How Netanyahu Almost Lost the Elections He Just Won

05/08/2015 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 07, 2016

61 is a magical number in Israeli politics. As the Knesset has 120 members, PMs need at least 61 to have a majority and form a new coalition. On the night of 17 March, it seemed that Benjamin Netanyahu scored such a big victory that establishing a new government, based on more than 61, is a foregone conclusion. Well, welcome to the jungle of Israeli politics. Just hours before his legal mandate to form a government expired, the old-new PM managed to do it at the buzzer, sweating all the way to the narrowest possible parliamentary majority. His erstwhile political partner and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stays out -- so no more a fiery nationalist in charge of Israel's international relations.

Outside observers may be tempted to speculate that Lieberman being out indicates a more flexible Israeli approach to issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They are wrong. This issue, which may seem to be the focus of obsessive outside interest in Israel, is almost not mentioned as a major point of discussion in Israel -- not after the elections, and even more importantly, not during the campaign. This is so because the vast majority of Israelis, including many who voted for center-left parties, simply do not believe that any meaningful change in the current status quo is likely any time soon. At any rate, the new Foreign Minister, Netanyahu himself, will speak much better English than the previous guy, but the bottom line will stay the same. Surely, many Palestinian moves, particularly the active encouragement of boycotts of Israel, are extremely damaging -- in fact, feed the right wing narrative in Israel and make it the bon ton of the political discourse. Even if Netanyahu entertains some thoughts about an Israeli initiative, he will have to deal with the huge shadow that Naftali Bennett, leader of the depleted Jewish Home party will cast over him. Depleted in numbers, but more significant in influence and clout because with his eight seats in the Knesset, Bennett holds Netanyahu in the most sensitive of places... Bennett and a new Palestinian initiative is a fantasy to be dreamed about, not to be materialized.

Netanyahu could go to another coalition, with the Labor Party led by the colorless Itzhak Herzog, but he promised his right wing base not to do it, and for a change, kept his promise; but in the process, he became the hostage of the more radical right wingers, rather than their leader. Political scientists can argue the reasons for Netanyahu's failure to transform his great personal achievement just a few weeks ago into a lasting political victory, but the fact is that this new government relying on the ultra Orthodox and the extreme Nationalist right wing, looks anything but a new promise. The only avenue for big change open for Netanyahu is the economic field, but here again he is restricted, because he had to hand over the economic reins to Moshe Kachlon, a politician defining himself as a "true" Likudnik in the Menachem Begin mold. In today's terms, it means populist economic and social policies, much in line with the aspirations of the mostly blue-collar Likud electorate. That said, the problem is that Kachlon may swing the pendulum too much towards the "be good to the people" approach, a policy which if conducted by his election promises can prove to be a problem for foreign investments. Something which the Israeli economy has become blessed with but also much dependent on. Netanyahu will have a tough job on his hands, that of the more responsible guy around, in the face of many Likudniks cheering Kachlon populism. This will be a delicate political job for Netanyahu, because Kachlon wants to be the next Likud leader, and you cannot be an aspirant for Likud leadership if you are a "good to the tycoons" Minister of the Treasury, rather than a man of the people.

Netanyahu's biggest challenge though will be his ability to prevent the constitutional revolution that the Jewish Home party and many in Likud are planning. First and foremost, they intend to weaken the ability of the Supreme Court to supersede Knesset decisions and laws. The former Supreme Court Chief Justice, Aharon Barak, an internationally renowned jurist, enacted the concept of "everything is subject to the court," in effect proving to be a significant and effective barrier to attempts by the right wing, both secular and Orthodox, to enact controversial legislation on issues of state and religion, but also on issues pertaining to the settlements. The new Justice Minister, Ayelet Shaked, a talented but highly controversial politician, is committed to turn back the tables on the Barak revolution. Netanyahu will be the man to either let it go, or else prevent it and by so doing risk the existence of his own coalition.

With 61 only around him, the PM will sweat a lot more than what he has until now, but then, he opted for such a narrow government, and he will have to be THE ONE dealing with its built-in constraints.