Likud's decision to hold early primary elections was a snowball. Netanyahu
rolled it, and from that moment he lost control. The coalition, which up until that moment conducted itself calmly and showed remarkable discipline, went wild. Then he did an about-face and brought Kadima into the government. When the maneuver exploded in his face, he no longer had a coalition he could count on. He went to elections.
Netanyahu did not mean to waste state funds on fees to Feiglin
and his associates. He did not wish to open another front against the Obama
Administration in Ariel.
He merely wanted to survive. His second term as prime minister can be summed up in one word: Survival. When Netanyahu reached the conclusion that he could no longer be certain that Lieberman would recommend to the president that he form the next government, he agreed to merge Likud with Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu. Netanyahu is consistent, in his own way: The political moves he made over the past year appeared to be zigzagging, but they all served the same purpose.
It is not Netanyahu who changed; it is the character of Likud's registered members that changed. He followed the herd. The current elections belong to the kippot srugot (knitted yarmulkes). The old, secular elite that was identified with the Labor movement disappeared a long time ago, and it was replaced not by a Sephardic elite or a secular-rightist elite, but by a generation of Ashkenazi religious-nationals who are politically ambitious. They are dominant in Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi just as they are dominant within Netanyahu's Likud. Their time has come.
Netanyahu is clinging to the status quo. If he ever had any revolutionary visions, they have all dissipated. Former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin accused the PM of not having a strategy vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue, but he was wrong. Netanyahu does have a strategy: To keep things the way they are, with autonomous enclaves for Hamas in Gaza and for Fatah in the West Bank. His strategy is no different from Bennett's. The Habayit Hayehudi leader also believes that it is best to do nothing, as long as the settlement enterprise continues to thrive (his party list consists of a few radical rightists. They will give him hell until they split from the party).
Netanyahu has based his campaign on the public's satisfaction with the status quo. The economy is fine; employment is fine; security also. There is no other candidate. Why make a change? Therefore, he planned a dull, sleepy campaign – daily helicopter flights and photos with soldiers –that's it.
But the Israeli voter is a worrisome creature. Stalemate causes Israeli voters discomfort. Vagueness irritates them. They are suspicious. As expected, the merger between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu resulted in the loss of support of many voters who either hate Likud or hate Yisrael Beiteinu. But the bleeding did not stop there. The two parties, together, have 42 seats in the current Knesset. They will jump for joy if they win 35 mandates in next week's election.
Many governments around the world are wondering how Netanyahu will conduct himself in his third term as prime minister. Will he embark on a military adventure in Iran? Will he try to reach an agreement with the Palestinians? Will he continue to fight with Obama or will he reconcile with the American leader?
I am not at all certain that Netanyahu himself knows. It is better to examine the environment in which he will be operating; the ministers who will serve in his cabinet; the coalition that will be established. The coalition will act in accordance with the principles of its rightist members. If Netanyahu's conduct during the 18th Knesset is any indication, he will just toddle behind it.