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Garbage Time: The Likud-right-religious Bloc Ahead by a Large Margin

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We wanted so much to believe that the last days before the election would be the most riveting, tempestuous and tense period of the campaign. In short: money time. But what we experienced in the past week brings to mind a different term from pro basketball: garbage time. The long stretch when one team is ahead by a large and irreversible margin, the players skitter listlessly on the court and fans glance at their watches.

The bottom line remains unchanged: The Likud-right-Haredi bloc is leading. Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, despite its ongoing weakness, is set to win about twice as many seats as the next-largest party. And every poll has Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister.

Despite that, what were the high points of this past week? Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni came out with a blueprint for restarting the peace process. She could just as easily have presented a platform for closing the hole in the ozone layer. Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich announced that immediately after her election as prime minister, she will establish an emergency social-economic government. This is someone who once confessed to being addicted to sci-fi movies. And the head of Yesh Atid, Yair Lapid, held a press conference to recycle for the 22nd time (the number of seats he predicted his party would get at the start of the campaign ) his promise that he and his colleagues will not agree to serve as ministers without portfolio.

Naftali Bennett, chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, was quoted in this newspaper a few days ago as saying that Greater Israel is not the main focus of his party, that he and the others are not extremists, and that they will work, as ministers, on behalf of all the people of Israel, not only for the settlers. ("Let's see him say that to the [settlers' newspaper] Makor Rishon," a minister from the ruling party responded dryly. )

Bennett came out with that message parallel to an election broadcast by Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu in which the outgoing chairman of the Yesha Council of settlements, Dani Dayan, says about Bennett (who served under him ), "I don't trust his judgment." Dayan warned that Bennett - who once declared that Netanyahu was worse than Tzipi Livni, after the prime minister ordered the evacuation of three settler outposts to abide by a court ruling - would not hesitate to topple the government over any such future evacuation.

"Bennett wants to head us off at the pass," a senior Likud figure said. "He knows that in the final days of the campaign, we will warn his public against voting for the extreme right. To prevent a movement of voters from him to us, he is conveying the message, 'Don't be afraid of me: I am responsible, I am moderate, I have good judgment, I am not the same type of right wing that toppled Likud governments twice and got left-wing governments twice" - in 1992 and 1999.

"He may think he's like that," the Likud figure added, "but what about the off-the-wall woman he is dragging in his wake? What about the other residents of Bennett-town? Some of them aren't even from his party, but from the rabbis' party, Tekuma. Will they listen to him? Will they even stay together after the election?"

Formative events

The current election campaign chalked up some dramatic developments before the parties submitted their final lists of candidates. There was the saga of Ehud Olmert trying to decide whether to run; the atomization of Kadima; the withdrawal from the race of Ehud Barak and Moshe Kahlon; the ouster of Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan from Likud's slate and the upgrading of the hard-core right; and the amazing surge by Bennett, who came out of nowhere, glued together two archaic parties that between them had seven seats on a good day - and became the hot story of this campaign.

Still, there were two formative events determining the fate of the election: the union between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu which took place; and the "anti-union" between Shelly Yacimovich and Tzipi Livni, as Labor's Nos. 1 and 2, respectively - which did not take place. The former move sealed Netanyahu's reelection, albeit as head of a leaner faction. The latter did away with the possibility that the campaign would be fought between two equal parties separated by only a few seats: Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu under Netanyahu & Lieberman, and Labor under Yacimovich & Livni.

If Livni had joined Yacimovich early on, Labor would now have 27-30 seats in the surveys, with Yacimovich raising the social-welfare banner and Livni promoting the peace process. And no one would have been able to accuse Yacimovich of neglecting that process.

What was Livni thinking when she decided to run on her own? At most, she dreamed of becoming Netanyahu's foreign minister. Let's say the incredible came to pass and she had received that appointment - he would have kept her constantly "hitting the gas in neutral," as the saying goes.

Under Yacimovich, in contrast, she would have had a free hand, full backing and a blank check. After all, the differences between the two in terms of the peace process are less than a hair's breadth. Livni has made a tremendous journey: from the Revisionist Herut and Betar movements, as the daughter of Eitan and Sara Livni, two prominent members of the pre-state Irgun led by Menachem Begin, to her position today, alongside Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On, as an advocate of a peace agreement with the Palestinians, whose final price everyone knows. So she could live with that kind of ideological turnabout but not with a bit of a social-democratic orientation?

Sharing the burden

At the start of the campaign, Netanyahu was asked to explain the secret of his government's stability - it lasted four full years, despite the plethora of contrary forecasts that accompanied its genesis. He replied with one word: “Lieberman.” No wonder Netanyahu’s first step was to create a union of their two parties’ slates.

At its inception, the outgoing government had 39 cabinet ministers and deputy ministers. Netanyahu dished out jobs generously, to extinguish quickly and effectively any possible ember of dissatisfaction. Habits die hard. Netanyahu will justify the large number of ministers in his next government by citing the tough challenges facing Israel, of which the major one will be to leave him in the Prime Minister’s Bureau for as long as possible.

Netanyahu also applied the key lesson from the failure of his first term in office, in 1996-1999. This time he brought a party from the other bloc into the government Labor, under Ehud Barak and pampered it. It’s very likely that in his third government he will again offer jobs and portfolios to rope in one or two parties from the other side of the corral. Those parties will probably be Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima.

In private conversations, Netanyahu is saying that in the coalition negotiations which will begin unofficially next Wednesday, and officially once the final results of the election are announced he will ask the potential partners to agree to a significant change in the idea of “sharing the burden equally.” He will present a framework for legislation that will incorporate elements from a plan drawn up by Vice Premier Moshe Ya’alon, and from another by Lapid to draft the ultra-Orthodox. He plans to submit the bill to the Knesset in the summer.

“All the suggestions will be fused, and the new law will be significantly different from the past,” sources close to Netanyahu said this week. “There will be a considerable increase in the draft, but also an element involving entering the labor market. The Haredim, too, understand that the past is gone for good.”

Netanyahu was asked about the principles on the basis of which the new government will be formed. “Economic responsibility; a responsible, sober-eyed political process [with the Palestinians]; greater sharing of the burden; a reduction in the cost of living and the cost of housing; and safeguarding the country’s security might,” he replied in closed conversations. Translated into coalition politics, these slogans produce a government consisting of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi, Yesh Atid, Kadima and maybe also Shas, if it agrees to compromise on the draft of yeshiva students.

That’s a coalition of some 75 MKs and a government that is not dependent on any single faction. In this scenario, United Torah Judaism, which doesn’t want to hear about the drafting of so much as one Haredi youngster, will be in the opposition. Netanyahu knows that it’s not really in the opposition when it comes to issues other than the draft. Deals can always be struck with UTJ in return for a few million shekels for its yeshivas.

No hunt for a successor

The question of who will get what portfolio is an intriguing one. For the lesser portfolios education, transportation, interior, justice, industry and trade it depends on the number of seats, the identity and strength of the partners, and the intra-coalition balance of terror. After the portfolios are distributed about five weeks from today Likud MKs will be summoned to the prime minister and he will dole out what’s left.

In the outgoing government, Netanyahu ensured that the two coveted portfolios of defense and foreign affairs did not go to his party. He did not want to create a successor such as Moshe Ya’alon, for example. That was a painful lesson that he learned from his first term as prime minister (1996-1999), when the defense minister was Yitzhak Mordechai. With the foreign affairs portfolio slated to be held for Lieberman until his trial ends and the defense portfolio probably going to Ya’alon this time (though the option of leaving it in Ehud Barak’s hands, at least until the end of this year when the Iran issue is supposed to reach the point of no return still exists), Netanyahu still has the finance portfolio to offer.

In 2009, the treasury went to Yuval Steinitz at the next-to-last minute. Netanyahu had planned to serve as prime minister and finance minister, and to make Steinitz a junior minister in the treasury. Steinitz applied tremendous pressure on Netanyahu, of the sort that would break even a Sayeret Matkal commando.

Contrary to the accepted wisdom, Sara Netanyahu, the PM’s wife, did not want her confidant Steinitz in the Finance Ministry. She wanted her hubby there. But Netanyahu cracked under the pressure and appointed Steinitz, even though he possesses no political clout. To ensure domestic harmony, he declared himself “supreme minister for economic strategy” when the new government was installed on March 31, 2009. That was the first time Steinitz heard of the new post in the plenum.

It’s likely that this time the portfolio will go to Gideon Sa’ar, who finished first in the Likud primaries, or to Gilad Erdan, who came in second. Not to be ruled out is the possibility that Steinitz will retain the portfolio or that someone from outside the party will be appointed. At this stage, any guess makes sense.

But whoever the next finance minister is, he will have to possess suicidal inclinations. His job will be to clean out the dirt, seal up the hole and pick up the pieces remaining from the outgoing government: NIS 15 billion in budget cuts and a budget deficit of NIS 39 billion. Being finance minister in the years ahead could end anyone’s political career. On the other hand, precisely because of the dire situation, Netanyahu will need a strong, politically adept finance minister, in the face of the Knesset factions and to head off the cabinet ministers, who will face savage cuts. There’s no reason to envy the next finance minister. And even less, to envy us.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.Credit: Reuters and Olivier Fitoussi