Netanyahu and Peres
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres. What seemed like a joke - Peres running - is now a serious matter. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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The one assumption about the upcoming Israeli election is that Benjamin Netanyahu will keep his job. But it is not an inexorable decree of nature that Netanyahu remain prime minister. In fact, Netanyahu has never even finished first in Knesset elections.

In 1996, he won thanks to the now defunct system of direct prime ministerial elections; he mustered 30,000 more votes than did Shimon Peres. Yet in the same elections, Labor, led by Peres, took 50,000 more votes than Likud headed by Netanyahu. The balance of power in the Knesset was 34 seats for Peres, 32 for Netanyahu. Within three years, Netanyahu managed to lose 13 MKs, and bring to the Knesset just 19 Likud parliamentarians. Ehud Barak beat him in the direct elections. (Neither Netanyahu nor Barak completed their terms of office; The discrepancy between the personal triumph and the size of the victorious party in the Knesset eventually led to the scrapping of the direct election system. )

In the 2006 elections, Netanyahu shrank Likud to just 12 MKs, the fourth largest Knesset party, trailing Ehud Olmert (Kadima ), Amir Peretz (Labor ), and even Eli Yishai's Shas party. (Shas had the same number of MKs, but won more election votes; just 116 votes separated Netanyahu and Lieberman, who was forced to be content with 11 MKs ).

In 2009 the Netanyahu-led Likud finished second to Kadima, headed by Tzipi Livni, with her party garnering 30,000 more votes than Likud; but after losing at the ballot boxes, Netanyahu triumphed in the coalition haggling sweepstakes among the elected MKs.

Netanyahu is politically weak

And now, in the merger between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman has piggybacked on Benjamin Netanyahu. This new move brings to mind the description of Israel's economy offered by then Finance Minister Netanyahu: A thin man (the private sector ) sags under the weight of a heavy man who makes a living by plundering the public coffers. Now again, it is the weak man who is carrying the strong man on his shoulders. In contrast to the muscular image which he tries to project through his body language and speech, Netanyahu has always been politically weak.

Under his leadership, Likud has never won Knesset elections; it has never taken more than 32 Knesset seats, and it has not managed to keep key figures on its roster. During his first term as Prime Minister, Netanyahu lost his Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, who was a rival (and was in many respects an early version of Moshe Kahlon ) and he lost his then chief of staff, Lieberman.

Lieberman's piecemeal political success constitutes an optical illusion: He has mainly reaped the dividends of the departure of the politician who won an even higher proportion of the votes of Russian-speakers, Natan Sharansky. The Yisrael Beiteinu party of recent years is the original Yisrael Beiteinu party, added to Sharansky's defunct Yisrael B'Aliyah party.

Obama or Bibi

An Obama victory would clearly bring to office a U.S. president who is no longer willing to indulge Netanyahu. Israeli voters likes their leaders to be assertive, though not so heedlessly hot-headed as to collide head-on with the White House. Given the poor personal connection between Netanyahu and Obama, as well as Netanyahu's patent desire to see Mitt Romney win, the U.S. president would, at long last, cast aside restraint and articulate his position about the Israeli elections - without, heaven forbid, intervening in the internal affairs of a democratic ally.

At this point in the campaign, the polls suggest that the Israeli voter is not particularly swayed by the composition of the various parties or even their political platforms. They don't care who the number 4 or number 8 figure is on Shas's list or Yair Lapid's.

In the final analysis, voters want to feel as though they are not only selecting a parliament, but also choosing a prime minister. That choice might be indirect. But in the end, it places at the head of the executive branch a leader capable of directing Israel in decisions of war and peace.

Former Labor Party chief Amir Peretz was not thought of as such a leader in 2006, not even in the minds of his supporters. Nor did Ehud Olmert possess the necessary leadership image, even though he enjoyed the advantages of his office as acting prime minister, and this allowed him to slip past the barrier of leadership image implausibility, to barely defeat Peretz the novice, and Netanyahu, the failure.

In the January 22 election, the heads of the lists competing against Netanyahu all suffer from a similar image defect. Under the current constellation, none of them comes across as a viable contender who can replace the prime minister, smoothly slipping into his shoes.

At a critical moment in America's Civil War, when President Abraham Lincoln equivocated about removing the Union's hesitant military commander, George McClellan, he was encouraged by Senator Benjamin Wade, who headed the Congressional committee responsible for overseeing the conduct of the war. "Anyone but McClellan," Wade implored Lincoln. "Anybody would do for you, Wade, but I must have somebody," responded the President, who left McClellan in charge of the North's army for a period of time, until he found a replacement.

Israel's election campaign is not yet a civil war, but the decision this time is likely to have consequences on the scale of war and peace - a war with Iran, peace with the Palestinians, a regional settlement. Under the circumstances, the question facing the voters is: Who, if not Netanyahu?

That is the background to the pressure now mounting on President Shimon Peres, calling on him to resign his post and head the camp opposing Netanyahu and Lieberman. What might seem at first to be a joke is actually an extremely grave matter. Peres' decision depends on just a few variables.

Peres is fit for the task. He is in better control of his faculties than were Menachem Begin or Ariel Sharon during their last years as prime minister. It appears that Peres is actually more at ease and focused now than he was during the short months he served as acting prime minister following Yitzhak Rabin's assassination. At that time, he was constrained by a huge emotional burden, and he also erred by holding on to the defense minister portfolio. In 1996, Peres was tired and troubled. That is one of the reasons why he lost the election to Netanyahu.

Peres fell victim to his familiar character trait; he was paralyzed by worries about "what they might say" should he follow a particular strategy. Had he quelled this urge to placate his critics, he would have won the direct prime ministerial election, and not just the Knesset balloting.

If Peres resigns the office of president in order to run in the campaign, this compulsion will likely resurface. That's not the end of the world. That's better than Netanyahu remaining in power as prime minister.

Peres is not chained to the President's House. He can relinquish the remaining 18 months of his term. And the possibility of his losing a campaign is not so terrible; it would constitute a mere footnote in the description of his career which includes two stints as prime minister, and a turn as president, alongside political failures.

In order for Peres to return, he needs to be courted; he won't be the initiator of such a move - he should be pulled into the fray. He didn't lock the door, nor did he slam it, and he has never ruled out such an option. But the door will only be opened through a loud knock and an unequivocal invitation, one that is much more vociferous than the advice to refrain from such a bid that is being voiced in his immediate entourage.

Peres must be convinced that there is a sufficiently large camp which would recommend to his temporary successor as president, Reuven Rivlin, that he receive the right to make the first attempt to forge a coalition after the election.

Peres as Labor head

For this to have any chance of success, Peres would have to head one of the lists, preferably the largest one, the Labor Party. Peres will have to wait for Olmert to announce that he is not a candidate, and for Livni, Lapid and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz to agree to recommend that he form a government, and for Labor Party leader Shelly Yacimovich to concede the top Labor spot to him.

Why would she forego her ambition and make such a choice? The practical alternative she now faces is to serve as the head of the opposition to a Bibi-Lieberman government, or to serve as number two in a Peres government, where she would burnish her credentials for a climb up the final rung of ladder. Should Peres indeed become prime minister, not necessarily for the length of a full Knesset term, his historic mission would be to sweep away the broken refuse of the Netanyahu years, and to relay the mantle of leadership to the next generation. In this respect, his age would not be an obstacle; he would be a kind of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the leader who remained alongside a co-pilot, until the time came to relinquish the steering wheel. The most important thing is not to let Netanyahu crash the plane.

In order to return to an active political role, Peres must resign from the presidency 48 days before the elections. His resignation would take effect 48 hours after an announcement. Counting backwards 50 days from January 22, one reaches early December, four weeks after America makes its choice between Obama or Romney.

This stretch of weeks, from today until December 3rd, will be Peres' longest month. He will begin it with a visit to Russia, staged largely as an attempt to persuade Vladimir Putin not to supply Israel's enemies with advanced surface-to-air missiles and other weapons systems liable to damage vital infrastructure and economic assets. This mission to Moscow will make palpable Peres' involvement in security and diplomatic matters; it will demonstrate his international prestige and strike chords highlighting his bonds with Russian Jewry.

In recent years, Peres has used his influence on matters of genuine significance, such as curbing adventurism in Iran and promoting a formula for a peace arrangement in contacts with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In background talks with journalists, he has been careful not to say anything (such as a quote or recorded remark ) which would reach Netanyahu and irreparably sully their relations.

At the end of one such discussion, the president warned a journalist not to break these rules, lest it be the last such background briefing with him. The journalist promised to respect these rules, explaining: "I will not slaughter with my own hands the goose that lays the golden egg."

To this, a blushing Peres replied: "I am not a goose. And my eggs aren't golden."