“Israel will not be a halakhic state;” a country governed by Jewish religious law — or so Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted. This is less of a firm promise and more damage control as the prime minister seeks to contain the fallout from his failure to form a coalition.

Netanyahu was responding to Bezalel Smotrich, head of Tkuma, one of the constituent factions of the Union of Right-Wing Parties. Smotrich, who has been aggressively pursuing the Justice portfolio in the next government, declared in a radio interview Monday that he would like to see Israel “operating as it did in the days of King David and King Solomon.”

The Tkuma leader has never been shy about his religious fundamentalist outlook, including vicious homophobia, but present circumstances have forced Netanyahu to speak out. The prime minister was unable to build a government that would grant him immunity from prosecution after Avigdor Liberman refused to bring his Yisrael Beiteinu party into the coalition. Liberman’s beef with Netanyahu is personal, but their spat was outwardly a question of religion and state. Yisrael Beiteinu insisted on pushing a conscription bill that the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas factions were unwilling to accept. This put the issue of secularism center stage in the opening stages of the campaign.

It’s all a facade on Netanyahu’s part, of course. Netanyahu needs any coalition partners who are willing to shield him from the justice system, including the ultra-Orthodox and the religious nationalist Smotrich. In the last round of coalition negotiations the Union of Right-Wing Parties was first in line to strike a devil’s bargain with the embattled prime minister. The far-right list offered an immunity law in exchange for annexation of West Bank settlements, although no coalition agreement was ultimately reached. Now, Netanyahu will have to be careful how far he pushes his potential allies, lest they copy Liberman’s approach and hold the Israeli premier’s career and personal fate hostage to their own political demands.

On the flipside, Netanyahu likely felt he could not afford to stay quiet. If Liberman, advocating secularism, and Smotrich, pushing religious governance, successfully make Israel’s Jewish character a central campaign issue, Likud may fear hemorrhaging secular right-wing votes to other parties. That risk is amplified if Likud is seen as enabling religious interests, including both the ultra-Orthodox slates and the Union of Right-Wing Parties, which shares a degree of ideological overlap on some issues despite not being a haredi slate itself. Preserving Likud’s secular credentials was already a challenging task. Netanyahu towed the ultra-Orthodox line on Liberman’s conscription law until an eleventh hour about-face. More recent reports suggest that Netanyahu approved an ultra-Orthodox demand for gender segregated public services in a draft coalition agreement. So staying silent was not a feasible option for Netanyahu.

This fight over religion and state also puts the opposition in an awkward place. The ultra-Orthodox parties may figure centrally in a path to victory for Kachol Lavan, meaning opposition leader Benny Gantz will have to avoid alienating both the haredi leadership and the secular Israeli public.

Kachol Lavan could lead a unity government with Likud, but that would require Likud booting Netanyahu. Although the final days of coalition talks saw some [very minor] acts of rebellion within the Likud ranks, all Likud MKs fell in line and voted to dissolve the Knesset last week, giving the prime minister another shot at immunity. So leaning on a unity government is still a risky gamble for Gantz. He could also try to bring Liberman into the fold, though the Yisrael Beiteinu leader seemed to reject this option in the last round when he voted in favor of dissolving the Knesset and heading to elections rather than let another MK have a shot at forming the government. Things could change, but at the moment, Liberman’s relationship with the ultra-Orthodox is so toxic that it is doubtful they could sit together in any government unless one side caves, a decision that will be difficult to forecast without knowing the outcome of September’s election. This means that even if Gantz successfully recruits Liberman, he will be doing so at the expense of joining haredi parties United Torah Judaism and Shas. These two factions coordinated their demands in the last round of coalition negotiations and fielded a combined presence in the Knesset over three times greater than Yisrael Beiteinu’s.

How could Kachol Lavan work with the ultra-Orthodox? This time around, UTJ seems more amenable to working with Kachol Lavan, a partnership it ruled out in the last election. Avigdor Liberman has replaced Kachol Lavan number two Yair Lapid as the greatest menace to haredi politics. While they are commonly identified with the Israeli right and pledged only to sit with Netanyahu in the last election (why abandon the devil you know?), UTJ and the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox party Shas ultimately prioritize representing a narrow set of interests in the government. Playing nice with the ultra-Orthodox could catapult Benny Gantz to the prime minister’s office, but it makes it nigh impossible for Kachol Lavan to criticize Netanyahu for capitulating to the religious sector when they will likely need to do the same in order to unseat Likud. That line of attack would have otherwise been popular with secular centrist and center-right Israelis, who represent a significant portion of the electorate.

The odd man out here is Avigdor Liberman, who, at this stage may as well be considered his own bloc — not part of Netanyahu’s potential coalition, and certainly not a centrist or leftist. The prime minister, for his part, has said he will never join Liberman in a coalition again, though Netanyahu’s words seem to have little staying power after elections, as demonstrated by his eleventh hour entreaties to the Labor Party. But any coalition including Liberman must, at least for now, automatically exclude the ultra-Orthodox. If Liberman’s gamble in helping bring Israel to new elections pays off at the ballot box, he may find himself kingmaker yet again, unwilling to join the center-left and unwelcome with the ultra-Orthodox. An outcome where Liberman is needed for a majority could therefore be a recipe for protracted political paralysis. Alternatively, either Liberman or the ultra-Orthodox could compromise on some of their platform. Given how heated the enmity between the Yisrael Beiteinu chief and the haredim is right now, this seems unlikely, but it may come down to a question of how many repeat elections Liberman and the ultra-Orthodox are willing to sit through.

Liberman’s standoff with Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox no doubt appeals to secular right-wingers and Likudniks disaffected with Netanyahu. Yisrael Beiteinu has seen a bump in the polls, but surveys are notoriously fickle. Most polls have about a four percent margin of error, which, in Liberman’s case means the difference between a jump to nine seats or just barely scraping past the electoral threshold. What is clear is that Liberman, the ultra-Orthodox parties, and religious nationalists like Smotrich will have a lot of power to frame the terms of the debate in the opening stages of the campaign.