Politics: Keeping their heads down

How Kadima, Likud and Labor are dealing with leaders they consider more of a liability than an asset.

netanyahu 88 (photo credit: )
netanyahu 88
(photo credit: )
In 1966, it was a 20-year-old Herut activist named Ehud Olmert who outraged a crowd at the Kfar Hamaccabia in Ramat Gan by calling upon the party's leader, Menachem Begin, to resign, because after six electoral defeats, he had become more of a liability to the party than an asset. Forty years later, Olmert is a party chairman running for prime minister and, so far, no one in the party has had the nerve to publicly suggest that Kadima might be better off with someone else at the helm. But following a series of corruption scandals that were in the limelight this week, party officials began to whisper that Olmert was starting to become an electoral burden. The good news for Olmert is that he would not be alone in that category. Labor and Likud officials have been grumbling for weeks that their parties would be better off were they not led by Amir Peretz and Binyamin Netanyahu. Behind the scenes, Labor activists are complaining that their party would have had a much better chance of defeating Olmert had Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak or Matan Vilna'i won the November 9 Labor primary. Similar grievances were voiced at the Likud's Tel Aviv headquarters this week about how MK Silvan Shalom or Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz might have been better candidates than Netanyahu. One scenario raised by a Labor official was that had Peres defeated Peretz, Labor would not have left Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition and Sharon would not have had to form Kadima. Assuming Sharon would still have had a stroke, Olmert would have taken over the premiership but likely would have lost the Likud leadership race to Netanyahu, whom Peres could have beaten. Laborites said that had they known that Sharon was going to have a stroke - and that they would be up against Olmert instead - they would have voted differently because they would have kept in mind that they were choosing a prime ministerial candidate with a chance to win, and not the best man to be opposition leader in the Knesset. "It's a tragedy that had we put up a candidate whom people liked more, we would be doing so much better," a Labor MK said. "We have a very big problem. We have a very good list, but people vote for the man who is first on the list." When asked what was wrong with Peretz, Laborites gave a long list of reasons, starting with the perception that Peretz is not presidential, not taken seriously and too inexperienced to lead the country. Labor activists said that Peretz's obsession with socioeconomic issues was bringing down the party and that his neo-socialist economic views were frightening away many voters, including Russian immigrants who have left the party en masse. Peretz's Moroccan background was also seen as a liability among the Russian immigrants and perhaps also for some veteran Ashkenazi elites. Russian-speakers, who comprise nearly a sixth of the electorate, said they were uncomfortable with the fact that Peretz did not have a strong military background, that he is too left-wing, and even that he "looks too much like Stalin." Native Israelis in Labor also raised Peretz's lack of centrist views and voiced concerns over the questionable way that he took advantage of the Histadrut's organizational structure to come to Labor and immediately take it over. "The problem with Peretz is that people don't trust him," a senior Labor official said. "People remember how he took over the party and they see how he cares only about the people he brought into the party, who are all leftists. There are people on the Right in this party, too, but for some reason they are being hidden." THE TRUST issue is also seen as a disadvantage for Netanyahu. Even though he has never been convicted of anything, recent polls have found that he is seen as untrustworthy and even corrupt. With these polls in mind, Netanyahu nixed the idea of making the fight against corruption one of the focuses of the Likud's campaign. Netanyahu blamed the press for giving him the undeserved image of a corrupt politician in a speech on Sunday at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. In a press conference two days later, he accused the media of not covering the election fairly. But the Likud MKs and activists who know Netanyahu personally and do not have to rely on press reports complained this week that he had become a political liability. "I find it amazing how many Likud voters are telling me they can't vote for Bibi," a veteran Likud MK said. "The amount of opposition to him is absolutely shocking. But he is still probably the best candidate we have and at least he has stature. Without Bibi, the Likud might have disappeared, because no one would be paying any attention to us." The three main complaints of Likud activists against Netanyahu were about his history of political zigzagging, his personality and his socioeconomic policies as finance minister that scared away many traditional Likud voters in the weakest sectors of the population. Other Likudniks blamed Netanyahu for the split in the Likud, saying that had he not quit the government, he would have replaced Sharon and led the Likud to victory. Likudniks on the Right are upset with him for not stopping the Gaza Strip withdrawal and for implementing the Hebron and Wye accords. Likudniks on the Left say that he is too right-wing to take away votes from Kadima. A Kadima strategist said that Shalom would have been a stronger candidate because there is much less animosity toward him in the general public. The strategist said Shalom could have taken away votes from Olmert because, unlike Netanyahu, he could have presented himself as Sharon's favored successor. "Silvan has diplomatic and economic experience like Bibi, but he is also Sephardi and no one hates him, so he would have posed a more significant threat," the strategist said, echoing what Shalom's supporters in the Likud have been saying privately. The main complaint against Olmert inside Kadima is that he is not Sharon. The party was created around Sharon's image, which has only improved since his hospitalization. A Kadima strategist said he was surprised that Olmert was called "un-statesmanlike" for repeatedly attacking Netanyahu in Wednesday's Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense committee meeting, a practice that people have forgotten that Sharon enjoyed. "Olmert doesn't have the elder statesman image, but then again, no one is in Sharon's league," a Kadima official said. The sector where Kadima has fallen dramatically in the polls since Olmert replaced Sharon is among Russian immigrants, who admired Sharon as a war hero and a Russian-speaker and are not as familiar with Olmert, who is being portrayed as a leftist in the Russian press. Other issues cited by Kadima officials as Olmert's weak points include the same antagonistic personality and history of political flip-flops that Netanyahu is known for, his lack of a military career and the corruption scandals that rose this week. On Sunday, there was a report about Olmert's ties to a shady business deal involving the Betar Jerusalem soccer team that didn't get much play. Tuesday, State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's investigation into the sale of Olmert's apartment was leaked to the press. On Thursday, Haaretz came out with an investigation into Olmert's past that raised many questions. Ma'ariv intends to publish another investigation next Thursday. The more Olmert is identified as allegedly corrupt, the easier it will be for politicians from across the political spectrum to attack him and try to make a dent in Kadima's armor and its massive lead in the polls. "Olmert has become the soft underbelly of Kadima and now all we need is the right land mines to blow it up," a Likud official said. Kadima officials said cautiously that they were beginning to get concerned about Olmert's image, but that they were relieved that Netanyahu and Peretz had similar liabilities. "This election is about who is most fitting to be prime minister," a Kadima strategist said. "Bibi's low approval rating and all the polls saying that people don't find Peretz fitting make our situation less of a problem."