Politics: 2011 – A legacy-deciding year

Balancing a delicate coalition, with a stagnating peace process and key advisers resigning, should Netanyahu be worried about early elections?

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
December 31, 2010 16:22
Netanyahu

Netanyahu . (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

For Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, 2010 ended much the way it began. The headlines the first week of the year were about stalled peace talks, renewed tension with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman making controversial comments that didn’t really surprise anyone.

The following line was in the January 1 newspaper: “There is optimism in Jerusalem that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will succeed in persuading Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to renew negotiations with Israel.”

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That line could just as easily be in a newspaper on January 1, 2011, as Netanyahu prepares for his key visit to Egypt next week, in which he will be talking to Mubarak about how to bring Abbas back to the table.

Will that line also be applicable to January 1, 2012? The answer could go a long way toward deciding the legacies of Netanyahu, Abbas and US President Barack Obama, as well as Mubarak, whose reportedly poor health puts his involvement in the peace process a year from now in question.

Chances are that Netanyahu will still be prime minister a year from now. A Dialog Poll broadcast on Channel 10 last week found that 45 percent of Israelis consider Netanyahu more fitting to be prime minister and just 25% prefer opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

But there is no guarantee that there will not be an election in 2011 or that a date for a race will not be set.

Netanyahu has a difficult time ahead balancing a coalition that is diverse both on matters of religion and state and war and peace.

This past week, he lost the services of his talented political adviser Shalom Shlomo, who a year ago nearly persuaded seven Kadima MKs to leave their party – a move that could have guaranteed Netanyahu an almost unprecedented full term in office, with elections on time on October 22, 2013. Shlomo, who quit to pursue other opportunities, has said that politicians begin acting more independently the moment they believe a term is half over.

Lieberman and Shas chairman Eli Yishai have both been giving Netanyahu headaches lately. Three weeks ago, a close confidant of Netanyahu said that as the next election approaches, he expects both to act increasingly disobedient.

He explained that because Lieberman no longer believes there is any chance of Kadima joining the coalition and Livni replacing him in the Foreign Ministry, he feels freer to flex his political muscles now that a strong deterrent Netanyahu used against him is no longer there.

But that could change soon. Now that the 43-day state prosecutors’ strike is over, a decision whether to indict Lieberman on corruption charges is looming. In the likely event that Attorney-General Yehuda Weinstein announces an indictment, Lieberman has said he would resign, even though he is not legally obligated to do so.

If that happens, Israel Beiteinu’s ability to wreak havoc will be severely handicapped. And if Lieberman is fighting to save his career in court, he will want the next election put off as long as possible.

The ability of Yishai to threaten Netanyahu took a hit when he was attacked by his number two, Construction and Housing Minister Ariel Attias, and when former Shas leader Aryeh Deri started making headlines again. Yishai was seared by the Carmel Forest fire, damaging fights over IDF conversions, exemptions from military service and preventing the expansion of Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center due to the presence of ancient graves on the site.

The more Yishai looks like a lame duck leader in his own party, the less he will want to see an election date set in the next year.

SPEAKING OF lame ducks, there is no doubt that unpopular Labor chairman Ehud Barak does not want an election any time soon either. But he, unlike Lieberman and Yishai, has a real party infrastructure to deal with.

A Labor convention is due to be held in January that will vote on Welfare and Social Services Minister Isaac Herzog’s proposal to advance the party’s leadership race from October 2012 to June 2011 and on Minorities Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman’s initiative to leave the coalition if immediate progress is not made in the peace process.

Kadima accused Netanyahu this week of reaching a deal with the National Union to eventually replace Labor in the coalition. A Kadima spokesman said this was why National Union MKs Ya’acov Katz and Uri Ariel voted for the state budget that passed Wednesday.

A coalition of the 65 right-wing MKs looks very stable on paper. But the truth is that Netanyahu does not want to go to an election in which he will have to fight Livni for centrist voters as the leader of a right-wing government full of settlers and haredim.

And Netanyahu also wants to keep Barak by his side as long as possible, because he wants him to stay in the Defense Ministry dealing with preventing the nuclearization of Iran, which is the issue that Netanyahu cares about more than any other and that he believes will decide his legacy.

A date for the Labor convention has not yet been set, but whenever it takes place will be seen as a deadline to get talks with the Palestinians on track. Jerusalem Post blogger Shmuel Rosner wrote that someone checked discreetly whether US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would know how to hint to Labor officials that the talks were making enough progress to justify staying in the coalition, and they received a positive response.

Netanyahu’s associates do not doubt Obama’s resolve to advance the diplomatic process. They know his admission that he “got some toes blown off” mishandling US-Israel relations will not decrease his motivation to try harder to solve the conflict.

Obama, unlike Netanyahu, has the benefit of knowing when his next election will take place. Because 2012 is an election year in the US, 2011 will be a key year for him to try to advance his lofty goals in the Mideast before he has to start campaigning in the Midwest.

How much Netanyahu and Abbas cooperate will go along way toward determining how 2011 will be remembered in this newspaper a year from now.


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