binyamin netanyahu 88 29.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Binyamin Netanyahu has the reputation of being a consummate politician. Yet his decision to hold early primaries does not seem to have been politically astute. Though he won them handily, with a respectable turnout, most of the attention has been paid to his rivalry with the main other candidate, Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin received about a quarter of the votes and can therefore claim to be a force to be reckoned with. Netanyahu is still trying to oust him from the party, and is unlikely to be successful.
A strong argument can certainly be made that Feiglin and his supporters do not belong in the Likud. A quick glance at the platform of Feiglin's faction, Manhigut Yehudit ("Jewish Leadership"), reveals that it bears little resemblance to that of the Likud. It is a right-wing party-within-a-party.
While Feiglin bristles when accused of trying to "take over" the Likud, he is obviously trying to do so. A Likud run by Feiglin would be a completely different party, not a center-right party following the legacy of its ideological founder, Ze'ev Jabotinsky (though, in some instances, Feiglin is closer to Jabotinsky than is today's Likud).
Yet it is not clear that it is smart for Netanyahu to attempt to oust Feiglin and his supporters. After all, a major political objective of the Likud has been to convince right-wingers to vote for it and not for smaller parties to the right. In this respect, Feiglin, who brought in about 12,000 Likud members, is helping the Likud, provided those members actually vote for the party.
Netanyahu is right to resist and reject most of Feiglin's ideas and keep the Likud near the political center. Yet the challenge of all the major parties is to mobilize its natural constituencies while attempting to include an ever broader swath of the public. Netanyahu should be trying to find a way to defend a centrist Likud while convincing voters to the Likud's right and left that his party is their best vote among the alternatives. Indeed, the problem with the whole Netanyahu-Feiglin fight that the primary highlighted is that it distracted from the more pertinent question: where does the Likud, with Netanyahu at its head, propose to lead the nation?
We have heard snippets of Netanyahu's plans, but mostly in the form of broad promises, such as raising the standard of living here to among the top 10 countries in the world over the next decade.
Politicians often avoid offering specific plans out of fear that they will fail to capture media attention or the public's imagination, will open the candidate up to criticism from affected groups, and risk pinning themselves down after the election. Since Netanyahu is already leading in the polls, being more specific might naturally be seen as risky. Yet regardless of such political calculations, being specific is what Netanyahu and all the other major candidates should do.
Specificity, especially coming from politicians with a reputation for campaigning in one direction and governing in another, adds to credibility. The public is not terribly impressed with broad promises, but does pay more attention to what a candidate has actually done, and to specific pledges that are harder to avoid after an election. For example, rather than saying that taxes and the size of government should be cut, why doesn't Netanyahu tell us which taxes he would cut and by how much, and the number of ministers he would have in his government? What about some specifics on how he believes the electoral system should be reformed, and how corruption can be reduced?
If education is to be a major new Netanyahu theme, how would he spend the already substantial education budget differently? And how and where should the budget be cut without harming the weakest sectors and increasing societal gaps? Aside from generally pledging to increase competition, what would he do about the concentration of most of the economy by a handful of families?
The time for a serious leader and party to draw up plans for governance is not after an election, but before. This is certainly the democratic thing to do, since it grants the voters their right to choose among clear policy alternatives, not just their judgements of the candidates' character and record.
If the Likud's early primaries have an advantage, it is that they give that party the chance to prepare such a detailed program before elections take place. That opportunity should not be squandered, either by the Likud or other parties vying for the public's trust.
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