The Netanyahu gambit

The prime minister is riding high in the opinion polls, but it might not be plain sailing when the public votes in January.

Netanyahu and cabinet 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Netanyahu and cabinet 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
On the face of it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have no trouble getting reelected in January. The tried and trusted formula will be to instill fear – of the Iranian bomb and looming economic volatility – and to claim that he is the only one capable of steering the ship of state through shark-infested waters.
This strategy seems bound to work if no credible alternative leaders emerge in the three-month run-up to the election. Of the initial challengers, Labor’s Shelly Yacimovich and centrist Yair Lapid are ex-journalist neophytes without government experience and Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz is passé.
But Israeli politics are rarely that simple. If a sufficiently powerful combination of some or all of the following not-impossible developments occurs, Netanyahu’s bid for reelection could become much more difficult:
• A unified centrist force, including Lapid and Kadima, coalesces around the leadership of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and/or former foreign minister Tzipi Livni.
• The hundreds of thousands who took the streets in last year’s mass social protest come out to vote, significantly raising the national turnout and with it the center-left share of the ballot.
• Extremist settler leader Moshe Feiglin and his Jewish Leadership group make significant gains in next month’s Likud primary, leading to a radical Likud Knesset list, which frightens away potential centrist voters.
• Opposition campaign rhetoric strikes a chord, highlighting Netanyahu’s sellout to the Haredim on military service and state funding; his gratuitous arm-wrestling with US President Barack Obama; his failure to make even minimal progress on the Palestinian track, exposing Israel to the danger of becoming a single Palestinian majority state; his stark vision of impending war and economic austerity; and his failure to instill hope for a less embattled future.
• Obama is reelected and presses Netanyahu on the Palestinian track, pointing to opportunities for resolving the conflict under a more flexible Israeli leadership.
• Former ultra-Orthodox Shas leader Aryeh Deri returns to the political stage, creating a new, more moderate Sephardi party, or rejoining Shas and leading it towards a potential post-election coalition with the center-left.
So why did Netanyahu opt for an early election when he still had over a year to govern unchallenged? The ostensible trigger was that he did not want to go to the people later next year, after having been forced to pass an austerity budget his opponents could use against him. Although he sounded out his coalition partners on next year’s budget, he never had the slightest intention of fighting to get it through. He preferred going to the polls now as the responsible national leader who, when he couldn’t get his partisan coalition partners to agree to the necessary harsh cuts, asked the nation for a new mandate.
In going early, he had two other equally weighty electoral aims. He hoped to catch Olmert, still embroiled in a host of legal troubles, unprepared for a return to politics.
He also hoped to preempt Obama on the Palestinians, figuring that a January election would not leave the president (assuming he is reelected) much time to turn the screws in a way that could help the prime minister’s political opponents.
In making his decision, Netanyahu was buoyed by a slew of opinion polls showing him far and away the most popular candidate for prime minister and, more importantly, the right-wing bloc that supports his candidacy maintaining a consistent Knesset majority. Indeed, at this point, the outcome of the election seems cut and dried – bar one tantalizing question: How likely is the concatenation of events that could conceivably loosen Netanyahu’s vise-like grip on power? Olmert is under tremendous pressure to run. There have been overt calls in the media, and a procession of high flyers in the business and security elites has been beating a path to his door. Many of them, who worked with him as prime minister, see Olmert as one of the country’s more capable national leaders and Netanyahu as an erratic and blinkered ideologue, given to buckling under pressure, who is endangering the country’s future.
Against this, Olmert’s famIly is opposed to his return to politics and further exposure to what they see as the legal harassment that characterized his term in office. Moreover, Olmert still faces charges in the “Holyland affair”, in which he is accused of taking bribes as mayor of Jerusalem to approve a bizarre monster building project. There is also a strong possibility of the state appealing his recent acquittal in two other corruption cases.
And the fact that he was found guilty of breach of trust in a third case, albeit without moral turpitude, leaves a return to public life, although legally permissible, open to attack on ethical grounds.
Nevertheless, an Olmert-Livni list, bolstered by the popular, telegenic Lapid, and backed by security heavyweights like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Yuval Diskin and former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, all of whom would express their confidence in Olmert and deep concerns about Netanyahu, could be a game-changer. Secret polls by Olmert confidants reportedly bear this out.
One of the weaknesses in this scenario is Yacimovich’s unequivocal moral denunciation of Olmert’s candidacy. But this seems designed at least partly to prevent a strong centrist list eating into the Labor vote. Moreover, the Labor leader has not ruled out a post-election coalition with the former prime minister. And although Yacimovich talks about breaking the traditional mold of right-left blocs in Israeli politics, and redefining the left in socioeconomic rather than peace terms, it is hard to see her preferring Netanyahu to the centrists, if she or they are in a position to form a government.
Yacimovich is likely to benefit most from politicization of last year’s social protest.
Stav Shapir, one of the protest leaders, has already announced that she will run for a place on the Labor list. The big test for Yacimovich will be whether she can deliver a wider message, and bring in new high profile people, ex-generals or diplomats, to bolster her limited security-diplomatic credentials. Success for her, coupled with a strong centrist showing, could help the center-left together with the Arab parties achieve a blocking majority and a chance to form the next government. Together, they have 55 seats in the current Knesset, so it would take a six seat or five percent (around 200,000 votes) swing to obtain a blocking majority.
Inside the Likud, the radical Feiglin is likely to have a significant impact.
The party’s 26 Knesset members (Netanyahu excluded) will be fighting for only 19 or 20 places on the national list.
By Likud rules, serving Knesset Members are barred from competing for local or special group places. In such a free-for-all, the bloc vote Feiglin commands will be crucial. Knesset Members seeking reelection will need to cut deals with him. This means two things, both bad for the Likud’s moderate, centrist image: Would-be Knesset Members will adopt extremist positions to please Feiglin, and canvas votes for him and his people in return for their support.
The outcome could be a Likud list composed largely of hardliners and a worrying sprinkling of Feiglinites. In the last election, Netanyahu used a procedural device to oust Feiglin from a safe spot on the list to an unelectable one. But this time he will find the going much harder.
Netanyahu could also have trouble with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu. If Lieberman is indicted before the election, as the State Prosecution says he will be, the party could lose seats, possibly weakening the right-wing bloc. On the other hand, the theory goes, a strong Lieberman may want to leave Netanyahu in opposition, so that next time round the Yisrael Beiteinu boss might be able to supplant him as leader of the right-wing bloc. In other words, Lieberman might be tempted to form a coalition with the centrists, rather than Likud. This would depend on whether he felt he could sell this to his hawkish, mainly Russian-immigrant electorate as a gateway to secularization of personal status issues and presidential-style electoral reform. What makes this somewhat far-fetched scenario a little more plausible is the fact that Lieberman and Olmert are close personal friends.
If Deri forms a new Sephardi party, partly in competition with Shas, he could conceivably become the kingmaker, with enough seats to take either the center-left or the right over the 61-seat blocking majority line. But the chances of this happening are not high. He is more likely to run inside Shas and, either way, only join the center-left if they have a blocking majority without him.
As for Obama, his chances for reelection are high, despite his Republican rival Mitt Romney’s current surge. If he wins a second term, it could be payback time for Netanyahu.
Obama will be able to use the anticipated Palestinian appeal to the United Nations General Assembly for recognition as a nonmember state and the upcoming Helsinki conference on a nuclear free Middle East to make Netanyahu look bad and punish him for his perceived support for Romney.
In some ways, the emerging situation today resembles that in 1999, after Netanyahu’s first term in office. Then, too, there was a resurgent Labor party, a new anti- Netanyahu centrist grouping, American pressure and vast untapped discontent. The combination then led to an unprecedented outpouring of anti-Netanyahu energy and a landslide defeat for the Likud incumbent.
Can history repeat itself? Will Olmert, Livni and the rest be able to galvanize the same enthusiasm? Three months is a long time in politics. In Israeli politics it is an age. By polling day, the election could be won and lost by both sides several times over – or turn out to be a long yawn, leaving a barely challenged Netanyahu securely ensconced for four more years.