Analysis: A prime minister in waiting?

Netanyahu was masterful as always, but bottom line, it was a recapitulation of what we've heard before.

bibi 298 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
bibi 298 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Opinions were divided on Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu's speech at the Herzliya Conference on Sunday. He was masterful as always, but on the bottom line, it was a recapitulation of everything we've heard before. "A total election speech," was one view. "He thinks he's just won the election" opined another. "He's already the prime minister" was a more succinct view. What it wasn't, was a standard speech by a leader of the opposition. Netanyahu didn't attack the government or Prime Minister Ehud Olmert even once. He set out his blueprint for how to address the Iranian threat, but only obliquely mentioned that "partial action is not what's needed, but a coordinated effort that the government in Israel should lead." He was a bit more critical on the Palestinian issue, saying, "It's hard to believe, but we're still hearing about planning for the realignment, which would only bring the missile-firing sites closer to Gush Dan," but he still wasn't naming any names. In the economic policy chapter of the speech, he promised that "a government under our leadership will renew all these [policies] with full force." Or, I'll be back in office soon. By law, elections don't have to take place before 2010. Netanyahu, currently leading a party tied with Shas for the third largest party in the Knesset, seems convinced that we're going back to the ballot box much sooner, or at least that half of Kadima's MKs are planning to break away and nominate him. Despite all the government's ills, it's still based on a wide coalition. Unrest within Kadima might lead to a rebellion but there's little indication that any of the potential rebels will look to Netanyahu for leadership. And even if elections were to take place some time in 2007, Netanyahu might be leading in the polls by a considerable margin, but actually, the numbers are not that encouraging from his point of view. None of the polls have put the Likud at 30 MKs, and this at a time when the public's alienation from the government has reached unprecedented heights and, with Avigdor Lieberman now in the coalition, Netanyahu is the only alternative. The Likud is the only major party now headed by the person who will almost certainly lead it into the next election. The May 28 Labor primary will almost certainly unseat Amir Peretz, and Kadima's future is increasingly murky. If Netanyahu is bringing the Likud less than a quarter of the vote with his principal rivals in disarray, how can he hope to do better once Kadima and Labor have rallied their troops behind more popular leaders? The stock answer from Netanyahu's aides is that, as usual, the polls are skewed against him and their own polling shows him much higher. The more discerning of his advisers admit that despite the significant rise in support, more than twice the votes he received less than a year ago, it is still countered by a widespread negative feelings toward him. The polls show that most voters are disillusioned with the current leadership, but that hasn't made them any more receptive to Netanyahu. So why the statesman's speech? Shouldn't Bibi be on the offensive? We all know he does it better than almost anyone. His many detractors, of course, say that once again we've seen how detached he is from reality. The high-blown rhetoric, the repeated references to "our common values," the Bible, the legacy of the Holocaust, Zionism, patriotism, the wonderful soldiers of the IDF whom we all stand right behind, and, time and again of course, our flourishing economy thanks to you know who, all goes to show how little he realizes how far he still has to go if he's ever to restore the public's confidence in him. But it's more interesting to consider what those who support him think. They all agree that Netanyahu feels he has to project the image of the country's only remaining statesman. Not all of them think that's such a good thing. The close aides are all praise: "There will be time enough to attack," said one after the speech. "Bibi's saving his ammunition for later." Further away, things look different. "Bibi's tooting his horn too much," said a Likud functionary who sees a lot of the leader. "How many times can we hear that he saved the economy? Everyone knows that already and he's got to let some other people talk about defense and foreign affairs. The public has to see we have a team. He has to move on." A former adviser, now out of politics, though still a fan, was even more disappointed: "The problem is that Netanyahu, like everyone else, prefers to stay within the comfort zone. Things now are so bad, the dangers facing the country are so serious, if he doesn't convince people soon that we need a change now, it'll be too late. Soft speaking won't do it any longer."