"I'm all out of ideas," moaned one of Tzipi Livni's aides this week. "When we talk to field workers canvassing party voters, the feeling is that Livni is going to lose in the Kadima primaries, by a landslide. But when we analyze the tens of thousands of phone calls we've had with party members and also our own polling data - it looks like Livni is well ahead."
The Kadima primary - pitting Livni against Shaul Mofaz - will be held on Tuesday, and is boiling down to a war between campaign organizers in the various camps. The results will determine whether Kadima remains a legitimate alternative to a Likud government, as the party was in 2006 and 2009, or whether it has completed its role in Israeli politics.
For now, Kadima as a party is lagging well behind in the polls, and would win between 12 and 16 Knesset seats if there were a national election today; that's also about the number Labor and Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu faction are expected to garner. It's also possible that there will be fewer than 10 Kadima MKs in the next parliament.
Kadima is not a political party with a long tradition and rich pedigree. It was born into power, and it survived the last round of elections because many people viewed that vote as a choice between "Bibi or Tzipi" - and did not want Netanyahu. But if centrist-minded voters in Israel feel today that Kadima is no longer a viable political player - the party will simply disappear.
All questions about the party revolve around Livni, who has had a meteoric political career and is the only woman (after Golda Meir decades ago ) who has come close to becoming Israel's prime minister. Livni has survived at Kadima for a longer period of time than her two predecessors: Ariel Sharon, who collapsed a short time after he established the party, and Ehud Olmert, who took the reins from Sharon.
A loss to Mofaz next week is likely to end Livni's political career. Should he win, he will become Kadima's fourth chairman in just over six years. In contrast, in all 64 years of its existence, Likud has had just four leaders.
Few politicians are as different from one another as Livni and Mofaz, and this difference goes well beyond gender: Their worldviews are dissimilar, as are their socio-ethnic roots and their life experiences before entering politics. Everything is different. And they can't stand one another. Should they prove able to work together after the primary, regardless of who wins, it would stun the political arena.
Mofaz believes that a bright political future is ahead of him, and that anyone in the party who really doesn't want another Netanyahu term, will cast his or her ballot for him - not Livni. For her part, Livni says Mofaz lacks ideological vision and will destroy Kadima. She has been fighting for her life in recent weeks. Her supporters are jumping ship, Arab citizens who supported her in the past are turning to Mofaz, but she isn't quitting.
"She's in a frame of mind in which she thinks she has no option other than to win," observed an MK close to Livni. "She's burning up the telephone lines. She's reaching out to everyone, even people she knows won't vote for her."
MK Shai Hermesh, a Mofaz supporter and a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, has learned that Livni is approaching Kadima members in the southern area bordering on the Gaza Strip (Hermesh says there are 700 such party regulars, but insists they will vote for Mofaz on Tuesday ), and lobbying them to vote for her. When asked what's wrong with that, Hermesh said: "She tells these people: 'I know that you want Shai in the next Knesset. I will bring more Knesset seats than Mofaz, so Shai has a better chance of being elected to the Knesset if you vote for me. I will make sure that he serves in the Knesset.'"
When I suggest to Hermesh that that sounds like a legitimate political appeal, he disagrees: "No, it is not. Livni is lying. Throughout this entire Knesset term, she has attacked me, and tried to eliminate me. Now she is telling them I will be in the next Knesset should she head the party. Do you know what she would really do? She'd put me on a blacklist to purge me from the party. But she's not telling that to them."
Monster of a bill
Benjamin Netanyahu really wanted to finish this past week, at the end of the Knesset's winter session, with the legislative process involving the planning and building reform he's been talking about for three years; it's been a top priority for him. Early on in the week, he asked that the Knesset deal with the bill on Tuesday and Wednesday, around the clock, and so be finished with it. Yet his would-be collaborators on this reform - Ariel Atias (Shas ), and Stas Misezhnikov and Faina Kirshenbaum from Yisrael Beiteinu - had other thoughts. Without the help of their parties, Netanyahu doesn't have a majority to push it through.
Drafted with good intentions, the reform bill contains 650 clauses and has turned into an unwieldy monster, whose details are largely unknown to most MKs. Knesset insiders suggest that Netanyahu has lost control of the legislative process: While his back was turned, these sources say, a law was drafted that primarily serves the interests of the wealthy, rather than the run-of-the-mill citizen who is being strangled by bureaucracy.
On Tuesday morning, Netanyahu relented and announced that he would study the law's clauses "carefully" during the Knesset recess, and then try to get the bill passed on second and third readings during the next parliamentary session. But that doesn't sound promising. The next Knesset session, which begins on April 30, will, in all probability, be the one in which early elections will be called. Netanyahu will then be forced to contend with ostensible allies who will begin to jockey for popularity among voters and be far less compromising about a complicated issue of dubious political appeal. So deficiencies in the country's building and planning sphere will probably remain neglected until a new government takes shape in this country.
Netanyahu also wanted this week to advance a bill that would give him authority to decide the future of Channel 2's news company. The original proposal on this issue, submitted by Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, was approved by the government almost a year ago, but the clause in the new bill that deals with Channel 2's news department was not part of the Kahlon version. Netanyahu devoted dozens of hours of work to this clause. Time after time, the new proposal was submitted to the Knesset's economics affairs committee - only to be returned to Netanyahu for further amendment.
This week, the legislation was supposed to be endorsed by the economics affairs committee, but as expected, the opposition raised a hue and cry and the news company sent in its big guns. Committee chairman Carmel Shama-Hacohen announced that discussions on the bill would be deferred until the next Knesset session, so that the legislation will be dealt with "without pressure and timetables."
In recent decades, Israel has not had a prime minister who has tried so ardently to take control of the state's public media outlets. Netanyahu tried to pull the plug on Channel 10. He also tried to dismantle the Educational Channel, or at least force it to merge with the Israel Broadcast Authority; as was the case with Channel 10, the latter effort too has been to no avail.
Netanyahu does not really need to wrest control of media outlets. Even with media in their current arrangement, his status in public-opinion polls is pretty strong. Satisfaction levels with him are in the 50-percent range. When survey respondents are asked about their choice for the prime ministerial position, Netanyahu beats his rivals hands down. His party, Likud, is the most popular and strongest political brand in the country. Still, strong, independent media outlets make the man's blood boil, and he succumbs to an uncontrollable urge to take control of them.
MK Otniel Schneller, a back-bencher from the Kadima party, took top place among parliamentarians in terms of his use of public funds during 2011: Schneller spent NIS 94,000 to finance his parliamentary activity.
As he sees it, he is a serious, dedicated public servant who has, for example, devoted years of work to peace process issues. Every few years he patches together a "diplomatic plan" and traverses the country with it in hand.
Asked by TheMarker correspondent Zvi Zrahiya about his prodigal bills at the public's expense, Schneller replied: "I have developed several comprehensive plans on the peace process issue. I presented them to the American government and various European Union bodies, and to do all that I needed to write a plan, create maps and sketches, and so on."
A few weeks ago, Schneller asked the Knesset for funds to support a three-week trip to Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. He justified his request by saying that he wants to study up-close the way settled populations and refugees lives in these locales. His research, he explained, will help him find a solution to the issue of settlers' status under a peace agreement. The cost of this research expedition, according to a Knesset estimate, was some $20,000.
The Knesset's legal advisers reviewed Schneller's request, and concluded that the connection between dealing with Israel's conflict and a journey to far-off continents is too tenuous. The trip was not authorized.
I asked Schneller about this turn of affairs, and he wondered about how this "secret" information reached me. Then he scolded me about the disdainful way my question was posed (as he saw it ), and then detailed the peace-related activities he has carried out; finally he explained the connection between this activity and the dream trip that was not authorized. Furthermore, he insisted that he himself canceled the trip after he learned of its cost. He also says it would have been too long.
"I wanted to be present in the Knesset - I am the MK with the best attendance record - you must know that," he said.
But you sent the Knesset a letter detailing the trip and its length - so you must have known how long it would take.
"Not really," he replied. "First you send a letter, and then you clarify the details."
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