“We’re like a family,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the annual AIPAC conference in Washington two weeks ago. But in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square Sunday night, hounded by worrisome polls and the fear of losing power, he sought comfort in the arms of his real family, at least as of this moment: Naftali Bennett, Eli Yishai, Baruch Marzel and Meir Porush.
But Netanyahu didn’t come to hug and pose for family pictures; he came to hunt. And that was the paradox of the event: By choosing to come to a square filled with settlers, he signaled that he had given up on the chance of bringing back voters who have abandoned his Likud party for the center blocs. Instead, he’s aiming at his sister parties, Habayit Hayehudi and Yahad.
Over the next two days, the prime minister will do everything in his power to steal votes from his sister parties in order to reduce, and perhaps eliminate, Zionist Union’s lead over Likud. Sunday’s demonstration was like a holiday meal: You spend a few hours together, all warmth and family feeling, but on the way home everyone criticizes the food, the service, the aunt’s hairdo, the niece’s failure to get married and the annoying uncle who insists on pulling out his guitar and singing every year.
Standing beside Netanyahu on the dais with its bulletproof glass last night, glowing with happiness, was rally organizer Daniella Weiss. An extreme right-wing activist, Weiss is one of the preeminent symbols of violent, aggressive, messianic occupation. In normal times, Netanyahu wouldn’t dare be seen in her vicinity. Between campaigns, he never goes near the West Bank. But when the house is on fire, you don’t scrutinize the person who comes to your rescue too carefully.
It’s no accident that by Sunday morning, Habayit Hayehudi officials were already “warning” of a last-minute shift to Likud among its voters that could cause the party to fall to a single-digit number of Knesset seats. (It’s hard to believe that, when the campaign began, polls were predicting 16 to 17 seats for the party). But most political players don’t buy this fear, even if it does contain a grain of truth. And, in any case, when it comes to feigning hysteria, neither Habayit Hayehudi chairman Naftali Bennett nor any other politician can match Netanyahu.
Netanyahu’s public promise that if he forms the next government, he’ll appoint Moshe Kahlon as finance minister, regardless of how many seats Kahlon’s Kulanu party wins, was a smart political move. If it doesn’t help, it certainly won’t hurt. It was meant to tempt voters still hesitating between Likud and Kulanu to choose the latter, since the finance ministry has been promised to Kahlon in either case.
It would be interesting to know what Likud ministers Gilad Erdan and Yisrael Katz, both of whom have made no secret of their desire to be the next finance minister, thought about this. Netanyahu apparently informed them in advance of what he intended to say and received at least their tacit consent.
But they undoubtedly thought, and not for the first time, that all the times they’ve lain down on the fence for Netanyahu, all the humiliating interviews they’ve given on his behalf over issues like the excessive spending at his official residence, all their heroic efforts have been for nothing.
The haste with which Netanyahu promised one of the three most senior cabinet portfolios to the head of a rival party — someone who has been hurling harsh accusations at Netanyahu and his party night and day — undoubtedly prompted gloomy thoughts among senior Likud officials about the skill their leader will display in coalition negotiations if he does form the next government. After all, assuming the distribution of Knesset seats roughly matches that predicted by the polls, it’s clear that most of the important ministries will go to coalition partners, leaving Likud with nothing but crumbs.
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