Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a daunting task coming out of April’s election. Although the numbers tilted in favor of a right-wing coalition, the prime minister’s express goal was the passage of some sort of immunity law, requiring extra legwork on his part to satisfy all of his potential coalition partners, a number of whom were already making extraordinary or unreasonable demands. But few would have predicted what elapsed last night: refusing to yield to pressure, Yisrael Beiteinu head Avigdor Liberman stood his ground in insisting that either a controversial ultra-Orthodox draft law be accepted or face the likelihood of new elections, running down the clock and forcing Likud members and others to dissolve the Knesset before any other MKs in the opposition had a crack at coalition building.

While a proposal to create a government of 60 mandates had been deemed unacceptable by Kulanu head Moshe Kahlon, he ultimately decided, in anticipation of possible new elections, to rejoin Likud’s slate (much to the consternation of a number of actual sitting Likud MKs). The reactions of these politicians to the current crisis and to Netanyahu’s machinations tells a fascinating story of two former disciples whose trajectories have led them to very different places, both confirming and challenging the narrative that Netanyahu is a political magician capable of putting rivals in their place. More depressingly, it points to a recurring theme in Israeli politics of electoral survival trumping all else, a trait not exclusive to any one politician.

Kahlon’s ultimate capitulation to Netanyahu—there’s no particularly kind way of putting it—is a distinct fall from grace from the heady days in which the Kulanu head was celebrated (and derided) as a possible successor to the prime minister following his cell phone revolution back in 2012. Pushed out of the Likud and returning to the political scene in 2015 with his own party, Kahlon was successful in selling himself as a then-moderate alternative, offering a principled opposition to right-wing extremism and promising to protect the integrity of the High Court at all costs. And in the last Knesset with 10 seats, he stuck, more or less to his word.

Yet in returning to the Knesset in 2019 with a paltry four mandates, said integrity seems to have all but vanished. While prior to the election Kahlon was adamant in stating that his party would not sit with a prime minister under indictment or allow himself to be absorbed into Likud, the reaction of MK Roy Folkman in the face of protestors told a different story: Kulanu was now “unequivocally” in support of a law to override the courts, and did not have any issues in joining Netanyahu’s coalition despite his legal troubles. He is, for the time being, no longer interested in building himself up as a possible inheritor of right-wing leadership, but in simply surviving. The prime minister, it seems, has succeeded once again in subduing one of his political challengers and bringing him back under his control.

Those who point out that the one-mandate discrepancy between Liberman and Kahlon gave the former the role of kingmaker are correct, but underestimate just how much power the Kulanu head had, however limited it may have been in comparison to 2015. A scenario in which Kahlon opted to stay out of the coalition to protest attacks on the High Court and the rule of law would not necessarily have been able to prevent the formation of a functioning coalition with a majority this time around, but, then again, a 61-seat coalition could hardly be called “functional”. And for Netanyahu, a razor-thin majority routinely subject to political blackmail is a recipe for another short-lived term in office.

The prime minister was faced with a similar dilemma in 2015 when Liberman decided to sit in the opposition as a last minute ploy, spending a year-and-a-half attempting to cajole the former defense minister into joining on. When Liberman quit his post and the coalition last year in protest of Netanyahu’s Gaza policy, the government once again returned to its previous dysfunctional self, preventing a number of pieces of legislation from being passed. It stands to reason that for all of his talk of moderation and responsible conservatism, it’s difficult not to view Kahlon’s actions as yet another manifestation of cynical posturing, especially in light of the fact that, according to a preliminary deal with Likud, he’d sit comfortably close to the top of the elections slate.

In contrast, Liberman has never let the small size of his party detract from his ability to wreak havoc on the political process. While there’s a tendency to take into account Liberman’s “built-in” constituency of Russian-speakers — something that Kahlon has always lacked — those votes cannot be take for granted in either the long or medium run; recall that in 2009 when Liberman joined Netanyahu’s second government, he brought with him a whopping 15 mandates. Over the course of a decade of successive elections, that number has been drastically reduced as his voters have further integrated into Israeli society and shifted to larger and more mainstream parties. Polling for the upcoming election may reveal a slight bounce for Liberman, but he has ultimately reached his ceiling.

Even worse, his intransigence may cost him come September, with frustrated voters defecting to Likud, and his political rivals running an aggressive campaign portraying him as inadequately right-wing in order to siphon of votes. Already hovering dangerously close to the electoral threshold, Liberman could meet the same fate as Hayamin Hahadash’s Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett — an outcome with which Netanyahu would certainly be pleased. Yet despite these very real risks, Liberman decided not to change course.

The lesson to be learned is that while the prime minister has been adept in co-opting and subduing a number of figures whom he deems to be threats, there are others who have, even in a relatively weakened state, successfully rebuffed his efforts. Liberman has shown, in stark opposition to Kahlon, that one can indeed make Netanyahu’s life miserable and wield a disproportionate amount of influence if they can muster the will. Now, faced with the prospect of a direct attack on the High Court, it is Liberman who may inadvertently stave off these assaults (irrespective of his authoritarian worldview and political hypocrisy), while Kahlon, a figure that, for many on the left, was painted as the last bastion of right-wing moderation, passively stands by.