it. Looking at the comments on his social media, people didn’t want Bennett to quit. They wanted Netanyahu in the driver’s seat, with Bennett having a hand on the steering wheel, as Bennett himself put it in the past.

Bennett really did the best he could under the circumstances. His base really would not have forgiven him for leaving a right-wing government, as Netanyahu made sure to remind him repeatedly. Bennett said even Nobel Prize winner and game theory expert Prof. Robert Aumann – who’s also a right-wing, religious-Zionist icon – advised him to stay.

Plus, if his goals are ideological and not just for political advancement, as he said, then quitting would not have helped. He would have no real leverage to pressure Netanyahu to be more hawkish.

Of course, now that Bennett is staying, he comes off as someone who doesn’t follow through on his threats, and that weakens his ability to pressure Netanyahu as well.

The truth is, Netanyahu and Bennett have a semi-symbiotic relationship. Most Bayit Yehudi voters won’t tolerate a full abandonment of Netanyahu. And although he personally can’t stand Bennett or Shaked, Netanyahu knows that he would pay a political price for fully pushing them out of the government, because the Likud likes being the core of a right-wing coalition.

That’s Netanyahu’s magic trick. He saw what was there all along between right-wing voters, Likud and Bayit Yehudi, and he played it exactly right.

Now the question is whether he has some magic left for Kahlon, or if the last resisting coalition partner will bring it all down.

As reported by The Jerusalem Post