A Last-minute Bid to Block Netanyahu's 'Rescue Me' Campaign

Livni's announcement that she is willing to forfeit a power-sharing deal with Herzog is a maneuver aimed at blocking Netanyahu's maneuver.

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Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni pay a visit to Tel Aviv's Carmel Market during the campaign, March 12, 2015.
Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni pay a visit to Tel Aviv's Carmel Market during the campaign, March 12, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The childish rotation agreement between Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, which never should have been born and always looked like a two-headed calf, came to an end last night, 13 hours before the polls open.

The reasons aren’t that important, but the timing is. Livni’s 11th-hour capitulation was a maneuver aimed at blocking a rival’s maneuver.

For days, the focus has been on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “rescue me” campaign, and the general feeling among key players on Monday was that it is working: Voters who had decamped to Habayit Hayehudi or Kulanu were starting to come home to Likud, narrowing or erasing Zionist Union’s lead.

Zionist Union obviously wasn’t blind to this worrisome development. And the captain of a sinking ship throws all unnecessary equipment overboard to keep it afloat.

In this case, it’s Livni who was thrown, or who jumped. She gave up something she never would have gotten in any case. Only if Zionist Union were to win at least 44 Knesset seats — roughly 20 more than polls predict — could Herzog form a government that would let him hand off the premiership to Livni halfway through the term. In real life, the rotation agreement would only have been a burden during coalition negotiations.

Livni herself proposed ending the rotation agreement about 10 days ago. Campaign strategist Reuven Adler, who always thought the deal was an electoral disaster, quietly agreed. But Herzog — to his credit, he’s a gentleman — said agreements should be honored.

Since then, however, Zionist Union’s lead over Likud narrowed, and according to opinion polls there are voters who detest Livni and dislike the rotation deal who might vote for Herzog if it were broken.

It’s obviously hard to predict the result, good or bad, of the move. (Until Monday, figures in the party said it would be damaging, sending a message of panic and unreliability.) At this stage, it presumably won’t lose the party votes. But will it win additional ones? There’s no way to know.

Listening to Netanyahu’s own response to the development, last night, it was impossible not to notice that he sounded anxious. He knows that today, when five to seven estimated Knesset seats will decide the game, the party on everyone’s lips will be Zionist Union, not Likud.

The campaign didn’t end a day too soon. The past several weeks have been intolerable, a parade of lies and boasts, smears and empty slogans, all recycled endlessly. Monday was a perfect example: Netanyahu’s interview with the right-leaning paper Makor Rishon, in which he repudiated his declared commitment to the two-state solution and vowed that no Palestinian state would be established on his watch, received minimal media coverage. But Zionist Union’s rotation farce was covered as extensively as if it were an Iranian missile landing in Hadera.

The good news is that it will end tonight. The bad news is that at 10 P.M., when the television exit polls are announced, we still may not know the composition of the new Knesset or the identity of the next prime minister.

Three parties — Yahad on the right, Yisrael Beiteinu in the center and Meretz on the left — are polling not far above the four-seat electoral threshold. If turnout is 70 percent or higher, one or more of them may fail to pass the threshold. That could have a dramatic impact on the division of seats, both between and within the blocs.

The vote gap between the two biggest parties, Likud and Zionist Union, will also affect who the prime minister will be. If similar numbers of Knesset members recommend both Herzog and Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin may give first crack at forming a government to the head of the larger party.

Netanyahu has spent the last two days at Likud campaign headquarters in Or Akiva. If Likud loses, his party’s angry members will surely show him the door, and former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar will quickly end the timeout from politics he began about six months ago and seek to inherit Netanyahu’s throne.

Nor will he be the only one. Gilad Erdan, Yisrael Katz and Moshe Ya’alon will probably run against him, and perhaps Silvan Shalom and Danny Danon as well. On Monday, incidentally, two fake Facebook-group pages were opened, “Gideon Sa’ar for prime minister” and “Silvan Shalom for prime minister.” Somebody smells defeat.

Three final comments:

* Whatever the results, former Likudnik Moshe Kahlon will apparently be the kingmaker. The alliances the Kulanu chairman forms tonight and tomorrow will have a critical impact on Israel’s next government.

* The question of whether Likud and Zionist Union will ultimately form a unity government will likely continue being discussed, assuming the results resemble pollsters’ predictions. If these predictions hold, Herzog will find it very hard to form a center-left government; he would need too many parties that refuse to sit together.

* On Monday, Likud threw its Judgment Day weapon into the campaign: a video clip of 75-year-old actor Chuck Norris, one-time star of the old “Delta Force” films, telling Israelis to vote Netanyahu. If that’s Likud’s ultimate weapon, even the rotation saga looks highbrow by comparison.

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