Politics: Up for grabs, down for keeps

While the Likud primary race has been low profile, the Kadima contest is anything but.

Moshe Feiglin 311  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Moshe Feiglin 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
There are only four days left until the Likud leadership primary between Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and party activist Moshe Feiglin, yet it seems as if the race is being kept a closely guarded secret.
There have been no headlines about it on the cover of any mainstream newspaper since Netanyahu initiated the primary on December 4.
The Jerusalem Post was the only paper that covered Feiglin’s major campaign event in Jerusalem. None of Netanyahu’s events were opened to the press until two rallies Thursday night in far-flung Beit She’an and Nesher.
Looking at this week’s papers, one would think that if there is a contest going on right now inside Likud, it is between rival advisers in Netanyahu’s office, who raced to the attorney-general to deliver accusations against each other.
Conspiracy theorists would blame the lack of coverage on a purported decision by the press as a whole to not grant Feiglin legitimacy. But the truth is that Feiglin has neither said nor done anything particularly controversial or interesting during the campaign like he has in the past.
Both he and Netanyahu seem to have an interest in letting the race pass quietly: Feiglin because he is confident that his Manhigut Yehudit activists will bring out the vote and Netanyahu because he wants to be seen as statesman-like and above the political fray.
Behind the scenes, both Netanyahu and Feiglin have bypassed the press by sending automated messages to Likud members urging them to vote. The same tactic has been employed by hawkish Likud activists who are calling upon Likud members to boycott the vote to protest the imminent destruction of the Migron outpost.
Opponents of the Migron evacuation sent an automated message to thousands of Likud members on Wednesday pretending to represent a fictional organization called “Left Now.” The message called upon the Likud members to vote for Netanyahu.
“Please come and vote Netanyahu so we can finally evacuate Migron and then destroy the rest of the settlements in the occupied territories,” the message said. “Only Netanyahu is good for us. So don’t stay home. Don’t listen to your friends. We know what’s best for you.”
The organizers of the boycott hope that if less than 50 percent of the members vote, the election won’t be regarded as legitimate and there will have to be another election for head of the party. But Netanyahu’s associates are confident that enough members will come out to legitimize the vote and help him surpass the 73% he won in the last Likud race in 2007.
What makes Netanyahu so confident is that he quietly passed a proposal in the Likud election committee last month promising money to contestants who bring out the vote in the race for the Likud central committee that is being held together with the leadership contest.
In past elections for the central committee, if a Likud branch decided on the makeup of its representatives with a political deal, the branch received the money that the party saved from canceling the election.
This time, no branch is allowed to cancel its election even if the number of central committee memberships allotted to a branch and the number of candidates is the same.
Contestants in branches that have a turnout of at least 40% of the vote will be refunded 50% of the fee they paid to run. In branches with a 65% turnout or higher, the refund will be 100%.
Netanyahu’s associates believe that the higher the turnout, the greater the chance his margin of victory will be similar to that of other leaders in the Middle East.
With a race that far from being close, it is no wonder that the press is paying much more attention to the hotly contested competition in Kadima.
Incumbent Tzipi Livni gained the upper hand at first by setting a March 27 date for the race and immediately announcing endorsements she received from half the Kadima faction.
But this was the week of Livni’s bitter party rival, Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee head Shaul Mofaz. Thirteen Kadima MKs announced their support for Mofaz this week, equalizing Livni’s support.
Former Kadima leadership candidate Meir Sheetrit is expected to announce next week that he will support Mofaz rather than run again, tipping the faction in Mofaz’s favor. The fact that Mofaz’s support has risen from just five MKs in the last race is not a coincidence but the product of three years of hard work on his part.
As part of Mofaz’s strategy for winning the election, he drafted a diplomatic plan that was praised in Washington. He wrote an economic plan before last summer’s protests began. And he devised a plan to change the political system by instituting regional elections for half the Knesset, raising the electoral threshold, giving the largest faction the automatic right to form a coalition and guaranteeing that governments would last four years.
While all of those plans brought Mofaz headlines, he also worked quietly on his political plan, the first step of which was bringing respected MKs who once supported Livni into his political orbit. The endorsements of MKs Ze’ev Bielski and Yohanan Plesner gave him momentum.
Livni’s associates responded that the first week in a primary always belongs to the incumbent, who sets the agenda, and in the second week the competition tends to recover. They said all of the MKs who endorsed Mofaz did so for personal rather than ideological reasons, and that Livni maintained an advantage over Mofaz among Kadima members and the general public.
But a Smith Research poll published in Thursday’s Globes newspaper found that Mofaz had also bridged the gap in the number of mandates he could bring to Kadima.
While polls last week found that Livni would win the party four more seats, the Smith survey predicted that they would both win 13, destroying Livni’s main argument that she would be a more serious candidate against Netanyahu.
Livni is expected to be further harmed as more negative stories come out about her management of the party. Itzik Hadad, the treasurer she fired, and MK Avi Dichter intend to make sure there will be more and more negative headlines about Livni until the election.
Hadad sent all Kadima members an e-mail this week complaining about Livni.
The second step for Mofaz will be to meet with as many Kadima members as possible ahead of the election and tell them that he, unlike Livni, would bring Kadima a post-primary bounce in the polls like Shelly Yacimovich brought to Labor. He will say that Kadima keeping the same leader would not enable the party to grow.
If he wins the race, Mofaz intends to use socioeconomic issues to try to bring down Netanyahu. He is well-positioned to do that because he was raised poor, unlike Livni and new politician Yair Lapid who were raised wealthy by fathers who Knesset members.
The last step in Mofaz’s plan is to cast the Likud in Feiglin’s image, regardless of the result in the Likud primary. He will compare Netanyahu to his former colleague at the Boston consulting group, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney.
Mofaz will argue that just like Romney is perceived as centrist but his party has gone to the Right, if re-elected, Netanyahu will be constantly pressured to go rightward by the members and activists in Likud.
If Mofaz succeeds in persuading the public that he could be a legitimate contender for prime minister, perhaps, despite polls predicting a landslide victory for Likud in the next general election, that race will look more like the one currently being held in Kadima and less like the one taking place in Likud.