Bibi's Plan for Next Elections: Israel's Own Republican Party

Though he's occupied with Iran, the U.S. Congress and the gas deal, the prime minister is also thinking about the next elections – and a large right-center bloc he would lead to victory.

Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.Credit: Illustration
Yossi Verter

Ask your average person where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's head is and the answer will be: in Iran, in Congress, in the gas deal, on the borders. But his head is also into the next election, and big-time. He’s like a Syrian refugee in the Budapest train station: He sees his present term as a transit point to the coveted land known as a fifth term in office. That will make him the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history. Longer than David Ben-Gurion.

There’s nothing wrong with that. An Israeli prime minister can never know how long he will be in office – when a severe crisis will erupt, or when he’ll get fed up with his coalition partners or they with him. A four-year term rarely lasts that long. So the ground has to be prepared in advance. A year – even two – ahead.

Which is exactly what Netanyahu is doing. In the past few weeks, and even before, in talks with the leaders of the coalition parties, he has put forward a scenario known in his circles as the “Republican Party.” By this he means a large right-center bloc that will run as one party in future elections. “That is the only way it will be possible to rule,” he tells his interlocutors. “Just like in America: two parties, two blocs, right and left.”

This is self-evident when it comes to Naftali Bennett, the education minister and leader of Habayit Hayehudi. Bennett has no other prime minister and Netanyahu has no other automatic partner. But Netanyahu has also been regaling Finance Minister and Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon with the same spiel.

“The public wants to see us together,” he tells him repeatedly (undoubtedly on the basis of polls). “Together we are 40 Knesset seats easily [Likud has 30 and Kulanu 10, at present]. Add another party or two and the story is over.”

By “a party or two” Netanyahu means of course Habayit Hayehudi – without the extremist Tekuma wing, which he sees as something that frightens voters – and also Yisrael Beiteinu, which he thinks still retains roots among the Russian community.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai.Credit: Moti Milrod

A political source who was recently updated about these overtures says that the prime minister has also presented his idea in talks with the leaders of Shas and United Torah Judaism. Maybe he wanted them to realize that he sees them as allies, but the ultra-Orthodox parties will never run as part of a secular bloc. The rabbis will veto the idea.

The Bennett scenario may be feasible, but the Kulanu option is likely to remain wishful thinking. Kahlon fled Likud because of Netanyahu. He will not be in a hurry to tie his future to the prime minister again.

True, in the last election, the overwhelming majority of Kulanu’s voters came from the right-wing bloc, including Likud. He was out to shatter the glass ceiling of the “national camp” but had only partial success. In the eyes of the voters, he is a Likudnik.

And Lieberman? Well, no one in the political arena wants to see Netanyahu go home more than Lieberman. But with him you never know. Nor do you really know anything about anyone else.

You can't always get what you want

Netanyahu shot out of his chair, obviously excited. The natural gas framework agreement, so dear to his heart, had just been approved by the Knesset. A broad smile spread across his face. He applauded himself, drawing a reprimand from the Speaker. His eyes darted every which way, as though in search of someone with whom to share his joy. But the ministers were totally apathetic. They were deep in conversation on their cell phones. No one stood up.

Having no other choice, Netanyahu strode toward his friend-in-need, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz, and gave him a half-hug. He then rushed to declare, for the benefit of the cameras, “In the end, I get what I want!”

The premier was referring to the big hurdle he has yet to overcome: finding the bureaucratic mechanism for persuading Economy Minister Arye Dery – or coming up with the miracle that will otherwise extricate the agreement from its legal morass and “get the gas out of the ground.”

“I know,” Netanyahu said to interlocutors who expressed disappointment at the fact that the parliamentary approval is no more than an empty declaration lacking any practical significance. “You want the score to be 4-0 for me. Right now it’s 3-0. I moved the agreement through the security cabinet, the whole cabinet and now the Knesset. Have no worry, I will score a fourth goal, too.”

The next day he canceled eight interviews he’d scheduled in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah, pleading timetable problems, and wrote a Facebook post boasting of his achievements – some of them delusionary and exaggerated, some of them the fruits of the labor and vision of other ministers. On Wednesday morning, his plane sliced through the curtain of dust and sand that covered Israel and the Middle East, on the way to cool, refreshing London, for high-level talks.

It has to be admitted that our prime minister is behaving a bit oddly of late. In his Facebook post, he accused “the media” of deliberately hiding some of his tremendous successes from the public. Where was the holiday spirit?

During the election campaign, he deliberately chose to clash with the “left-wing” media, to scream that he was a victim of discrimination and claim that he was being personally persecuted. Likudniks lapped it up and went in droves to vote.

It’s not clear whom he’s complaining about now. The man doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t hold press conferences, doesn’t answer questions when he finds himself facing reporters – and in general is coldly contemptuous of the battered representatives of the written and electronic media.

His mood oscillates between permanent sourness and behavior bordering on extreme megalomania, even by his immodest standards. Whereas the West is gradually acknowledging that contemporary leaders must be more transparent and open in their approach to the media, Netanyahu is plunging ever deeper into isolationism, insularity and suspiciousness, compounded by burgeoning hubris. He’s developing saliently Nixonian traits, but lacks a Henry Kissinger to give him good advice.

Five weeks ago, he decided to boycott President Reuven Rivlin, after the latter criticized the prime minister’s provocative behavior vis-a-vis U.S. President Barack Obama on the Iranian issue. Rivlin revealed the existence of the prolonged silence between them in an Army Radio interview on Wednesday.

The original pretext for the unilateral severance of relations was a series of interviews Rivlin gave in early August to mark the end of his first year in office. By chance, he and Netanyahu were scheduled to hold their monthly meeting on August 7, a Friday morning. The previous evening, Netanyahu viewed a preview of the interviews on the television news broadcasts. His blood boiled, as he no doubt thought to himself: Who does this president think he is, expressing a view different from mine?

He phoned Rivlin. “I am the prime minister,” he berated him. Rivlin responded as he saw fit against the person who fought bitterly to deny him the presidency. “Fine, we have to meet,” Netanyahu said in conclusion. At midnight the President’s Residence received a call from the Prime Minister’s Bureau stating that Netanyahu had changed his mind and would be a no-show.

Since then, the two have neither met nor spoken. Their last working meeting took place on July 17 of this year.

Netanyahu has no close advisers, confidants, people who will tell him to breathe deeply and count to 10 when needed. Politicians who are frequent visitors to his bureau describe a kind of disturbing void around him. A few weeks ago, he met with an acquaintance from abroad in his official residence in Jerusalem. The visitor later related that when Mrs. Netanyahu came into the room, her husband said that it was only thanks to her that he won the election this past March. He described his son Yair as “the best political strategist in the country.”

It’s not surprising that the strategy in the last election was decided in the Balfour Street residence, around the family’s dining-room table. The instructions and orders came from there. And it worked for him. That’s a fact.

Elusive goal

Until the last minute on Monday, when the Knesset debated the gas framework agreement, the campaign of pressure, threats, temptations and pleas aimed at MKs from the coalition and the opposition by the Prime Minister’s Bureau continued relentlessly. Netanyahu had a majority wrapped up thanks to most of the Yisrael Beiteinu MKs. The problem lay in transferring the relevant powers from Economy Minister Dery to the government.

Three recalcitrant ministers (Moshe Kahlon, Yoav Galant and Haim Katz) refused to take part in the vote, each pleading a conflict of interests. Yisrael Beiteinu leader MK Avigdor Lieberman refused to bail out Netanyahu.

Lieberman, who strongly supports the framework, believes, rightly, that it’s not his role to come to the aid of Netanyahu, who is displaying impotence in managing his coalition. “Bibi should have pounded on the table and told the ministers: Either you vote in favor or we’re going to an election. If he didn’t do that, why should I help him?” Lieberman said.

In the hours ahead of the vote, the Prime Minister’s Bureau realized that there was a stalemate vis-a-vis the transfer-of-powers part of the agreement: 58 in favor, 58 against. They tried Yisrael Beiteinu, they tried the Joint Arab List, but they couldn’t come up with the one missing vote.

For his part, Netanyahu summoned Haim Katz, from Likud, who had declared that he was unable to take part in the voting because he holds shares in the energy company. He also called in the Knesset’s legal adviser, Eyal Yinon, and Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. “Explain to him why he is allowed to vote,” he told Yinon.

The legal adviser stated that in the Knesset, as opposed to the cabinet, MKs are not restricted by conflicts of interest of any kind. If an MK thinks he has a conflict of interest, all he has to do is state this for the record and he is legally and constitutionally permitted to vote.

In any event, Yinon said to Katz, almost every vote in the Knesset plenum on almost every bill that benefits citizens financially in some way involves a conflict of interest of some sort, as MKs are also citizens. Yinon’s arguments were reasoned and illuminating.

Netanyahu fixed expectant eyes on Katz. “Well, Haim?” But Katz was not persuaded. Because of him, Netanyahu’s fourth goal remains a midsummer night’s dusty dream.

What makes Ron run?

One letter – not revealing much in the way of leadership or vision, but more businesslike and procedural in tone – got Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai the national attention he was looking for. In the letter, sent by email to Labor Party leader MK Isaac Herzog earlier this week, Huldai urged that elections for the party’s institutions take place soon and that the primary be held for Labor’s leadership within seven or eight months, as the party’s constitution stipulates.Huldai understands what others – Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich, former army Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Hatnuah MK Amir Peretz, who has said he is returning to Labor – also understand: namely, that Herzog wants to postpone the leadership vote for as long as possible, even until the end of 2017, on the grounds that “the party needs quiet.” Such a delay would probably also be aimed at ensuring that Herzog leads the party again in the next election. Huldai, who turns 72 next year, would thus be two years older when the primary takes place, if it indeed it does. He knows that it’s now or never for him, and that even now it’s borderline.

Huldai is closer to deciding to run than he was six months ago, though he’s not there yet. He is proud of his good health, and his heart is whispering to him: Run, Ron, run. His common sense is no doubt asking: Why do you want to stick your head into that hornets’ nest? Huldai is not a man of sentiments; there is no one more rational than he. His impatience and his short fuse have become legendary. The endless attention he will have to devote to the nuisances in the party is a serious obstacle for him. Unlike Herzog and Yacimovich, and even Peretz, he has no camp within the party. He’ll have to garner votes from scratch, from the coffers of others.

Huldai believes that he of all people, the ultimate representative of the State of Tel Aviv, would be able to succeed where Herzog failed: to pick up votes from the right-wing camp. He’s done it time after time for 17 years in his city. He told one interlocutor that it would be easier for him to be elected prime minister than to be elected leader of the Labor Party.

He has the potential to cause serious damage, especially to Herzog. Both of them draw on the identical voter base: older, affluent Ashkenazim. If Huldai enters the arena, he is capable of siphoning off enough votes from Herzog so that the latter will not make it into a second round against, say, Yacimovich or Peretz, or in an extreme and more exciting case, against Ashkenazi, who is waiting for the attorney general to close the investigation against him.

The cooperation between Peretz and Yacimovich, bitter rivals and mutual loathers in the past decade, is increasing. Some say that a deal is in the making between them: Peretz, who has announced his return to Labor (which he left and to which he returned and then left again and is now returning again – enough to make one’s head spin), will support her run for party leader, and she will back him in a bid to return to leadership of the Histadrut labor federation. One theory posits a far-reaching, opposite deal: She will run for Histadrut leader with his backing, and he for the party leadership.

These rumblings are the reason that Histadrut chairman Avi Nissenkoren has forged an alliance with Herzog, and will help him push through a resolution at the party convention after the holidays to defer the primary. Nissenkoren’s motive is transparent. The Histadrut election is scheduled for May 2017. If the election for the Labor leadership is postponed until the end of that year, the candidates will need him and his legions. But if the internal decision in Labor is made before then, no one will pay any attention to him.

By the way, Nissenkoren is not a member of the Labor Party and has never been. Which doesn’t stop him from poking his nose into its affairs and showing up at meetings in close company with Herzog. They’re the epitome of charisma, that duo. Pale and delicate, they look like your standard schoolboy nerds.

Like son, like mother

After the last election, this column averred that the Netanyahus wanted to pave the way for their son, Yair (“the strategist”) to enter the next Knesset. He was increasingly seen at his father’s side at public events and photo-ops. This trend is continuing.

As he does every year, Netanyahu this week attended the traditional gathering of the founders and elderly heads of the Tagar Circle in Likud. They were the first to spot the then-young Benjamin Netanyahu as the next big thing, the Great White Hope, when he returned to Israel from the United Nations in 1988. They adopted him, supported him, lobbied for him. And he has never forgotten them. Very sporting of him.

The latest meeting – held at the Great Synagogue on Allenby Road in Tel Aviv – saw two innovations: 1. Yair was there, too, and had his picture taken with the activists and Likud Central Committee members who were present; and 2. Sara Netanyahu, who usually turns up at these sentimental gigs, also came – but this time she delivered a speech. Three people spoke: Tel Aviv chief rabbi Meir Lau, the prime minister and the prime minister’s wife.

A few days later, the couple flew off to London. The next day, Netanyahu’s Facebook page carried a photo of his working meeting with the leaders of British Jewry, and there was Sara sitting on his left, as though she were his bureau chief or political adviser. Make no mistake: It wasn’t a luncheon, it wasn’t a social event. It was a full-fledged working meeting, with Bibi & Sara in attendance.

The warning lights in Likud started to flash and the internal party network buzzed and hummed. People wondered: Is Sara also planning to run in the next election on the Likud list, whether it’s part of a bloc or not? Although that sounds utterly hallucinatory, in our country hallucinations, unlike dreams, can come true.

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