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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ahead of Tuesday's Likud leadership primary, Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu has changed his campaign style against party activists Moshe Feiglin and Danny Danon.
In past campaigns, Netanyahu held mass rallies in towns across the country where he was received like a rock star. He shook hands, smiled at potential voters and delivered basically the same speech.
This time around, he held only one large event - in Tel Aviv - on the anniversary of the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War. But he has canvassed for votes across the country, visiting Jerusalem, Ashkelon, Beersheba, Ofakim, Tiberias, Haifa and Rishon Lezion over the last three days alone.
He has hit the campaign trail in a way described by his staff as "bouncing around the country like a 25-year-old when he is almost 60."
In each town, instead of speaking to a banquet hall full of people, he held a working meeting with the top local Likud activists.
At every meeting, Netanyahu turned to the activists and asked them how many voters they would bring out, and he wrote the number down in front of them. If they gave a number he didn't like, he asked them for more and vowed to hold them to their commitment.
Netanyahu's new strategy is using "management by objective," a business-management style used effectively by top CEOs around the world. He is implementing the approach with the help of his new chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, a successful hi-tech CEO, who left his job to join Netanyahu, because of his frustration fighting in the war last summer.
"This method makes the campaign activists work harder, because they are committed to their objectives and to him," a source in Netanyahu's campaign said.
The activists know they'd better get out to vote, to avoid Netanyahu's wrath. His campaign is worried that if the turnout is not high enough, Feiglin could end up with as much as 40 percent of the vote, a result that could paint the Likud as extremist in the eyes of many.
The numbers are not as rosy for Netanyahu as they would seem to be from a Geocartography poll broadcast on Channel 1's Politika on Tuesday. The poll found that 70% of Likud members reached intend to vote on Tuesday; some 78% of them would vote for Netanyahu, 19% for Feiglin and 3% for Danon.
In the last Likud race in November 2005, in which Netanyahu faced Feiglin and MKs Silvan Shalom and Yisrael Katz, only 43% voted. And that race wasn't held in the summer when many voters are abroad.
Feiglin won 7,000 votes. If he can up it to 10,000 this time and only 25% of the 96,000 eligible voters turn out, he could end up with more than 40% of the vote.
Such an achievement for Feiglin would be a victory for Shalom, who decided against running, because Netanyahu insisted on the race's being held in the summer. Bennett said the race was set for the summer because "no one saw any reason to prolong it," and that as long as Netanyahu wakes up victorious, no one will regret the date.
But the reason Netanyahu played into Feiglin's hands was that he was so eager to begin to avenge his 1999 loss to Labor chairman Ehud Barak.
When Netanyahu was interviewed on Politika, he made a point of not attacking Feiglin or Danon, but he slammed Barak's performance as defense minister and his testimony to the Winograd Committee, which was released that day. Netanyahu has made no public statement criticizing Feiglin other than telling a Kiryat Motzkin group on Wednesday, "If Olmert or Barak were asked whom you should vote for, they would say, 'Vote Feiglin or stay home.'"
While Netanyahu is already trying to differentiate himself from Barak in the eyes of the general public, his challengers in the race are telling Likud members that the two are one and the same. They accused Netanyahu of adopting Barak's controversial campaign strategy of declining a debate and refraining from taking a stand on any issue.
"Netanyahu is really trying to be Barak," Feiglin said. "Netanyahu and Barak are Siamese twins. They are both secular, Ashkenazi men who served in the Sayeret Matkal unit and who are so immune to having any ideology at all that they will always go in the direction of the wind. We have gotten to a dangerous point where people don't feel they need an opinion."
"Netanyahu has gone the way of Barak, using silence to try to bring votes," Danon said. "He is avoiding an ideological debate where he would be forced to clarify his opinion on matters of principle, like whether there should be a Palestinian state and his involvement in disengagement. I'm jealous of the candidates in France and the US, where they have debates."
Feiglin said he considered spending money on posters around the country challenging Netanyahu to a debate, and he even received a contribution earmarked for that purpose, but he decided that such an approach would work "in a real democracy, but not in Israel."
"In the US, having debates is the accepted norm," Feiglin said. "But here it's only losers who call for debates, and winners who remain silent. I realized that a debate is the request of the weak. It's funny but it's sad."
NETANYAHU DECLINED to be interviewed for this article, but Bennett responded that everyone is aware of his opinions. He said that in the few interviews the Likud leader has given, he has explained his views on diplomatic, security, education and socioeconomic issues.
"There is nothing more different from Barak than Netanyahu," Bennett said. "One is revealing his views, while the other is hiding them. People who say they are the same are trying to divide the nationalist camp - and that's unfortunate. The goal is for the people to know the opinions of Netanyahu and they do."
His views on diplomatic issues have been relatively hawkish lately, at least during the campaign. He favors disconnecting the Gaza Strip from electricity and water, insisting on other countries' taking some of the burden of the Palestinians away from Israel, and not withdrawing from any territory as long as there is no Palestinian leader who is both moderate and strong.
"What more has to happen for people to understand that when we evacuate territory, it goes to the extremists?" Netanyahu said in his interview on Politika. "Territory we evacuate today ends up going to Iran tomorrow."
DANON TAKES credit for Netanyahu's apparent rightward shift. Moving him in that direction was one of the reasons he decided to run. He noted that since he declared his candidacy, Netanyahu has vowed to keep the Golan Heights, pledged to keep Hebron in Israel's permanent borders and planted a tree in an illegal West Bank outpost.
"Bibi is under great pressure," Danon said. "I am not under pressure, because I did not run in order to beat Bibi but in order to raise important ideological issues. He's been saying nice things, but the question is what he would do as prime minister."
Danon is convinced he will do much better than the polls predict and he is satisfied with the stable of activists he has built who will help his next run for the Knesset. But it wasn't a good omen for him when Ayala Hason kept referring to him as "what's his name" on Politika.
Unlike Danon, Feiglin has no problem with name recognition. He has had a problem with ensuring that he will be allowed to run at all. Five court cases have been filed in internal Likud bodies in an effort to prevent him from running. While Feiglin blames Netanyahu, the Likud leader's campaign has distanced itself from the people who filed the petitions.
The petitions have alleged that Feiglin does not belong in the Likud, because he believes the country should be run by a "man of faith" and because he has called in the past for soldiers to refuse orders to evacuate settlements. Feiglin has responded that he does not believe the country should be run according to Jewish law and that he is merely returning the Likud to its traditional ideology of opposing territorial compromise.
Feiglin was charged with sedition for blocking streets to protest the Oslo Accords in the mid-1990s. He said Netanyahu disappointed the Right in his first term in office and that people on the Right have no one to vote for.
"I did everything possible to warn of the danger of [Yitzhak] Rabin's and Netanyahu's handshakes with Arafat," Feiglin said. "Now everyone knows I was right. I helped bring Netanyahu to power in 1996 in order to stop Oslo, and he continued it when he had the legitimacy to stop the process. He also could have prevented the disengagement and the war and the situation in Sderot that everyone realizes now came because of it. He has proven himself spineless and unable to disconnect from the Left."
Feiglin is convinced that if he does not win this race, he will win the next one. He said he has faith that "the people will eventually get the Jewish leadership that they need" and that "with God's help we will win and save the country."
Bennett responded by accusing Feiglin of "living in a utopian world" and said that Netanyahu succeeded in adding reciprocity to Oslo, despite international pressure.
"He made it from give-and-give to give-and-get and when they didn't give, they didn't get," Bennett said. "Every vote for Feiglin weakens Netanyahu and strengthens the Left. Our objective is to make sure the Likud members realize that they are picking the next prime minister and they have to decide who to vote for with that in mind."