4th of July Reception at the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. Tel Aviv, 2011.

It’s been a week of political theater. In the US, Mitt Romney revived hopes for his campaign by trouncing a surprisingly ineffective Barack Obama in the first of three debates. But in Israel, a much more intricate play was being performed. The stars, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, played at fighting, in order to try to garner political points. The final act doesn’t bode well for Israelis, or the Middle East in general.

Thursday, the Speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, called on parliament to vote to disband upon its return from its current hiatus, and force early elections, moving them up from next autumn to February or March. This was the culmination of a week where Barak was accused of undermining Netanyahu both with the Obama Administration and by meeting with other Israeli political leaders. Bibi, for his part, was accused of cynically pretending to fight with his Defense Minister, so Barak could get re-elected to the Knesset, or, alternatively, of overreacting to Barak’s activities.

There’s a method behind the Bibi-Barak madness here. It has long been believed that the Prime Minister would call for early elections, in order to help build a political shield around himself to protect him from public fallout in the wake of a 2013 budget which is going to include drastic cuts to public salaries and children’s benefits. The budget has been sitting and waiting to be debated and voted on by the Knesset for some time. Bibi has continuously put it off.

Early elections are appealing to Netanyahu in other ways. If his position is secure upon the re-election of Barack Obama, this will put him in a stronger position to withstand the US President’s anger at Bibi’s efforts to dislodge him from office. It will also help him stand up to international resistance should he decide to again ramp up his calls for an attack on Iran, and in his ongoing stalemate with the Palestinians. Early elections will also not give Netanyahu’s rivals – former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, ex-Foreign Minister and Kadima leader, Tzipi Livni and former Shas leader Aryeh Deri – enough time to mount a serious threat to Bibi’s position.

But there are risks to early elections as well. Despite the show of public squabbling, it is highly unlikely that Bibi wants to lose Barak as his Defense Minister. That office is the only one that can make serious trouble for any Prime Minister. From the day Netanyahu took office, Barak, whether they got along personally or not, has been squarely on the same page with the PM on security matters.

Barak has also doubled, in essence, as Foreign Minister, and is generally looked at more kindly in other countries than the actual holder of the portfolio, Avigdor Lieberman. He’s also been the go-to when the international community finds it impossible to deal with Netanyahu. The fact that Barak, in contrast to the way he is often received overseas, is possibly the most despised politician within Israel also helps Bibi feel secure politically. It’s hard to imagine anyone Israel’s Prime Minister would rather have in the job, at least among candidates who could match Barak’s military credentials.

But Barak is in real danger of not being elected to the Knesset in the next elections. Though recent polls have his Atzma’ut (Independence) party getting enough votes to make into the next Knesset, the margin is razor thin, and these results stand in contrast with most of the earlier polls, which have Atzma’ut failing to cross the threshold. This lends credence to the analysis offered by Meretz leader, Zehava Gal-On.

“Tensions between the duo of the prime minister and defense minister are coordinated and staged in advance of forthcoming elections, so that Barak can run on the Atzma’ut ticket as though he is working in opposition to Netanyahu, thereby taking votes from the center-left bloc,” Gal-On said. “Make no mistake.  Relations between the prime minister and the defense minister are deep and close. Reports of a rift between the two demonstrate their deep disrespect to the intelligence of the public.”

However, if Barak does get re-elected, Netanyahu ends up in a very advantageous position. While it is quite possible that the ultra-Orthodox Shas party will threaten not to join the next government unless radical revisions are made to the existing 2013 budget, Bibi may well have a good many more potential coalition partners to choose from. The least of those will be the center-right Kadima party, which all polls indicate will decline from its current 28 seats in the Knesset to between four and eight.

Bibi and Barak with Benny Gantz. IDF General Staff meeting, January 2012.

Labor stands to make the biggest gains, and they have not ruled out joining a Likud-led government. Indeed, the current Labor leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has thus far showed that she is more inclined toward domestic issues than international ones, including the issue of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories. It is quite possible that she would join if she got a portfolio that gave her a strong voice on economic and social issues. The new Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party is poised to win as many as a dozen seats and certainly seems like a party Netanyahu could win over.

If either of those parties joined the government, Shas’ threats would lose a lot of weight. If both of them do, it would give Netanyahu a large enough coalition that he would not be forced to give Avigdor Lieberman such a high profile position as the Foreign Ministry again. It would make Bibi very secure in his position, even more so than he is now.

That’s what Netanyahu is seeing as his potential endgame, and that is why he is willing to risk a major economic crisis in Israel by playing games with the new budget. Even if new elections happen in February , that would mean a new budget wouldn’t be in place until late spring or summer. In the meantime, the Israeli economy will be vulnerable and ministries will be underfunded. That’s a high price for a country to pay for its Prime Minister’s political ambitions.

Two points emerge from this assessment. One is that there is no reason to question the expectation that Netanyahu and Likud would win a new election. That is true despite the fact that Bibi’s approval ratings are quite low, generally between 30% and 40%. Many Israelis simply don’t see a better option.

The second, perhaps more disturbing, point is how little the issues of the Occupation and relations with the Arab world figure into this political calculus. Leaders of Labor or Kadima occasionally lob some minor criticism at Netanyahu for the comatose state of the “peace process,” but it is clearly not the place they want to stand against Bibi most strongly. Yet the ease with which Israel currently sees not only relations with the Palestinians, but with the entire Arab world (through the prism of the tensions with Iran,) is not going to last.

Israel’s rightward tilt is continuing. Even if Labor was able to regain enough standing to win more seats in an election than Likud, and even if it could convince Shas to join a coalition government, Labor still wouldn’t have nearly enough seats to form a coalition without the Arab parties, which have never been asked to join a government. This is something that isn’t likely to change in the foreseeable future. Thus, a broad spectrum of the Israeli political sphere, spanning both the majority in the Knesset to the threadbare opposition, has little interest in developing a policy that tries to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, or consider how Israel should deal with a rapidly changing Arab world.

In coming years, with Turkey and Egypt quickly emerging as both regional leaders and as models for integrating popular support for moderate Islamist governments with secular movements, Israel is going to find itself faced with greater regional political and economic pressure to end its siege of the Gaza Strip and accommodate Palestinian national demands and human rights. Such an approach will be much harder for Europe to ignore, and even the United States will have to be concerned about such a coalition. This is a new Middle East which Netanyahu is absolutely unable to comprehend, let alone contend with. With the United States maintaining its Israel-first approach to regional policy, it will find itself equally ill-equipped to find a balance between its special relationship with Israel, and its need to have productive relationships with the Arab world.

In the age of Arab authoritarianism, the balance was tricky, but more feasible, because dictators had ways to channel dissent through anti-Israel rhetoric, while still finding accommodations with Israel and the US. That balance will not be possible with increased public pressure on the matter of Palestine. Yet this reality has had no impact in either the halls of the Knesset, or of Congress. And, while Netanyahu seriously overplayed his hand with Obama this year, he and his lobbying supporters in the US still know very well how to work the US political system, keeping the two countries’ policies closely aligned.

That this unrealistic man has the Israeli political system under his thumb, apparently for years to come, is a disaster for everyone. That there are no feasible alternatives, and that even the opposition seems unlikely to be much of an improvement on Bibi is cause for despair. But this state of affairs cannot hold. When it finally breaks, there will be a shift in these politics. Unfortunately, it is going to take a cataclysm to cause it, and that seems to be where the Israeli-Arab conflict is leading.

Israel can change that calculus. The United States, even with its waning influence in the Middle East, is also still more than powerful enough to change it. But the political tides, sadly, are pushing matters in the opposite direction.

Photographs courtesy of US Embassy Tel Aviv and the Israel Defense Forces. Published under a Creative Commons license.