Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu put on a black Polo shirt and boarded an old
army helicopter in Jerusalem last Thursday en route to his first stop on the
It wasn’t your typical location for campaigning like
Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market or the train station in Tel Aviv. In fact, it
was an empty desert where no voters live.
But Mount Sagi on the border
with Egypt was the perfect site to convey the main message of Netanyahu’s
campaign: that he is the only party leader who is strong on both security and
The prime minister monitored the progress of the
security fence being built on the Sinai border, posed for photos with the women
soldiers of the Caracal Battalion who killed terrorist infiltrators nearby last
month, and delivered a thinly veiled campaign speech with a desert
“This fence is crucially important for Israel’s security and
economy,” he said. “The world comes here to see it and study it. I will come
back in six months to celebrate its completion.”
The fact that six months
is after the January 22 election was not lost on the reporters from all Israeli
media who came on the helicopter with the prime minister. While Netanyahu
ignored questions about his trip’s connection to the election, the message of
the visit was clear: Netanyahu as prime minister took a necessary step to
protect Israel’s security by building the fence. He reacted to the dangers posed
by the change in power in Egypt, brought the number of infiltrators down from
nearly 3,000 each month to zero, and prevented further damage to the poorest
sectors of the population caused by the migrant workers.
message was aimed not at the small group of soldiers and journalists in the tent
set up for the briefing but at the voters back home, specifically people in
development towns and poor neighborhoods who are the Likud’s traditional
For them, with all due respect to Iran and Hezbollah, the most
urgent threat is the wave of migrants who took their jobs.
As one worker
from a development town testified at the Knesset: Why would an employer hire me
if a migrant from Eritrea is willing to work twice as many hours a day for half
the pay? Netanyahu also spoke to traditional Likud voters when he warned that
the steady stream of foreign workers “could have been fatal to the Jewish
By visiting the fence, Netanyahu displayed for his potential
voters a tangible accomplishment that affected their every-day lives. You can’t
see economic growth or the rise of Israel’s credit rating, but a fence is
undeniable proof that Netanyahu got something done.
As a veteran of the
IDF General Reconnaissance Unit (Sayeret Matkal), Netanyahu understands the
value of a preemptive strike, and that’s what his visit to the fence was. The
enemy in this case was neither jihadi terrorists in Sinai, nor Hamas in the Gaza
Strip, but Labor and Shas in the election.
Both parties intend to try to
exploit Netanyahu’s perceived vulnerability on socioeconomic
After all, the overt reason for the election was a state budget
full of cutbacks that Netanyahu determined that he could not pass.
that end, Labor and Shas each acquired new weapons this week. Labor leader
Shelly Yacimovich’s main acquisition was Itzik Shmuly, the chairman of the
National Union of Israeli Students and the leader of the 2011 socioeconomic protests.
Shmuly will come in
handy when Labor tries to realize the protests’ electoral value. Labor officials
said that if the 300,000 people who protested on the streets in the summer on
2011 demonstrate their frustration with their ballots, the result could be a
democratic upheaval that would be the Israeli equivalent of the Arab
Shas’s new weapon is an old one that proved effective in the past
against Netanyahu and Likud: Former party chairman Arye Deri, who will head
Shas’s election campaign as part of its new leadership triumvirate.
last time Deri led Shas, the party won 17 seats in the 1999 election, just two
fewer than Netanyahu’s Likud. That race still had direct elections for prime
minister, which disadvantaged ruling parties, but that does not diminish the
accomplishment of Deri, who used his charisma to appeal to the poor Sephardi
masses and win away voters from the Likud.
Another reason Deri is
dangerous is that unlike the rightist Eli Yishai, who gave up the Shas
chairmanship Wednesday, he is perceived as a political free agent. He could form
a government with Netanyahu, help a leftist leader build a coalition, or use his
political leverage to raise Shas’s price for joining the
There had been some thought that Yisrael Beytenu leader
Avigdor Liberman, who is Deri’s close friend, would play a similar game. But
Liberman, who is after Likud’s political base on the Right, used a photo
opportunity at his faction meeting Monday to pledge that his party would join a
“nationalist government of the nationalist camp.”
While Liberman is less
of a player on the socioeconomic front, he has his own weapon, whom he intends
He intends to promote MK Orly Levy-Abecasis, the daughter of
David Levy, the former leader of the Sephardi underclass who was Netanyahu’s
nemesis in the Likud.
When Levy retired, the MK who took up his cause was
Moshe Kahlon. Netanyahu was proud of Kahlon when he won the second slot on the
Likud candidates list in the 2006 election, the first in which Levy did not run
in 37 years.
Netanyahu beamed when he announced that his No. 2 would be
“the boy from Givat Olga,” a poor neighborhood in Hadera.
three years ago to quit politics at the end of this term. The timing of his
announcement Sunday night during the week when Deri returned to Shas and Shmuli
joined Labor could not have been worse.
Netanyahu lost his party’s main
weapon on socioeconomic issues, a minister who gained popularity for reforms
that drastically lowered the prices of cellphone service, the phones themselves,
and cable television. Kahlon’s departure also highlighted the difference between
the Likud’s mostly Ashkenazi leadership and its Sephardi
While there are several MKs in the Likud with Sephardi
backgrounds, its only other Sephardi Likud minister is Tunisian-born Silvan
Shalom, who is married to an heiress.
The names of the Likud’s top
ministers could not be more Ashkenazi, even though they have been changed from
Saarchchensky (Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar), Smilansky (Vice Premier Moshe
Ya’alon) and Wierzbolowski (Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor).
will try to promote the Likud’s Sephardi MKs in the party’s November 25 primary
to soften the blow of Kahlon’s departure. But he knows that the socioeconomic
issue could end up harming the party.
With that in mind, the prime
minister is likely to make more campaign stops over the next three months in