A clear and present danger
In a country flooded with surveys, where politicians are fighting with all their might to keep from drowning, Benjamin Netanyahu stands out like a ballet dancer walking on water.
In a country flooded with surveys, where politicians are fighting with all their might to keep from drowning, Benjamin Netanyahu stands out like a ballet dancer walking on water. As the leader of a party with all of 12 seats in the Knesset, and not remembered fondly for his three years and 18 days in the Prime Minister's Office, Netanyahu is now showing up in the opinion polls as capable of easily beating every one of the Kadima candidates in the next elections, from Tzipi Livni and Shaul Mofaz to Ehud Barak.
As Shimon Peres says, surveys are like perfume: They are good for smelling, not for drinking. Nevertheless, Bibi's sprint in the polls, however temporary, may be seismographic evidence of an impending earthquake. But like the splashy newspaper headlines about things that never happen, Bibi's leap could be a false alarm.
What is the secret of this man, who flubbed up as prime minister, who suffered a stinging defeat after three years in office, but is back again, nine years later, topping the charts? Maybe the explanation lies in an old Polish saying: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Non-involvement in the Kadima government and its current failures has worked in his favor. With the personal and political battles now raging in Kadima, Bibi has become a default option.
Israel's political history shows that the right is more forgiving toward its leaders than the left. Menachem Begin lost eight election campaigns, but was never ousted as party chairman. At Camp David, he officially recognized the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people." He was the first to dismantle settlements and lay down the principle that withdrawal in a permanent accord with enemy countries meant withdrawal to the last inch. Right-wingers were great fans of Ariel Sharon when he built the settlements, but that love didn't die when he tore settlements down and shelved the dream of a Greater Israel.
The left, on the other hand, tends to give its leaders the boot. It doesn't have the loyalty of the right. It doesn't forgive and forget.
Bibi was trounced in the polls both for sowing political hatred and for his personal conduct. Here's another one who loves expensive Cuban cigars and the good life. But Likud welcomed him back with open arms. By contrast, nobody has forgiven Barak or put their arms around him, despite his promise of being a changed man. On the right, people rally around their leader on the grounds that it's not his fault. It's the left's fault. On the left, the attitude is: You blew it? Good-bye.
Bibi has an advantage over Barak because his people forgive him. In his camp you won't hear anything like what they're saying in Labor: "If Barak drops in the polls, we'll switch him for someone else." Who will take his place? Peretz? Marciano?
Despite this rise in the polls, Bibi has not made any mistakes yet - mainly because he's not talking. From Sharon, he has learned that silence is also power. But there is no question that he is keeping close track of the goings-on in Kadima. He won't join a unity government headed by Livni, and it goes without saying, a government led by Shaul Mofaz. But he is waiting and watching. Whether anything will change, only time will tell.
Netanyahu wants early elections, not a multiparty coalition. "It doesn't matter who heads this government, because all the ministers contributed to its failures." The people want countrywide elections, he says, not just a reshuffling of the Kadima deck.
Ehud Barak has not taken off, to put it mildly, and as Labor nosedives, Barak has been mainly preoccupied with himself. Some say he is giving the party the cold shoulder, but he claims he is busy rebuilding Israel's power of deterrence.
Bibi is working to strengthen Likud. He has brought in Uzi Dayan, and a whole host of other big names will soon be joining the party. And, of course, he has high hopes that Kadima, many of whose members are former Likudniks, will splinter or shrink.
Shaul Mofaz, who sees himself as the leader of Kadima, is not attuned to what people are saying about him. As someone who declared, within the span of 24 hours, that "Likud is my home" and then absconded to Kadima, he is the last person entitled to criticize the Second Lebanon War. As chief of staff and defense minister, doesn't he bear any responsibility for the miserable state of the army at that time?
With most Israelis not feeling much love for the Olmert administration right now, Netanyahu is emerging as a default option liable to restore the right to power. With the political fault line that runs between the Kadima candidates, Bibi's leap in the polls could become a clear and present danger.