Politics: An untimely departure

For PM, timing of Kahlon resignation when Deri returned to Shas, Shmuli joined Labor couldn't have been worse.

Netanyahu Sinai border 370 (photo credit: GPO)
Netanyahu Sinai border 370
(photo credit: GPO)
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 campaign trail.
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 socioeconomic issues.
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 backdrop.
“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.
That final 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 voters.
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 state.”
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 issues.
After all, the overt reason for the election was a state budget full of cutbacks that Netanyahu determined that he could not pass.
To 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 Spring.
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.
The 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 government.
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 to exploit.
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.
Kahlon decided 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 electorate.
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).
Netanyahu 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 unexpected locations.