Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel. This we know. The world also knows how he campaigned in the final days of the election, and is repulsed by how he did so. After following an imperial "Rose Garden" tactic of avoiding the press, in the last 5 days of the campaign Bibi went on a media frenzy, and in the course of those 5 days he morphed comfortably into a right-wing demagogue, Lee Atwater style, in which he volunteered out loud a series of positions that revealed his inner ideological heart, including a last-minute racist scare warning that "Arab voters are streaming to the polling stations." It was ugly, it was shocking, and while it worked, it has caused the Obama White House to use the dreaded "R" word - "reassessment." In order to win this election at all costs, Bibi purged his Likud party of the worst extremists, snubbed President Obama by holding a campaign rally in the halls of Congress, and in the end loudly retracted his 2009 commitment to a 2-state solution. It was a winning strategy, but it came with a painful price on the world stage.
Yesterday Bibi unconvincingly spoke again to the media - this time to Andrea Mitchell of NBC News, and this time in English, using his governing persona instead of his campaigning persona. He tried to walk it all back. It was a pathetic performance. Bibi won the electoral battle, but lost the bigger war for international legitimacy.
In the not so complicated schizophrenia that is Benjamin Netanyahu, there is the inner Bibi for domestic consumption (in Hebrew), and the public Bibi for the diplomatic community (in English). The two are not the same. And Netanyahu is smart enough to know that Israel needs the continued support of its principal ally, and that what he had to do to win has now placed his next premiership at risk with the European Union, with the White House, and even with American Jews.
There is only one path for Bibi to extract himself from the sullied victory he just achieved - a national unity government that projects some kind of softer image to the world. While Netanyahu can certainly say "fuck all of you" and opt for a narrow right-nationalist-religious coalition government, he knows that if he does so the international isolation and US administration anger will not abate. "Fortress Israel" will simply not work. Netanyahu will at least have to consider the option of a broader national unity government in order to paint lipstick on his pig.
For this he needs help from Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor Party and co-chair of the newly created (for this campaign cycle) Zionist Union with Tzipi Livni. Tzipi Livni is a perennial failure, surpassing Shimon Peres for the title of Israel's "The Biggest Loser." Livni is another example of an Israeli politician much more popular abroad than at home.
She was a child of Likud all her political life, but like many others broke with her political home base when Ariel Sharon grew tired of Likud infighting and created the Kadima party. She actually once won an election in 2009 as head of Kadima, but because of her uncompromising negotiating style allowed a government to slip out of her hands. She was ousted internally from Kadima, temporarily retired from politics, and then reconstituted herself as a tiny vanity party - ha-Tenu'ah. Her odyssey from Likud royalty to moderate international diplomat eventually brought her to Labor - but not as a Laborite. For the umpteenth time, weakened Labor tried a "combina" - a sleazy opportunistic merger - in an effort to create a "big tent" centrist alternative to right-wing Likud. They called it the Zionist Union. Herzog and Livni even came up with their own internal "rotation" plan, promising the Israeli electorate that if they should win, the two would rotate the premiership over the course of its four-year life expectancy. The merger spectacularly failed, and as polling indicated just how reviled Livni was with the electorate, the two leaders gamely retracted the rotation plan on the eve of the election. It didn't help. So much for the big tent.
Of the 24 seats now held by the Zionist Union, 5 belong to Livni. Labor by itself would remain the 2nd largest party in the Knesset. The Zionist Union serves no further purpose. It is time to put a stake through its heart. Either Herzog should break the Zionist Union, or Livni should resign.
So here is a scenario - Bibi needs to repair the damage. Herzog leads a bloc of 19 seats without toxic Livni. Isaac Herzog as Foreign Minister would be precisely the antidote to Bibi's now thrice-revealed inner heart.
In order to manage and staunch the crisis of an American reassessment, Bibi needs a national unity government. But domestically, a good part of the purpose of this campaign was to be rid of Livni forever. For Netanyahu, Livni is the poison pill of national unity. If she were gone, Bibi could form a broad-based government. It doesn't hurt that Labor has served this junior role more than once in Likud- or Kadima-led governments. So try this:
And you have 66 seats. Add Yahadut ha-Torah and/or one of the two right-wing parties ha-Bayit ha-Yehudi or Yisrael Beytenu and you approach 80 seats. National Unity. A dysfunctional inner cabinet. Another two-faced self-contradictory government - but that is the only way out of the isolation chamber Bibi has created for himself.
I admit this is a long-shot proposition. But it is the only way the next 22 months of a Netanyahu-led government can hope to have any respectability in the international arena.
It's precisely the kind of chicanery that comes up in every coalition-building negotiation. It's sleazy and opportunistic, hypocritical and devious.
After all, this is Israeli politics.