02/15/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

Netanyahu Needs Three Governments -- He May End Up With None

According to press reports in Israel, PM Netanyahu is facing growing difficulties in forming a new government, something that should come as no surprise to keen observers of the Israeli political scene, as well as to readers of this blog. The results on January 22nd created a complicated situation, and with the absence of a dominant party with over 40 seats, the mathematics of forming a government are almost impossible.

Netanyahu is paying a heavy political price now for two major mistakes which he is personally responsible for, and which are greatly restricting his space of maneuverability these days. The first was the ill-advised merger with Avigdor Lieberman's Israel Beitenu (Israel is our home) party, hailed as a bold move which would create a political block of over 40 seats. Well, hopes notwithstanding, that is exactly what did not happen, and for good reason. Political mergers traditionally fail to bring together under one political roof the entire electoral potential of the merging parties. It is so, because in Israel there are so many parties to choose from, and so people tend to vote for the one party which completely represents their exact political agenda and priorities; and because mergers always mean compromises, the purists consequently turn away from the new party, which fails to precisely reflect their views, to another party, which seems to do exactly that.

In the last elections, it happened to Likud with the rising power in Israeli politics, Naftali Bennett, and his Jewish Home party, which robbed the Likud Beitenu Unified party of seven seats, thus foiling Netanyahu's stated goal of reaching the 40 seats mark and beyond.

Netanyahu's second blunder was his inability to present a coherent defining message of priorities to the Israeli electorate. He touched upon Iran and the dangers of its nuclear program, he referred to the risks facing Israel emanating from the aftermath of the Arab Spring, said something about the economy and social issues, and maintained resounding silence on possible solutions for the stalemated peace process with the Palestinians. The result inevitably was that the vacuum was ably and skillfully filled by the two big winners of the elections, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid (we have a future) party and Bennett. They presented the electorate with clear visions, and they reaped the political dividends.

So, now Netanyahu is faced with a double-edged dilemma; what should be his priorities in his new term, and with whom is he most likely to achieve his goals. In this context we can understand a remark he made, according to which he needs three different governments. One for the purpose of advancing the peace process, one for the much-needed reform of the military draft law, which has exempted until now huge numbers of Yeshiva (religious schools) students from military service, and one for the changes needed to be done in order to reignite the wheels of Israel's economy, a story of success altogether, which has recently shown signs of impending crisis.

Netanyahu may have joked about the task ahead of him, but he definitely is on mark as far as his difficulties are concerned. He can have Lapid in the government, if he thinks about a reform in the military draft law, and possibly also incorporate Bennett in such a coalition, but then he will lose the other Orthodox parties, Shas and Torah Judaism, his natural and traditional partners. Moreover, Lapid and Bennett have conflicting visions about the Palestinian situation. So, a Netanyahu, Bennett, Lapid coalition while numerically possible is politically virtually impossible.

Then Netanyahu has the option of having a small, 61-based coalition of Likud and the religious right including Bennett, but this will be a non-starter for any meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians, and not exactly the kind of government that will make a great impression on Netanyahu's visitor on March 20th, none other than President Barack Obama. Netanyahu may have downgraded the Palestinian subject altogether in his campaign, but the problem is firmly on the agenda, and the Palestinians make clear that it should be high up on the list, as the security situation in the West Bank seems to be deteriorating rather fast, thus serving a very effective note to Netanyahu as well as to the Israeli public at large.

Netanyahu may have other options, all of which require Houdini-type political skills, which he has not always displayed. In short, Netanyahu really needs three governments, but even in Israel you can have only one... and he may very well end up with none. So, it may not be too daring to predict a new round of elections later this year.