The Little Engine That Couldn't

The war Netanyahu declared on the Likud Central Committee will push away another few hundred activists.

The Beit Hahayal hall in Tel Aviv was packed this week. Hundreds of Likudniks crammed the place, leaving nowhere to have a conversation. The party members came on buses, from Hatzor Haglilit, Kiryat Shmona, Herzli ya, Hadera. The Likud youth were ecstatic. "Bibi, king of Israel," they shouted over and over, referring to Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu. Their voices mixed with the sounds of the party's jingle, "Onward, Bibi!"

The desiccated Likud leadership sat on the stage, their smiles artificial. Based on the atmosphere here, we'll get 40 seats in the elections, said Silvan Shalom. Does anyone know what Kadima is? Kadima, he said, is like the Cameri Quintet (a popular satirical television show, now defunct). The point is that there is no point. You'll see, on March 28, at night there won't be any room at the Metzudat Ze'ev Likud headquarters because of the festivities.

I read the polls, said MK Uzi Landau. Forty seats for Kadima? Every third Israeli voting for them? Never!

Treacherous people, lamented MK Yuval Steinitz. Treacherous people left us and went to Kadima.

Led by our worthy and beloved leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud is marching to victory, promised MK Gideon Sa'ar. May God bless you, Sa'ar said excitedly, and got off the podium.

MK Yisrael Katz said he had participated in a panel at a new high school in Tel Aviv that morning and saw, to his consternation, two boys wearing Hadash shirts. Jewish youths! Katz said. Communists! Who would have thought? And they dare to attack Benjamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu himself arrived later, and Katz updated him on his speech. Shooting Katz a worried look, Netanyahu said he hoped one of the boys had not been his nephew, Yonatan Ben-Artzi. Earlier that day, the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth had reported that Ben-Artzi, a left-wing conscientious objector and the nephew of Netanyahu's wife Sara, had won the 100th spot on the Hadash list. I don't think so, said Katz.

Don't get it wrong, a senior Likud official said the day after the Beit Hahayal event: The crowd that attended was only the hard core. It's the same people you see everywhere. They're getting ready to be a combative opposition. We have a strange movement, he said sadly: When the whole nation wanted Ariel Sharon, the Likud didn't want him. When the whole nation doesn't want Bibi, the Likud does want him.

Two days later, Netanyahu decided to take the power of selecting the Knesset list away from the Likud Central Committee and have open primaries. There are polls, he said, that predict the Likud could get five additional seats if the power of the central committee is reduced. Even if this is true, it's a strange argument that does not suit a prime ministerial candidate. Even when he does the right thing - and there's no doubt that the central committee should have been crushed long ago - why does he justify it with polls? And if the polls had said that the Likud would win another five seats if Silvan Shalom were to head the movement, would Netanyahu have quit?

No matter how you look at it, Netanyahu's move is one of despair. It's a huge gamble. If it doesn't pan out, the Likud could end up with less than the 14 seats that a Haaretz-Channel 10 poll (conducted by Dialog) predicts the party will get in the elections. Netanyahu apparently has no choice but to take a big risk. The situation in the Likud is worse than most people think. This is not just about the polls; it's about what's going on in the field. It's the Likud's main boulevard that is emptying out. The key local supporters are turning away, one after the other. They are running away from the Likud as though it were a Thai chicken coop infected with avian flu.

Dozens of Likud mayors and deputy mayors have left the party in the last few weeks, in Tiberias, Kiryat Shmona, Kiryat Yam, Kiryat Motzkin, Tirat Carmel, Jerusalem, Givat Shmuel, Givatayim, Ashdod, Kiryat Ono and Yavneh. Large groups of Likud activists, and even whole party branches, have transferred their allegiance to Kadima. These are the people who do the work on Election Day. They are the commanders in the field, the force that sets in motion the volunteers, the youth, the heads of the neighborhood committees and the parent committees.

The war Netanyahu declared on the central committee will push away another few hundred activists. Whether or not his proposal is approved, they will want to take revenge on him for the bad name he is giving them. They have read and will continue to read in the newspapers that Bibi is striving to "purify" politics from them, to "subjugate" them, to "uproot" them from their power.

Most of them hadn't worked with him in the primaries in any case, but with his opponents Silvan Shalom and Yisrael Katz. Is it any wonder that Shalom and Katz have given Netanyahu the cold shoulder? They were born in the central committee, developed in it, were supported by it, and they see Netanyahu's initiative as a targeted assassination aimed at them. They will not make life easy for him.

There's no doubt that Netanyahu wants to establish himself through the confrontation with the central committee. Ariel Sharon did it before him. But Sharon fought the central committee on political, ideological, national issues: a Palestinian state, the disengagement, the formation of a unity government. And the disengagement was in the background even in the last battle Sharon won, which appeared to be a technical question of when to hold the primaries. Netanyahu is portraying his war on the central committee as an electoral issue, and therein lies the difference.

Netanyahu is taking a double gamble. On the one hand, if he wins and gets his proposal passed, there will be serious expectations that the Likud will win more seats. After all, he promised an additional five seats - an increase of 30 percent. If that doesn't happen, the bitter disappointment of the activists still with the Likud will be great. On the other hand, if the central committee defeats Netanyahu's proposal three weeks before the elections, he will look terrible. Kadima is already preparing the appropriate sticker for such a scenario: "Netanyahu. Strong against the Likud?"

Take me, Ehud

The Haaretz-Channel 10 poll, along with similar polls published elsewhere, place Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an almost unique position, shared by only a few Israeli prime ministers. If the polls are borne out in the elections, Olmert will be able to form a coalition of 100 MKs. All the parties, except the Arab ones and the right-wing National Union-National Religious Party conglomerate want to be part of an Olmert government: Likud and Labor, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz-Yahad. "Take me, Ehud," the party leaders will plead.

What coalition will Olmert establish? He is leaning toward a government composed of the Labor Party, the ultra-Orthodox parties, Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz-Yahad. But Olmert associates said the Likud, too, is an option. "Why not swallow the Likud after we almost totally decimated it?" one associate asked.

The question is whether Olmert will follow Sharon's plan and claim the center. That way, the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox would be on Kadima's right, Labor would be on its left and Kadima could frolic among the parties and set one against the other, and none of them will be able to extort demands from the center. I will set up as broad a government as possible, Olmert has said.

This week it appeared that Olmert had freed himself a bit from the bear hug of the advisers trying to shape him into Sharon's image. In an interview with Channel 1 television, he was liberated, sure of himself and more free-flowing than he had been in his last interview, which was aired on Channel 2 about two weeks ago. In the earlier interview, Olmert looked like he was cast in bronze.

A Haaretz investigation of Olmert's activities is apparently only the beginning. One of his advisers said this week that the last two weeks of this crazy election campaign, from the Purim holiday (which falls on March 14) until the elections, will be difficult. Anything can still happen.

The prime minister of Boyer

Uzi Dayan, leader of the Tafnit party, is a tired man. Toward the end of a conversation in a fashionable cafe in the center of Tel Aviv, he yawns. His eyes are closed. His thoughts are scattered. The campaign is exhausting, and the means are depleting. The chances are slim to none. True, everyone says he is "worthy." He was one of the first to talk about a fence and separation (along with Ehud Barak and Haim Ramon). He is a decent, thinking man vaguely reminiscent of former Labor chairman Amram Mitzna, with the same dreamy naivete. But in this election, he and his party will remain outside the Knesset.

He has received advice from a long list of politicians. Labor Party chairman Amir Peretz asked for his support in exchange for a promised ministerial post. "He's not a national leader, and his agenda is the agenda of 'Bread Square,'" Dayan said about Peretz, referring to an anti-poverty protest in an upscale Tel Aviv area that led it to be dubbed "Bread Square." Sharon had made similar promises, but set conditions. "He wanted me to perform all kinds of services - things that [Mossad chief Meir] Dagan does," said Dayan, a former national security adviser. "Like psychological warfare against Palestinians abroad. When Omri [Sharon, the prime minister's son,] brought me for two clarification discussions, I understood what they wanted from me and I broke off contact." Dayan leaned into the cushions behind him and added: "It was accompanied by a package of corruption."

The corruption Dayan attributes to Sharon does not necessarily stem from media reports of the Greek island and Annex Research affairs, which also involve allegations of corruption. It relates to the government behavior to which Dayan was exposed when he was the national security adviser under Sharon. "What corrupt behavior," he recalled. "At the time I was worried. I understood that we were handing our children and grandchildren a country in awful condition. I decided to build some kind of power base. I took a long cooling-off period. I wanted to study the subjects seriously in order to disseminate an agenda that would be a successful agenda." Dayan sighed, saying, "At least that's what I thought."

Dayan is familiar with Olmert's evacuation map, he said, according to which between 70,000 and 90,000 settlers are to be evacuated. That will drain the entire budget, said Dayan, worried. There won't be anything left for social needs, for education, he said.

Dayan flirted with joining the Shinui refugees or with those who remained in Shinui, as well as with his friend Ehud Barak, under whom Dayan served as deputy chief of staff when Barak was prime minister. But nothing came out of the talks he held.

"Barak suggested that I be his No. 2," said Dayan. "It didn't work out. I wouldn't have gone with the agenda of 'trample all the Orthodox.' My wife is religious."

Last Thursday, Dayan sat on a panel of politicians in Jerusalem's Boyer school for gifted students from across the country. The other panelists were Reuven Rivlin from the Likud, Ami Ayalon from Labor and Shaul Mofaz from Kadima - a bunch of generals. "Close your eyes," Dayan told the students. "After all, these aren't real elections, right? You don't have to worry about wasting your vote. Vote for whoever you really want to be in the Knesset. Decide: Do you want me there or the 36th spot for Kadima." About 350 students voted. Of those, 134 chose Tafnit, 48 chose Kadima, 27 went for Labor, and Likud won only 21 votes. Dayan won them over, said Rivlin, because children like fairy tales.

If Dayan had any "satisfaction," as he put it, it stemmed not just from his victory, but from his having shown Rivlin, Mofaz and Ayalon who it is that can speak to young people. "Boyer is an anecdote," Dayan said with his usual seriousness. But then he reached into a pocket of his blazer and removed the piece of paper with the vote distribution written down. He read out the statistics with pleasure, his eyes lovingly caressing the numbers. "I," said Dayan proudly, "am the prime minister of Boyer."