Bibi's rivals

After a year in office, Benjamin Netanyahu has a bunch of wannabe prime ministers snapping at his heels.

Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 23, 2014.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 23, 2014.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WHEN PRIME Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed his third administration a year ago, the leaders of three of his four coalition partners had their eyes on his job.
Only Tzipi Livni of Hatnua with just six Knesset seats was resigned to a lesser role.
She was in government to make a major contribution towards a two-state solution with the Palestinians, which, if successful, would be her legacy. But Avigdor Liberman of Yisrael Beytenu, Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid, and Naftali Bennett of Bayit Yehudi, all had and still have strong prime ministerial aspirations.
Liberman, 55, formed an electoral pact with Netanyahu, 64, hoping that the ad hoc alliance would blossom into a full-scale merger, enabling him to take over the Likud and from there make it to the Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem as national leader. Lapid, 50, who won 19 seats in the last election and looking to monopolize the centrist vote, talked himself up as the next prime minister even before the coalition had been formed. And Bennett, 42, hopes that his so far highly successful strategy of opening up his mainly national religious settler party to secular Israelis will enable him to feed on broad right-wing sentiment to become the country’s first religiously observant prime minister.
So how have they fared in this first year of government under Netanyahu? Are any of them any closer to the top job? Although Netanyahu has yet to achieve key declared goals, for example, peace with the Palestinians, defanging Iran or lowering the cost of living, especially housing prices, and although he faces strong opposition within his own Likud party for going too far on the peace issue and is unpopular in Washington for not going far enough, he remains virtually unrivalled as national leader.
But should his continued failure to address the country’s key foreign and domestic problems have political, economic or military consequences, that could change.
Things could open up for the ambitious trio.
And other challengers could also emerge.
Netanyahu’s main focus has been foreign policy. Just two days after he formed his new government on March 18, US President Barack Obama arrived in Jerusalem determined to reignite the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. The basic American strategy was simple: Embrace Netanyahu and give Israelis the confidence to take risks for peace.
Netanyahu’s goal was to hang tough in talks with the Palestinians without alienating the Americans. His trump card was the demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. If the Palestinians rejected it, as they duly did, they would likely be blamed for the collapse of the process and US support for Israel would remain untarnished. Had they accepted it, Netanyahu, if he really wanted to, could have more easily carried the country to a peace deal; if, however, he does not genuinely back the two-state idea, as his critics on the center-left suspect, he could have found other difficult pills for the Palestinians to swallow.
But Netanyahu has been walking a very fine line. There are signs that the Americans are losing patience. The lead mediator, US Secretary of State John Kerry, has suggested that making the Jewish state recognition issue the be-all and end-all was a mistake, and warned that Israel could face growing isolation if the process collapses.
Obama himself has warned that if the occupation continues, the US will find it increasingly difficult to defend Israel in the international arena. The Americans also seem to have realized that in embracing Netanyahu and Israel’s cause so warmly, they may have got the negotiating balance wrong, and could lose the Palestinians. Now they seem to be trying to rectify this. The upshot of all this is that should the process break down, Netanyahu will probably not be held blameless.
ON IRAN, Netanyahu authorized NIS 10-12 billion in preparations for a possible attack on its nuclear installations. But to launch a strike, he would need US support or at least tacit acquiescence. That is partly why it was so important to Netanyahu not to break with the Americans on the Palestinian issue.
Unfortunately, his carefully crafted Washington policy was seriously undermined by his own Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. Ya’alon infuriated the administration with derogatory remarks about Kerry and his peace mission, and later with what seemed to be denigration of the value of American military aid to Israel. This supreme mindlessness also cost Netanyahu points in Washington when he failed to fire or even publicly censure Ya’alon.
Netanyahu’s position is further complicated by the fierce opposition he faces in the Likud to what the Americans are trying to achieve on the Palestinian track. His tactic has been to navigate between the Americans and the Likud right-wingers, moving one way then the other, and doing just enough to keep them both off his back.
This has opened up the possibility of a challenge to Netanyahu from the right.
Ya’alon and other Likud cabinet ministers are trying to position themselves as leader of the hard-liners. Members of the younger generation of Likud Knesset Members are trying to build political careers on the crest of party opposition to the peace process.
Netanyahu is often the implicit target.
Still, so far there has been no overt challenge to his leadership. But he is strongly constrained by the party. And unlike Ariel Sharon, who left the Likud to form Kadima, Netanyahu has no real exit option. Unlike Sharon he has not created a constituency for separation from the Palestinians through peacemaking or unilateral Israeli moves. He does not have an end-the-occupation ticket he could run on. And he seems unlikely to undertake a major act of leadership on the two-state issue for fear it could cost him the party. In the longer run, though, this might cost him on the national level.
Among the potential challengers, Liberman has probably had the most impressive year.
Finally acquitted after more than a decade of investigation and litigation on corruption charges, he returned to the Foreign Ministry in triumph last November and assumed the role of “responsible adult” in the Netanyahu government. One of his first acts was to blast Ya’alon for deriding Kerry as “messianic,” a move that transformed his own shaky position in Washington at a stroke.
He also resuscitated his land and population transfer plan for a two-state solution, drawing the borders in a way that would leave maximum Jews in Israel and maximum Arabs in Palestine. He then got the Foreign Ministry to produce a paper backing it, showing that he could be a major and potentially creative player on the Palestinian track. Indeed, he has already won plaudits from centrists who depict him as a non-ideological leader capable of thinking out of the box, and who, unlike Netanyahu, would be strong enough to go through with a two-state solution.
Liberman, however, failed in his main leadership strategy – effecting a full merger between Likud and Yisrael Beytenu as a launching pad for a prime ministerial bid.
There is strong opposition to the move in both parties. Liberman would have to make his prime ministerial bid through Yisrael Beytenu, rebranding it as more than a Russian immigrant party (something he has been working on for years) and decide whether he intends to run as a candidate of the right or rebrand himself as a candidate of the more pragmatic center right.
Lapid, the obvious candidate of the center, lost a great deal of ground during the government’s first year. Netanyahu denied him the Foreign Ministry he wanted as a launching pad for the premiership, assigning him the less glamorous Finance Ministry instead. Worse, as Finance Minister, Lapid inherited an unplanned $11 billion deficit, and was forced to pass an unpopular two-year austerity budget. The cuts in government expenditure and the raising of taxes were seen as a betrayal of the middle class whose interests he claimed to represent.
Moreover, Lapid, who had no economic training or previous experience, was often portrayed as a man out of his depth.
His personal popularity plummeted and public confidence in his leadership waned.
Polls on public perceptions of ministerial performance showed him finishing near bottom.
But on the stroke of the government’s first anniversary, he had two ostensible successes. The Knesset passed a new draft law supposedly in line with Yesh Atid’s election promise to get more ultra-Orthodox Haredi Jews to share the defense burden, and Lapid came up with a plan to reduce housing costs by exempting some first-time home buyers from the 18 percent VAT charge.
Both moves, however, had their critics.
Most economists slammed the VAT exemption gambit as irresponsible populism which, far from lowering housing prices, would likely raise them further by increasing demand with supply remaining constant. As for the draft law, it grants Haredim wholesale exemptions until 2017. And then relatively small draft targets of around 5,000 Haredi draftees per year kick in. In the interim, critics say, the law will probably lead to less Haredim in the IDF than currently serve.
What the law does do, though, is pave the way for Haredim to join the work force and provide incentives for them to do so. If, over time, this leads to the formation of a self-supporting Haredi middle class, this would be a huge gain for the economy and a victory for Lapid.
THE BIG winner in the government’s first year has undoubtedly been Bennett. Among Bayit Yehudi’s main goals are furthering Jewish settlement in the West Bank and preventing a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The two are not unconnected. Over the past year, building in the settlements reached record levels, hurting the Americanmediated process with the Palestinians.
The Central Bureau of Statistics published figures showing 2,534 new construction projects, double the number the year before.
As Bennett predicted it would, the peace process lost momentum, allowing him to reintroduce his argument that the best Israel could hope for was to manage the conflict with the Palestinians, and that the best way to do so would be to annex Area C of the West Bank, which has a large Jewish settlement population and relatively few Palestinians.
Despite the new draft law, Bennett was also successful in keeping army service by soldiers from the hesder yeshivas – theological seminaries affiliated to Bayit Yehudi’s national religious movement – down to between 16 and 24 months, as compared to the national norm of three years.
But Bennett did suffer some major failures.
Last July, his national religious candidates for chief rabbi were beaten by their Haredi rivals for both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi posts.
He also stands to lose the support of Makor Rishon, his main backer in the Israeli media, as the newspaper has fallen on hard times and was bought, March 30, by Netanyahu sponsor, the billionaire Casino magnate, Sheldon Adelson.
Most importantly, Bennett, despite his successes, has yet to build up anything like the leadership persona and the wide public support he would need to turn his national religious-settler niche party into a national party of government.
The past year also saw three big losers in the leadership stakes: Gabi Ashkenazi, 60, the former chief of staff, was eliminated as a contender as evidence of his involvement in smear campaigns against former defense minister Ehud Barak and IDF officers mounted; the would-be comeback hopes of 68-year-old Ehud Olmert were likely eliminated when the former prime minister was convicted March 31 on corruption charges; and Minister of National Infrastructure Silvan Shalom, 55, who had hoped to run for the presidency and from there to the premiership, was burned when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced.
The dark horse is Yitzhak Herzog, 53, who won the opposition Labor Party leadership last November, and has since concluded an ad hoc partnership with the ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism. The Haredim, who had a longstanding alliance with Likud, feel betrayed by Netanyahu. In the last election, the right won only 43 seats, and it was only the support of the 18 Haredi Knesset members that got Netanyahu over the line and enabled him to have first crack at forming a government. But he then acceded to Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi demands to leave the Haredim out of this coalition.
Passage of the new draft law was the last straw. And the Haredim now claim to support Herzog, a former chief rabbi’s grandson who offers a clear alternative to Likud on peacemaking and on the economy, for prime minister. As things stand in the Knesset today, the center left has 48 seats, and with the Haredim would have a 66 seat majority in the 120-member House. Herzog’s problem, now, and more to the point – after a new election – would be to find a way to get Lapid and the Haredim to serve in the same government, which, on the face of it, seems mission impossible.
On the surface, after a year of Netanyahu in government, Israel seems to be riding high.
It enjoys strong Western diplomatic support, the economy is robust and the military well-armed and well-prepared.
But other strong countervailing forces are in motion. And for the current state of affairs to continue for any length of time, Israel must come to terms with the Palestinian problem and end the occupation. The question is will it find in Netanyahu or in one of his rivals a leader with the authority, the wisdom and the courage to do what has to be done.