Analysis: Livni and Netanyahu - prime ministers in waiting

They knew Winograd would publish findings on PM next month, but plans for day after were made long ago.

Bibi speaking 298.88 (photo credit: sasson tiram)
Bibi speaking 298.88
(photo credit: sasson tiram)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert addressed the annual AIPAC conference in Washington this week by video link from Jerusalem. Attending in person were two politicians who both believe they will be the next prime minister, and that their elevation is going to happen sooner rather than later. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni both learned of the Winograd Committee's announcement that they would publish personal findings on Olmert next month, while they were still abroad, but their plans for the day after have been in place for some time. But despite their careful planning, both have to overcome some serious obstacles before they realize their objective. Livni is ostensibly in the best position. As the official No. 2 in Kadima and Vice Premier, she would automatically take Olmert's place should he resign following the Winograd findings. The only problem with that scenario is that Olmert is unlikely to quit, even if he is severely criticized in the report, since the personal recommendations will only be published in the final report in another six months or more. But can Livni afford to wait that long? Right now, she is the public's favorite candidate within Kadima, according to all the polls, and the darling of the international diplomatic scene and the media. This could be her best chance. Livni has at least three potential rivals for the Kadima leadership, Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, Construction and Housing Minister Meir Sheetrit and Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter. If she delays now, their nascent campaigns could have time to get off the ground. The polls show that at the grassroots level, Kadima members favor Livni to replace Olmert, but the year-old party has no mechanism for replacing its leader, other than his resignation. To achieve this, Livni will have to execute some very deft political maneuvers to prove to Olmert that he has lost his party's confidence. She will need to cut a deal with at least one of her rivals, preferably Mofaz or Dichter because of their security cachet, to ensure her ascendancy and continued control of the party. Above all, she will need a perfect sense of timing. She should bear in mind an interesting anniversary that falls next month. Just when retired Tel Aviv District Court judge Eliahu Winograd will be publishing his report, it will be 10 years since then-attorney general Elyakim Rubinstein presented his report on the Bar-On/Hebron affair, in which he severely criticized prime minister Netanyahu but decided not to indict him. Netanyahu's bitter rival, finance minister Dan Meridor had threatened to resign over the scandal, but got cold feet at the last moment. His resignation at that point would have definitely triggered Netanyahu's downfall. Instead, three months later, Netanyahu turned the tables on Meridor and forced him out of the Treasury by siding against him with the Bank of Israel over currency conversion policy. Meridor never returned to the cabinet table, while Netanyahu remained in power for another two years. Livni will have learned from Meridor's political demise that sometimes you only get one chance. Netanyahu feels that the premiership is once again within his grasp. The polls are smiling upon him even more than they are at Livni. He is by far the most popular candidate for the top job right now and the Likud under his leadership is once again polling above thirty seats. The only problem is that elections don't have to be held for another three and a half years and even if Winograd proves to be an earthquake for the government, none of the parties in the government has any interest in going back to the public so soon. Even if Kadima's and Labor's leaders are replaced, the parties will make every possible effort to keep the coalition together. Netanyahu's alternative to elections is forming a new coalition that supports him as prime minister, but even if all the center-right parties could be persuaded to join his new administration, Netanyahu would still need defectors from Kadima to complete his parliamentary majority, and since by law, defectors can join a coalition only if at least a third of the original faction breaks away, Netanyahu will have to entice at least 10 Kadima MKs. There are at least twice this number of parliamentarians within the ruling party close to total disillusionment, but that doesn't mean that any of them are ready to get into bed with Netanyahu. Some of them left the Likud a year ago precisely because they didn't want to be in the same party with him. A third of the electorate, according to the polls, might believe that Netanyahu is the best man for the top job, but career politicians need a lot more than that to persuade them. Kadima lawmakers' biggest worry right now, in light of their party's abysmal standing in the polls, is that they won't be coming back after the next election. To recruit them, Netanyahu would have to guarantee them safe places in the next Likud list, but to do that for at least 10 MKs who "betrayed" Likud not so long ago, at the expense of loyal Likud candidates, would be to invite open rebellion within a party that Netanyahu has worked so hard to bring under his control. Things are going to have to get a lot worse in Kadima for 10 MKs to leave the party in return for anything less than ironclad promises.