Analysis: Bibi's strategy based on his need for speed

Running against Israel's most unpopular governmet and receiving only 30 mandates isn't that great.

bibi global dinner 88 29 (photo credit: Ben Gurion Airport Photographers)
bibi global dinner 88 29
(photo credit: Ben Gurion Airport Photographers)
Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu has a problem. For the last seven months, every single poll has placed him as the most popular candidate for prime minister and the Likud as the largest party in the Knesset - if the election were to take place today. But there are no elections on the horizon and Netanyahu is worried that he might soon begin to lose momentum. He might be leading in the polls, but running against the most unpopular government in Israel's history and receiving only 30 Knesset seats on average isn't that great. Neither is being the preferred candidate (with the support of less than a quarter of the electorate) such a great achievement when the main rivals are Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz. Three months from now, Labor could be fielding a fresh and appealing candidate and Netanyahu could suddenly seem rather shop-soiled. He is honest enough to admit, at least to himself, that at present, his main attraction for the public is that he isn't Olmert or Peretz. That doesn't mean the voters, who punished him so cruelly less than 12 months ago, have fallen in love with him again. The new Labor chairman, MK Ami Ayalon or former prime minister Ehud Barak, will have an additional attraction: he won't be Netanyahu. In part, Netanyahu is paying for his miscalculation eight months ago. In the aftermath of the second Lebanon war, with all the public anger and the campaigns being waged by the reservists and the bereaved families, it seemed as if the government's fall was imminent. Netanyahu believed that he would soon be called to the helm and decided to be statesman-like rather than attack Olmert and Peretz directly. Instead he launched himself on an international crusade against the Iranian regime and its nuclear program. He reaped the reward for his responsible stand in the arena of public opinion, but as Vice Premier Shimon Peres, a serial victim of polls, once said, "They are like perfume: wonderful to smell but dangerous to drink." Meanwhile, back on earth, the harsh political reality is that the government has proved remarkably tenacious. Netanyahu's old ally, Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman, has also joined the government, leaving Netanyahu the leader of a disjointed opposition, with only 12 Knesset members - not all of them totally loyal - to his name. The government might have lost nearly all its credibility, but it still enjoys a large majority and, theoretically, elections might not take place for another three and a half years. Netanyahu isn't capable of waiting anywhere near that long. Even if he manages to stay the course, he's going to look old and tired by the time the country returns to the ballot box. That's why he's been back on the attack over the last few weeks. In his briefing to the parliamentary correspondents on Wednesday, he latched on to Olmert's feuds with Peretz and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, trying to brand the government as ineffectual and rudderless, and calling for new elections. But there's nothing new about that. The only newsworthy detail was his claim that certain Kadima MKs are starting to find their way back to the Likud. Netanyahu wasn't giving any names or saying how many are planning to defect, and when pressed he admitted that no one had approached him personally. But whatever the truth to the matter, Netanyahu is finally setting out his political strategy. He wants to return to power as soon as possible and the only way to do that is to hasten the erosion that is already taking place within Kadima. The split within the Likud 17 months ago shattered the party, but Netanyahu is now holding out an olive branch. "Come home and all will be forgiven," he is saying. It isn't really a magnanimous offer, but it could be Netanyahu's only chance of ever becoming prime minister again.