Analysis: Netanyahu, the new would-be godfather

ANALYSIS Netanyahu as p

It unfolded like something out of a Mario Puzo novel: The powerful don of a mob family holds months of clandestine talks with the disgruntled henchmen of a rival clan and gets them to betray their boss, abandon their family and leave it exposed and vulnerable, fated for cruel elimination. While there are whispers and innuendo all the way through the secret negotiations, no alarm bells sound and no traitors are uncovered; the signs are there, but they are ignored. Consequently, three - count them, three! - competent consiglieri of the enemy camp hold regular contacts with up to 15 members of the unsuspecting boss's family, for three months. Three months of subterfuge, collusion, late-night meetings at the don's home in the North, and even in his office in the nation's capital - even there, out in the open. Every time a finger is pointed at a possible traitor, the naïve boss doesn't want to believe it, all is forgiven... and the secret talks go on. When the secret is finally broken, in the public press, the boss is shocked, paralyzed, humiliated, laid bare. The only words she can utter are, "I am aware of my mistakes and will take steps to correct them." Well, what else can be said? Even the second-in-command, a powerful former general, is taken by surprise. In a desperate bid to preserve his standing in the family, he attempts to rally his supporters, pleads with them not to abandon him. But is he too late? Is the family split, old allegiances irrevocably broken, too many new hatreds hatched? Tzipi Livni, her fiercest critics say, deserves to lose her party. She was outmaneuvered these past months by a prime minister she wrongly assumed was snowed under with other work, so overloaded that he couldn't possibly be working to undermine - no, make that destroy - her political party. She believed that a prime minister with such a large coalition would have no urgent need to expend the tremendous energy required to engineer the dismantling of Kadima, to entice at least seven MKs to defect to the Likud. But in truth, it didn't actually take that much to pique their interest: a minor ministry here, some deputy ministerial positions there, some Knesset committee chairmanships. In fact, that's where Livni's failure was most evident - six MKs were willing to at least consider abandoning her party for such a low price. She gave them the feeling that they weren't wanted, they say, so they contemplated leaving her. A few have now come skulking back; a couple may be gone for good Such are the laws of the Israeli political jungle. Laws that Binyamin Netanyahu evidently understands. Laws that the original political godfather, Ariel Sharon, lived by. Laws that Tzipi Livni failed to grasp. And so, two weeks after being lulled by Likud words of superficial solidarity - "We are all Tzipi Livni" - when an arrest warrant was issued for her in London, she is now battling to hold Kadima together. She laments that Netanyahu abused her gracious offer of amnesty from attack while she thought he was busy bringing Gilad Schalit home. She laments that he rewarded her for her largesse in so brutally utilitarian a fashion. But this is the arena she chose too - the constantly scheming, plotting political jungle. And the new big beast scented his prey. One can be forgiven for seeing the hand of the ever-scheming Ehud Barak in this maneuver. He, too, has no interest in a robust Kadima, siphoning off Labor's already dwindled support. But, ultimate failure or success, this is Netanyahu's political play. As of Thursday night, he looked to have overplayed his hand; he had hurt Livni, but not broken her. He had hoped to make Livni look like a novice - still the novice, still without any major achievement. She won the election, but not the Prime Minister's Office. She won the election, but could she be losing her party? If he had managed to pull it off, Netanyahu would have stepped up a level as a political operator. This was a Sharon-like move. In fact, this was the move designed to counter Sharon's establishment of Kadima. Sharon undone. Disengagement from Kadima. If he had managed to pull it off... In the Knesset on Wednesday, the prime minister detailed the three issues with which, he said, he was most busy: Iran, Hamas and the aftermath of the Goldstone Report. And Livni believed him. Sensing that he might face trouble down the line with his own right flank if international pressure to make diplomatic progress mounts, Netanyahu sought to buy himself a few more loyal soldiers. Contrarily, were Labor to bolt or split if settlement building resumes, he wanted extra MKs to replace the departees. Much as this was a strategic move against Livni, it was also an attack on Shaul Mofaz. Poor thwarted Mofaz. All six of the MKs who made tentative deals with the Likud were his supporters. He, too, missed the rumblings - and they were from within his camp. Not that it will be much comfort for her, but his position is not much better than hers, maybe even worse. For what is a general without his soldiers? How could he possibly mount a serious challenge even to Livni's exposed leadership without a strong political base, assuming she is able to steady the ship and rally the remaining troops? Netanyahu failed to deliver the knock-out blow. But outmaneuvered and embarrassed, Kadima's top two figures are back fighting each other, scrapping for primacy in their shaken party. And, simultaneously, they are now forced to grapple anew, amid his latest overtures for a unity coalition, with the machinations of Netanyahu.