Betting on the wrong horse: The night Benjamin Netanyahu will not soon forget
The mistaken advice from political whiz Arthur Finkelstein, the painful glitch called Naftali Bennett and the re-election of Barack Obama – the astonishment that seized Netanyahu and his advisers this week was absolute as it was authentic.
The astonishment that seized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers on Wednesday morning, as President Barack Obama crossed the threshold of 270 electoral votes needed to return him to the White House, was as absolute as it was authentic. Netanyahu was utterly convinced that the presidency was in the pocket of the candidate of his choice, his old buddy Mitt Romney. In private conversations, he ridiculed anyone who advised him not to rule out a scenario in which the other candidate was the winner.
What made Netanyahu and his political adviser, the American-born Ron Dermer, ignore the various polling analyses - such as Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight blog for The New York Times - that were published every day in the American media, and that almost universally predicted an Obama victory?
That question has a two-word answer: Arthur Finkelstein. Until the end, the legendary strategic adviser and polling expert - who is working with Netanyahu and his running mate in the upcoming election in January, Yisrael Beiteinu's Avigdor Lieberman - hammered it into their heads that Mitt Romney would be the next president of the United States. Finkelstein predicted a 4 percent win for Romney in the popular vote (he lost by approximately 2 percent) and victories in all the swing states (Romney lost all but one).
For Netanyahu, Arthur's word is sacred. He just has to hope that Finkelstein's forecast for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket - 45 seats - will be more accurate. Likud's Knesset contenders, especially the MKs and newcomers who are huddled on the fringes of the list, have to pray that the meta-pollster isn't making another meta-mistake.
The day after the election, Netanyahu went into battle mode. Cabinet ministers were instructed not to talk about Obama. Members of the prime minister's close circle mobilized to rebuff allegations that their boss had intervened in the American elections. "What, we intervened? No way," the confidants shot back angrily. "Show us one specific place of intervention. It's an allegation people are concocting to hurt the prime minister. Both candidates used the prime minister in their election campaign. Both candidates debated which of them has closer ties to Israel and with the prime minister."
Asked about the extraordinarily warm welcome candidate Romney got when he visited Israel last summer, a member of Netanyahu's staff said, "Not true. We checked it out and found that Obama, as a presidential candidate in July 2008 [when Ehud Olmert was prime minister], got the same degree of warmth, including a meal in the Prime Minister's Residence, just like Romney. By the way, Obama was also given a helicopter tour of Israel, which Romney did not get. So where does the story of crude intervention come from? From the [link to] Sheldon Adelson. He is a friend of Netanyahu's and a major donor to Romney. That's true. But it doesn't make Netanyahu someone who worked for Romney in the campaign. "
Generally speaking, all the above is correct. If there was any taking of sides - and there was - it was manifested more in nuance. Netanyahu's key mistake with regard to Obama in recent months, a hypersensitive period, was to sharpen the critical message about him in connection with Iran and to draw the "red lines." In the case of Iran, Netanyahu went out of his way to send a message to American Jewry that a second term for Obama would be bad news for Israel. For that he will have to pay a price - at a rate, time and place to be chosen by the president.
"The best is yet to come," Obama promised U.S. citizens in his victory speech. What do the next four years hold out for Obama-Netanyahu relations, on the assumption that Netanyahu, too, will be re-elected in January? Good they won't be. The only question is how bad they will be.
A small hitch
Netanyahu will remember the night between November 6 and 7, 2012, as a nightmare. It started with the election of his former chief of staff, Naftali Bennett, as chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, and ended with the re-election of Obama.
For Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu, Bennett is a painful glitch. Here, too, they hoped that the other candidate, MK Zevulun Orlev, would win in the party's internal election. Natan Eshel, Netanyahu's troubleshooter, intervened ruthlessly in the party's primaries in a desperate effort to stop Bennett. But to no avail.
The 40-year old Bennett, who made a bundle when he sold his high-tech firm, was unceremoniously dumped as Netanyahu's chief of staff (during the period when Bibi headed the opposition) for daring to protest the Lady's intervention in political matters. Now he has triumphantly returned to politics as the leader of a party.
Netanyahu called Bennett to congratulate him and added that he anticipates his being an integral part of his third government. Not that he has a choice: In the emerging parliamentary constellation, he will have a hard time forgoing Habayit Hayehudi-National Union. And Bennett will have a hard time declining a cabinet portfolio.
Incidentally, it took Netanyahu 20 hours to call Bennett after learning of his victory. Last February, when Zahava Gal-On was elected as leader of Meretz, Netanyahu called her with heartfelt congratulations exactly five minutes after the news was broadcast in the media.
We are entering the fifth or sixth week of waiting for an announcement of intentions from Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni - the Hansel and Gretel of Israeli politics. They will have to decide by December 6, the final date that parties can submit their candidate lists to the Central Elections Committee.
Olmert received good news and bad news this week. The good news was the reelection of Barack Obama, which ensures the continuation of the Ice Age in relations between the American and Israeli leaders. During Olmert's three years as prime minister, his personal relations with the president of the United States were friendly and intimate - a rare case. But it's hard to believe that the decision in America this week will generate a meaningful transition of votes from the Likud-right bloc to the center-left bloc. And without that, Olmert has nothing to hope for in the election.
The bad news is the state prosecution's sweeping appeal to the Supreme Court against his acquittals in the Morris Talansky and Rishon Tours cases, as well as the light punishment he was given in the one case in which he was convicted - on charges of breach of trust - in regard to the Investments Center.
The prosecution showed no consideration for what Olmert has gone through so far. His legal battle is starting anew and is likely to last for several months. If even only part of the appeal is accepted, he will not be able to serve as prime minister. And we haven't yet mentioned the Holyland real estate affair, for which he is still on trial.
Olmert is expected to return to Israel on Tuesday, after a week of holding meetings and giving talks in the United States. The prospects for a political turnabout under his leadership were, and remain, extremely poor. But Olmert continues to project to interlocutors passion in his eyes and his heart. On the one hand, they find it hard to believe he will announce that he is not running; and on the other, they don't understand why he wants to run.
In contrast to Olmert, Tzipi Livni is not sure about her chances of fomenting change if she runs alone. In a meeting with President Shimon Peres three weeks ago, she urged him to resign immediately and place himself at the head of a party and of the center-left bloc, with her at his side. Since that meeting, the first time she raised the idea, they have spoken again about this option. Peres didn't kick her out the first time, nor did he shush her the following times. But he didn't say yes, either.
There is merit to the idea of having a person who will celebrate his 90th birthday next summer try to become prime minister of the most complicated and most difficult country to manage on Earth, the idea's proponents say. First, because of his trans-political popularity, Peres is the only one capable of getting people to switch their vote from one bloc to the other. Second, because of his very good relations with the three key figures in Shas - Aryeh Deri, minister Ariel Atias and spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - he is the only one who can do the impossible: namely, wrench Shas from Netanyahu's arms and co-opt the Haredi-Sephardi party to his bloc after the election.
Livni continues to exert heavy pressure on the Old Man. Haim Ramon told Peres that if he does not pick up the gauntlet, he can already start to prepare the writ of appointment for Netanyahu to form the next government.
This week, Peres told Israeli reporters who accompanied him on his visit to Moscow, "I am the president of Israel and I am not occupied with other things, nor will I be." Peres knows how to be sharp and clear when he wants to be. When he wants to be vague he chooses his words with tweezers, as he did on this occasion.
The talk about a Peres-Livni ticket (without Olmert, in this scenario) has seeped into the offices of senior figures in the Likud, including the most senior of all. One of the leaders of the ruling party, asked this week how Likud and Netanyahu would deal with Peres as a candidate for prime minister, said, "We will deal with him with a hard hand. He will be nostalgic for the 'broken glass' campaign ads of 1996 [which showed Peres and PLO leader Yasser Arafat walking hand in hand with the sound of broken glass in the background, evoking a terrorist attack]. We will run footage every evening of him falling asleep during a TV interview with a Japanese or South Korean reporter. Every evening, over and over. And we will demand a comprehensive medical report on his condition - and no, not from Dr. [Rafi] Walden, his son-in-law."
We were told from Peres' close circle that he is not in the habit of commenting on private conversations he holds in his bureau with people from the political world. As for the possibility that he will be a contender for prime minister, his confidants say, "Peres is not running. Period."
According to Livni confidants, in the past few weeks she has examined every possibility of creating a centrist alternative to the right wing. Within that framework, she told the president that there is no one more worthy than him to lead the camp. "The question of her position on a united list of that kind did not come up," the confidants noted.