Politics: Dropping like dominoes

Netanyahu beat enemies Danon, Feiglin, Liberman, Deri, Abbas and the press – all in a week. What will he do for an encore?

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
January 2, 2015 11:28
meretz

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at meeting on Jan 1 2015. (photo credit: GPO)

For security reasons, the Likud spokeswoman asked the press to arrive by 9 a.m. Thursday morning at Metzudat Ze’ev, the party’s Tel Aviv headquarters, to cover Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 11 a.m. victory speech.

Those who obeyed – some of whom had to endure rush hour traffic to Tel Aviv – waited until 11:30 for the arrival of Netanyahu, who spoke for less than five minutes and took no questions.

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The prime minister did not put the press through an ordeal on purpose. But they were just the latest adversary of Netanyahu who went through a tough time over the past week.

In just seven days, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party fell to the cusp of the electoral threshold, Shas erupted into total chaos, MK Danny Danon was crushed, MK Moshe Feiglin was ousted from the Knesset and the Palestinians lost a key vote at the UN.

“It’s been a good week,” a source close to Netanyahu said in an understatement.

But the real week that matters is the week of the March 17 election.

Netanyahu and his strategists will have to play their cards right in the 10 weeks between now and then to have a good week at that pivotal time.

Next Monday night, the Likud will reveal its campaign strategy at a big event at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds. Netanyahu’s associates are promising to “change the dynamic” of the campaign, but they are being secretive about what this means.

Will they reveal Netanyahu’s candidates for the two slots on the list that Likud members voted on Wednesday to permit the prime minister to choose himself? They won’t say.

The last time Netanyahu changed the dynamic of an election campaign, two years ago, he surprised everyone by announcing the Likud would run together with Yisrael Beytenu. That strategy started with great hype – and promises of 45 seats – but ended badly.

Netanyahu has to be thankful that Yisrael Beytenu left the Likud long before police revealed the corruption scandal that has Liberman’s party on the brink of the threshold that his own party raised, in an effort to harm the Arab parties.

Yisrael Beytenu strategists have questioned the accuracy of The Jerusalem Post poll that predicted five seats for the party. But surveys taken by other pollsters do not have Yisrael Beytenu doing much better, and police have said the corruption in the case has only just begun to be revealed.

That is why it was wonderful news for Netanyahu that Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein did so well in the Likud primary. With him near the top of the list, the Likud should be able to attract away from Liberman many immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

After Labor leader Isaac Herzog chose Hatnua head Tzipi Livni as his running mate, Netanyahu – who like Herzog, followed American politics when he went to high school in the US – could not have a better running mate than Edelstein.

After winning away votes from Yisrael Beytenu, the next party to target for votes is Shas. The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party’s self-destruction was inevitable.

Shas leaders Arye Deri and Eli Yishai have been fighting intensely for 15 years, since Yishai replaced Deri at the helm of the party. Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef had been taped for posterity for years.

Perhaps Deri should have purposely exposed the controversial videos of Yosef’s criticism himself, knowing they were going to come out. There are those who think he actually did, as part of an elaborate political ruse, either to become a political martyr and resurrect himself before the January 29 deadline to submit Knesset lists in the spring, when cabinet ministers will be appointed, or maybe only ahead of the next election.

It was clear Shas was going to fall well below the 17 seats it won the last time Deri led its list, in 1999.

Yosef’s death and Yishai splitting Shas was a double whammy Deri could avoid by sitting out this race and coming back Moshe Kahlon-style ahead of the next election.

Likud sources revealed that Netanyahu intends to use his two reserved slots for socioeconomic figures who can win back votes from the periphery, which the party has lost since the heyday of Menachem Begin.

One rumor has those slots going to Yishai and his ally, rebel Bayit Yehudi MK Yoni Chetboun. Another rumor has the 11th slot going to Sephardi economist Shlomo Maoz and the 23rd to a young immigrant from the former Soviet Union, ideally a woman.

Netanyahu already received a boost on the socioeconomic front from realistic slots being won by the likes of former Beit She’an mayor Jackie Levy and former Rishon Lezion deputy mayor David Bitan.

The Likud will likely feature candidates like Levy and Bitan in its campaign, and bill them as the next coming of former Likud No. 2 and current Koolanu head Kahlon. The Likud campaign is likely to try to hide the likes of Danon and MK Miri Regev.

Netanyahu trounced Danon with a victory margin more fitting to other countries in the region. Beating him by that much undoubtedly felt good for Netanyahu, who has been irked by Danon for years.

Danon’s campaign billed him as a cowboy who fights for the “real Likud.” While the villain in the video Danon made was Balad MK Haneen Zoabi, the target was Netanyahu, who does not like being told that he is not the real Likud.

But the sweetest political victory of the week for Netanyahu had to be against Feiglin. The prime minister has complained for years about extremists coming into the party and taking it over.

With Feiglin outside the list, he can counter the strategy of Herzog and Livni to paint the Likud as extreme. The truth is that the current Likud slate is more right-wing than its predecessors, but as long as it is Feiglin-less, the party’s defenders have what to say.

Netanyahu can thank Bayit Yehudi for wooing back many members from the Likud who joined to help Feiglin, including in the membership drive Bayit Yehudi conducted over the past three weeks. Many of those who left for Bayit Yehudi were immigrants from English-speaking countries, according to Bayit Yehudi English Forum chairman Jeremy Saltan, who said courting them was not hard.

But Netanyahu’s political adviser Kobi Tzoref and other members of his team deserve most of the credit for keeping Feiglin out of the next Knesset.

Netanyahu cannot take credit for what happened over the past week to Yisrael Beytenu or Shas, and beating Danon is nothing to boast about, but Feiglin’s ouster was hard work that paid off.

When all of Netanyahu’s vanquished foes were listed for an adviser to the prime minister, he joked that Netanyahu could also take credit for what he hopes is a doomed partnership between Herzog and Livni.

Netanyahu knows that much of the good news he received this week was not due to his own efforts, just good luck. He will need both smart strategy and continued good luck to keep this karma going.

“The key is to not make mistakes,” a Netanyahu associate said. “We have not made mistakes yet, and we need to make sure we continue that way.”


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