Politics: How does Netanyahu make his comeback?

Two months ago his image was at its peak as a respected leader who saved the economy. Now it's destroyed. Can Bibi reinvent himself for the umpteenth time?

The day after former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu failed in his effort to advance the Likud primary, the Hebrew press pounced on him, declaring him a loser and denouncing him as the Likud's version of Shimon Peres. A cartoon in Ma'ariv even showed Netanyahu joining Peres and former prime minister Ehud Barak at a meeting of the Loser's Club. This for a man who lost Monday's Likud central committee vote at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds by only 104 votes. Netanyahu has not succeeded in winning an election in almost a decade and there is no doubt that the vote did severe damage to his image. But even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's advisers said they do not believe that Netanyahu is down for the count. The six-to-eight month lease on life that the central committee gave Sharon when it decided to keep the primary in mid-2006 will also give Netanyahu time to work on recreating himself for the umpteenth time, ahead of a battle against Sharon, MK Uzi Landau and activist Moshe Feiglin for the Likud leadership. Polls taken since Monday have predicted that Sharon would defeat Netanyahu in a two-man race by some 14 percent and in a four-man contest by as much as 25%. The same polling firms predicted only a week ago that Netanyahu would beat Sharon, which, Netanyahu's spokesman said, taught a lesson that polls can't be trusted. There were several factors that may have had nothing to do with the Sharon-Netanyahu battle that influenced the votes of the Likud central committee members, including: concerns over a split in the party, opposition to prematurely ending the reign of a Likud government, the fight against terrorism emanating from the Gaza Strip, and the mysterious sabotage of Sharon's microphone in Sunday's central committee meeting. But Netanyahu also contributed to his defeat by making a series of errors. Likud rebel MKs and even members of his own staff have admitted that the effort to advance the primary could have been successful if Netanyahu had not been the one to lead it. The first mistake was inviting dozens of central committee members and all the Likud rebels to the press conference where he announced his candidacy for the party chairmanship. Netanyahu, who had worked hard for three years to build up an image as a professional in the Foreign Ministry and Treasury, lost some of his luster overnight amid the carnival atmosphere and the sweat on his forehead. Then Netanyahu shifted to the Right in an effort to attract the support of Likud activists who, he mistakenly believed, would cast their vote based on ideological issues. He did not realize as Sharon had that the central committee members would prefer to look out for their own welfare rather than that of the thousands evacuated from Gush Katif. Netanyahu formed a joint campaign office with Landau to work for moving up the primary and alienated the general public by bypassing Landau to the Right with extremist statements predicting that disengagement would result in doom for Israel and mankind. He then started an overambitious and even nasty campaign against Sharon, comparing the prime minister and his son to the godfather. This created an impression that the vote was intended solely to serve Netanyahu's interests, and it awakened the natural defense mechanism inside Likud activists to defend their leader. At the same time, Sharon instructed his staff not to say anything negative about Netanyahu, knowing that many Netanyahu supporters would vote against advancing the primary. Sharon also didn't give in to pressure to shift to the Right and wasn't afraid to give a dovish speech at the UN General Assembly, speaking the same way to the world leaders and the central committee members who were listening. Going into the campaign it was known that many Likud activists were upset at Netanyahu for his economic policies which hit Likudniks hard in the pocket and strayed from traditional Likud ideals just as much as they were upset at Sharon for disengagement. But MKs who supported him said they were shocked by the level of antagonism to the man who was once the darling of the central committee. Veteran political strategists said there are a number of steps that Netanyahu can take to bounce back ahead of the primary. There are also a number of events that could take place that could catapult Netanyahu to the Prime Minister's Office regardless of what Netanyahu does over the next few months. The first step, they said, was to maintain his political camp inside the central committee and the Likud faction. He has already worked on that this week, meeting many MKs and activists since Monday's defeat. "He's going to work on rebuilding his political machine that he neglected as finance minister and reinvigorating a solid team of political activists," Netanyahu's bureau chief Yehiel Leiter said. "He's not going to have to need to call press conferences to call attention to himself like Ehud Barak." Another step necessary for Netanyahu is improving his testy relationship with the Hebrew press. One former adviser noted that in television interviews in America he was perceived as a brilliant spokesman while here he is seen as a smooth talker. "In the American media, he comes across more calm and more likable," the adviser said. "Here he was never appreciated by the media, and he is always on the defensive. His intentions are mistaken, his words misinterpreted." The strategists differed over how Netanyahu should act now toward Sharon. Some said that he should take the high road and return to his professional persona. Others suggested that he keep up pressure on Sharon in an effort to force him out of the party. The easiest thing for Netanyahu to do would be to keep a low profile and hope for any of the following possible occurrences: progress in investigations against Sharon, the prime minister to be implicated in the microphone scandal, deterioration in Sharon's health, Kassams hitting the Ashkelon power plant or serious Sharon blunders. Sharon has misjudged the 132,000 Likud members in the past, most notably in the May 2004 Likud referendum on disengagement when he was so over-confident that his spokesman said that a loss was "as likely as Osama bin-Laden converting to Judaism." The same members who were angered when Sharon ignored the results of the referendum will be selecting the Likud's leader, which bodes well for Netanyahu. Leiter said that he is confident that Netanyahu will make yet another comeback and make up for losing Monday's vote by winning the one that counts and becoming prime minister. But he knows that Netanyahu has a lot of work to do. "Two months ago, his image was at its peak as a respected leader who saved the economy," a veteran political strategist said. "He destroyed it all in a few weeks and now he has to start over. He suffered a serious psychological blow that stopped his momentum and he hit a brick wall, but he didn't crash or hit rock bottom. The dynamics of Israeli politics are crazy and in Israel, you can never say never."