Too late, too soon
Today's election taught Benjamin Netanyahu a painful lesson: Likud under his leadership has become largely irrelevant to the major issues of this campaign.
Two months ago he discovered, too late, that Labor Party chair Amir Peretz had fired up the public over socioeconomic issues, and he therefore hastened to announce his "social welfare" plan. Later, he discovered that Ehud Olmert, relying on public opinion polls and his own well-developed political instincts, had developed a new product called "convergence," which was meant to attract floating voters from both left and right. And then, once again too late, Netanyahu declared that the elections were a referendum on the future of the territories. But most of the public has long since ceased to care about the territories; all it wants is to finally have quiet (and to put all the Arabs behind a high wall). Thus this definition failed to move it. Netanyahu understood too late that anyone who cares about the future of the territories will vote for National Union, while those who admire his neo-liberal economics can vote for Avigdor Lieberman and, as a bonus, also get the promise of cleansing "the Jewish state" of hostile elements.
Too late, Netanyahu understood that everyone to whom he preached 10 years ago, out of deep belief in the ideological and security necessity of the entire Land of Israel, has moved from Likud, which waffled over the disengagement, to the parties to its right, while everything he did during his term as finance minister, out of deep belief in rightist economic theories, has apparently caused many voters to move from Likud to Labor. But these elections also took place too soon for Netanyahu. At campaign rallies yesterday night, as he listened to the anger of traditional Likud voters who cannot forgive him for his welfare cutbacks, and to whom Kadima is offering a tempting new home, he still sounded confident that what looks now like a big bang will end up being Likud A and Likud B, and that the battle over who will lead the larger Likud is not over.
Netanyahu is angry and frustrated. He is convinced that the media mobilized behind Kadima. Somehow, in this bizarre campaign that reshuffled the deck between left and right, his messages failed to resonate the way they once did. Even when he warned that Olmert is acting like an ostrich by promising to give territory to Hamastan and tried to put the division of Jerusalem at the top of the agenda, the polls continued to predict a poor showing.
Unfortunately for him, his greatest success received no media coverage, even though he surely sees it in the field. That was his success in retaining a hard core of voters in the old Likud, despite the many blows - the disengagement, the establishment of Kadima, Ariel Sharon's tragic departure from the political stage, the anger over his economic policies. Those who will vote Likud today are not just the people whose hands tremble when they think of picking up a different ballot slip. Many of them - mostly young people, mostly the self-employed and owners of medium-sized businesses, but also many salaried employees at all income levels - admire Netanyahu for his determined performance as finance minister.
"He understands economics," they say. "He proved that he is serious."
Ten years after he took Israeli politics by storm, made fatal mistakes, left and came back, grew stronger and then weaker, Netanyahu is seen, by a not insignificant public, as a success. From this perspective, the hasty press conference at which he laid out his "social welfare" program and promised to restore funding to all those whose allowances were cut was unnecessary. If there is anything that Netanyahu succeeded in establishing solidly, it was his economic theories. Only this earned him respect and credibility among the business elite, the economic journalists and also a hard core of voters.
His associates still hope that he can head a rightist "blocking majority" that would prevent Kadima from forming a government. He himself is still hoping for a surprise. But he evidently knows that it is both too late and too soon, and that he must now focus on mobilizing his forces for the great dramas that still await him in the future.