Settlement freeze letter equals tough math for Bibi

Sometimes, it seems like the political survival of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu all comes down to math. 

In 2011, he subtracted eight coalition members to keep his government stable. In 2012, he added Yisrael Beiteinu’s 15 Knesset members to his Likud to win an election. In 2013, he convinced the pro-two-states Hatnua and anti-two-states Jewish Home to govern together. Sixty-eight MKs in a coalition is, after all, better than 62.

But 2014 might be the year when the math works against Bibi. His decision to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority looks to have slim chances of success. But if a deal does come before the Knesset, Bibi’s going to have issues — and in his own party, no less.

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In the Forward about a month ago, JJ Goldberg rightly calculated that a substantial majority of the Knesset would likely support a peace deal. The prime minister’s problem, though, is that most of his Likud party probably wouldn’t.
A letter 21 MKs sent to Bibi this week advocated against a freeze on settlement building, calling such a move a “breaking point.”

Fourteen of those MKs were from the prime minister’s own Likud-Beiteinu. That’s already nearly half of the 31-member faction, and it doesn’t count members like Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, Interior Minister Gideon Saar or the several other MKs who have opposed a freeze but who didn’t sign because they’re ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Opposing a settlement freeze isn’t the same as opposing a Palestinian state, but it’s a safe bet that people against freezing settlements would also be against uprooting them en masse to make way for Palestinian statehood.

Opposition to two states within Likud is nothing new. Commentators have suggested that to push a deal through, Bibi might have to split the party like Ariel Sharon did in 2005 to pass Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.

Netanyahu, however, is not Sharon. He is risk-averse; Sharon, nicknamed “the Bulldozer,” was not. Bibi tends to seek compromise; Sharon had no problem going his own way.

And Bibi is a party man. He’s spent his whole political career with the Likud, unlike Sharon, who parted with it twice — in 1974 and again in 2005. It’s worth noting that three of Bibi’s coalition partners — Avigdor Liberman, Naftali Bennett and Tzipi Livni — all left Likud to join or found other parties. Not so with Netanyahu.

Negotiations are far from over. But if they do end with an agreement, Bibi may have to choose between the majority of the Knesset and the majority of his own party.

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Ben Sales is JTA’s Israel correspondent. He reports on Israeli politics, culture, society and economics, in addition to covering Palestinian and regional affairs. A graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and the Columbia University Journalism School, he is the former editor-in-chief of New Voices, the national Jewish student magazine.