Electionscape: Netanyahu's missed moment

The reversal of the last six weeks' trend was totally predictable.

Yediot Aharonot's Thursday headline, "Jericho effect," heralding the latest poll showing Kadima regaining strength and the Likud and Labor still stuck in the under-20 doldrums, was a bit too obvious. It's not that the successful IDF operation on Tuesday wasn't widely popular and an important boost for Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, it's just that the public isn't that fickle and on its own, the Jericho jail snatch wouldn't have been enough to end Kadima's slump so quickly. And besides, the first polls this week that predicted a revival in Kadima's fortunes were conducted before the operation ended. The reversal of the last six weeks' trend was totally predictable. The signs were there, mainly in the fact that while Kadima lost about seven Knesset seats in the polls, there was no corresponding rise for Labor and the Likud. Kadima started going down a month and a half ago, when the party exhausted the reservoirs of public euphoria at the split within the Likud and the founding of the new party. The sympathy toward Arik's orphans after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's second stroke also ran out. The public realized that Olmert wasn't Sharon and that Kadima couldn't be everything to everyone, and the fading press immunity meant that corruption allegations on Olmert, Tzahi Hanegbi and Omri Sharon began coming out. The only way was down. It seems now that most of the voters who left Kadima just hung around, waiting for something better to come along. Nothing did and now they seem to be drifting back to Kadima. So why didn't it last, why didn't the Likud or Labor gain Kadima's lost votes. In Labor's case, the answer is simple: Amir Peretz has become a consensus figure. The consensus is that he's not prime minister material - at least not yet. And besides, Labor under Peretz is looking at something around 20 seats, more or less, what Amram Mitzna brought in 2003. The burden is on Binyamin Netanyahu. More than half of the Likud's voters in the last elections have gone AWOL, most of them to Kadima. There was a point, about two or three weeks ago, when Kadima leaders were starting to get worried. Every day brought a new scandal involving Olmert or Sharon Junior, the slow slump in the polls seemed to be intensifying and there was the chance that it might turn into a hemorrhage. That could have been Netanyahu's moment. Perhaps a total turn-around was unrealistic, but moving up to 10 seats from Kadima to the Likud was possible, and that would have made it almost impossible for Olmert to form a coalition without major concessions to the his former party. But Netanyahu missed it, he failed to read those voters who were up for grabs and now they are heading back to Kadima or, at the most, planning on voting for Israel Beiteinu. The Likud's strategy from the start has been to try to convince the waverers that Kadima is really an undercover left-wing party. Their whole campaign has been built around the threat of Olmert's secret plans. They warned the public that he's planning to pull back from the whole of the West Bank and parts of Jerusalem, turn control over to Hamas and even endanger Ben-Gurion Airport. At first, the Likud blamed Kadima for spreading a smoke screen over its real intentions and claimed that only the Likud had a real program, but last week's interviews with Olmert couldn't have been clearer as to his plans. So Netanyahu changed tack and said that these elections are really a referendum on Olmert's plans and that the Likud would never be part of a coalition based on those plans. More level-headed Likud leaders are now furious with Netanyahu. What he and his advisers seem unable to understand is that the voters the Likud lost to Kadima are not typical right-wingers - they flocked to the Likud in 2003 because they saw Sharon as the ultimate Israeli leader, and that's what they're still after: strong and stable leadership. They were in favor of disengagement and were furious with the Likud rebels and central committee members for disputing Sharon's primacy. If Netanyahu had promised them that a strong Likud would be a central member in a Kadima coalition, for example working to keep the economy strong, many of those voters might have returned to the Likud. Since all Bibi is offering them is a right-wing opposition party, they will probably stay with Kadima, despite misgivings about Olmert's leadership.