In the course of Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure as Israel’s prime minister, many have tried to identify what makes him tick, with the label “political wizard” becoming something of a cliche. But in an environment marked by deadlock and successive inconclusive elections, the relevant question is not why Netanyahu wins but why his rivals don’t.

Earlier today, on the eve of Israel’s fourth election since April 2019, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett committed to not join a coalition led by centrist Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid by signing a pledge on live television. For his part, Bennett demanded that the prime minister provide a similar guarantee not to sit with the United Arab List, the conservative Islamist faction led by Joint List defector Mansour Abbas. 

Despite Bennett’s stand against Lapid, Netanyahu is unlikely to reciprocate. This is not because the prime minister is necessarily going to join forces with Abbas after Tuesday (as Abbas has been keen to point out), but because he has historically kept his options open. While the story since the April 2019 election has been Netanyahu’s playing footsie with the neo-fascist Kahanists, it should not be lost on observers that less than a decade ago, Netanyahu was running a cabinet with Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid in senior positions. To put this in American terms, imagine a politician going from working with liberal Democrats to courting militant white nationalists in just a few years (not unlike the path Donald Trump charted).

Netanyahu’s recent outreach to Israeli Arab voters and his on-again-off-again relationship with Mansour Abbas was the logical next step in his strategy of working with anyone who is willing to work with him to the end of retaining the premiership. Never mind that race baiting against Arabs and attempts at voter suppression have become shameful elements of Likud campaigns in recent years. Dahlia Scheindlin recently wrote in Haaretz to push back against the characterization of Israeli elections as an ideology-free popularity contest, and this assessment is certainly true, but Netanyahu has also recognized that one can only be so discerning in their choice of politics partners if one wants to stay on top.

Contrast this approach with the cumbersome web of no-cooperation pledges that have fractured Netanyahu’s would-be challengers in recent years. It has been nigh impossible to construct a possible alternative coalition without Netanyahu because you would have to consider, in turns, who won’t sit with the Arabs, who won’t sit with the Zionists, who won’t sit with the ultra-Orthodox, who won’t sit with leftists, and now with Bennett’s latest announcement, who won’t serve under Yair Lapid. While pre-election promises are made to be broken (one need look no further than Amir Peretz’s clean-shaven face to understand this), Bennett and anyone else who casts off potential partners before election day starts the coalition bargaining process in a weaker position vis-a-vis Netanyahu.

Of course, some parties have been a bit more accommodating to otherwise strange bedfellows in the interest of unseating Netanyahu. Yet this too has only gone so far. The Joint List broke tradition by recommending Benny Gantz as prime minister twice, after the September 2019 and March 2020 elections—only for Gantz to break the trust by joining a government with Netanyahu. Avigdor Liberman, whose often cartoonishly authoritarian stances saw him caricatured as Darth Vader and a Soviet army officer on Eretz Nehederet, agreed to sit with the social democratic Meretz party—but joining up with an Arab list remains a bridge too far for the Yisrael Beiteinu chief. At the start of the cycle of never-ending elections, Liberman bound himself to perhaps the most specific proposal of all: he would only sit in a government with both Likud and Kachol Lavan. Now Liberman is no longer kingmaker and Kachol Lavan is staring down electoral extinction.

Lack of ideological cohesion plays a clear role in keeping the opposition fractured, but it does not entirely explain the inability to compromise. Roughly 60,000 Tel Avivians voted for Likud last March, and a comparable number of Jerusalemites voted for United Torah Judaism. It’s likely that most voters belonging to these two groups share very little in common, but the leaders of the parties they support never had any compunctions about working hand in hand. Promising not to work with this or that party means that anyone trying to push Netanyahu out of office starts the coalition negotiation process with a built-in deficit while the prime minister operates free of any such burden.