Politics: Looking down from the political peak?

Binyamin Netanyahu goes into the winter session of the Knesset soaring in the polls, but there are plenty of potential pitfalls ahead.

Netanyahu at home 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Netanyahu at home 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will address the opening meeting of the Knesset’s winter session Monday at what may be the peak of his political popularity, following his successes at the United Nations General Assembly and in bringing home Gilad Schalit and Ilan Grapel.
In both his UN speech and the Schalit and Grapel deals, he acted as the leader of a consensus of Israelis, earning praise from the Left without significantly harming his political base on the Right.
In fact, a Channel 2 poll on Wednesday night showed Likud taking 37 seats, a gain of 10 seats, were elections to be held today, while Kadima would slump from 28 to 17 seats and Labor, under new leader, Shelly Yacimovich, would take 22 seats compared to just 13 in the last elections.
Despite repeated requests, even the harshest critics of Netanyahu refrained from criticizing him on the day of Schalit’s release, even though the prime minister was seen by many as going overboard in his celebratory speech and smiling photos with Schalit.
“Do you really think we would be stupid enough to criticize him today?” the spokesman of one MK on the Left said.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni held back her criticism of the Schalit deal until Sunday, immediately after weekend newspaper columns questioned her silence and saw it as a sign that she had become irrelevant.
Her reasons for keeping mum were legitimate: She didn’t want to turn Schalit’s fate into a political issue, the deal had been brought to a vote only hours after it was revealed (not leaving time for much of a public debate), and Noam Schalit had asked her to keep her opposition to herself for a few days.
But the artificial delay made it look too much like she was avoiding expressing an unpopular opinion that would alienate her political base on the Left. The unwanted attention she received ended up harming her much more than if she had expressed her opposition in real time.
While Netanyahu will enter the Knesset’s winter session with his party united behind him, Livni will face demands for advancing the Kadima leadership primary at her first faction meeting on Monday. Her chief rival, MK Shaul Mofaz, will come to the Knesset emboldened by the hundreds of supporters who attended his annual succa party in Kochav Yair and unscathed from the Schalit debate because he was with Netanyahu on the popular side.
Those who could cause Netanyahu political harm have refrained from doing so for their own personal and political reasons, most notably Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Had he attempted to call Netanyahu’s bluff and initiated a peace process when Quartet mediators were in town on Wednesday, the prime minister could have entered negotiations that could have snowballed into a real test for his coalition.
With Abbas avoiding the negotiating table, there is not much dividing Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – who calls the Palestinian leader “an obstacle to peace” – from Netanyahu, who has said that “my ministers don’t think we have a partner on the Palestinian side, but I’d abstain on that vote.”
There is no point in alienating Lieberman by trying to put him in his place when Abbas is giving Netanyahu no reason to contradict the foreign minister. And anyway, Lieberman may have to resign by the time the Knesset’s winter session ends in the spring if he doesn’t fare well in his December hearing on the corruption charges against him, so why bother picking a fight with him?
In another step necessary to keeping his coalition intact, Netanyahu met Sunday night with Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. The meeting raised eyebrows because it was long, initially secret, and held very late at night.
While there were reports that the issues that came up in the meeting were religious, diplomatic, and related to Schalit, Grapel and Jonathan Pollard, what really needed to be discussed was Shas’s opposition to the Trajtenberg Committee’s socioeconomic recommendations.
The recommendations are set to be adopted clause by clause in the Knesset, which will provide many opportunities for Shas to give Netanyahu headaches.
But the main political threat to Netanyahu in the months ahead could come from Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip. If the rocket attacks that began Wednesday on the South and areas closer to the Center intensify, it would certainly harm Netanyahu’s image as Mr. Security. If a connection is proven between the attacks and the terrorists released in the Schalit deal, it could deal him a serious blow.
His judgment on the deal would be called into question, especially after his having preached against such exchanges for so many years. Livni would gain from being on record as opposing the deal, Lieberman and Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon would be boosted because they voted against it, and Mofaz would reap the benefits of being the main security figure in the opposition.
If that happens, Netanyahu will discover that just like rockets aimed at population centers, the popularity of a politician at his peak must inevitably come down.