If there’s one thing Benjamin Netanyahu knows, it’s that Israelis don’t like to come off looking like patsies. It wasn’t to be suckers that we've survived 2,000 years of exile and heaven knows how many TV cooking programs. Whatever the price, whatever blows we take – the important thing is for us to show them, our enemies and our friends alike, that we weren’t born yesterday.
That, in a nutshell, is the raison d’etre and basic principle underlying the political-policy behavior of our prime minister.
So, after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had the temerity – the "chutzpah," in our lexicon – to describe before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee the course of events that led to the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian talks, the reaction from Jerusalem was quick to come: an order by Netanyahu to his ministers to cease and desist from all contacts with their opposite numbers in the Palestinian Authority.
Apart from Tzipi Livni, of course. She was “excepted.” She will be allowed to go on trying to “salvage” the negotiations, not to mention her political career. By the way, she was not told in advance about Netanyahu’s stick-out-your-chest move. Rather, the minister in charge of the negotiations heard about this impulsive gesture the same way we all did, via the media, on Wednesday morning. With great trepidation Livni called the government secretariat to see whether the ban applied to her, too. It’s all right, she was told, you’re the exception.
The Haaretz poll being published here shows how well Netanyahu knows his Israelis. Take a look at the results for the distribution of Knesset seats, if an election were to be held today. The left-leaning parties (Labor, Meretz, Hatnuah) are down a combined four seats, compared to the last poll six weeks ago. In contrast, the right-wing parties (Likud Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi) are on a roll, adding no fewer than seven seats. A real spurt.
The survey was conducted midweek by the Dialog firm, under the supervision of Prof. Camil Fuchs of Tel Aviv University, as the crisis in the negotiations with the Palestinians was getting worse by the minute. It shows that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is helping Naftali Bennett a lot more than the economy minister's fellow party member, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, is. For every two United Nations conventions that Abbas applied to join in his theatrical show in Ramallah last week, the equivalent of one seat was added to the support of the Israeli right-wing parties.
No wonder the prime minister is continuing to threaten to pull unilateral moves out of his security-political toolbox, whose contents were discussed several times this week in meetings with the top brass of the army and the Shin Bet security service.
The poll was conducted before Moshe Kahlon announced officially, in an interview with the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, that he is returning to political life and intends to run in the next election. A lightning survey conducted by Midgam Project, whose results were announced on Channel 10, forecast 10 seats for Kahlon, about half of them at the expense of Likud-Beiteinu, Shas and Yesh Atid.
The big popularity survey conducted every spring for Haaretz examines the standing of the country’s senior office-holders, the higher echelons of elected and appointed officials from the judicial, security and economic realms. During the past five years there was one undisputed king of the hill in the poll: President Shimon Peres. This time, ahead of his upcoming retirement from public life, after almost 70 years of never seeking a public position for himself, as he likes to say – the people have apparently decided to wean him off the popularity he enjoyed during his presidential years.
Now a new star has been born in Israel: the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. During the past year he's catapulted to the top of the list on the poll. His popularity rating is nothing short of fantastic: 78 percent, with only 7 percent dissatisfied with his performance as the country’s No. 1 soldier. That means that among the Jewish population, anyone who has an opinion about him is very pleased with our CoS.
Let’s put it like this: If Gantz were to retire from the army tomorrow, or very soon, and if he weren’t shackled by the draconian three-year cooling-off period from the day of his discharge, and if – and this is a big if – if he were cut from the cloth of a politician, as is his predecessor, Gabi Ashkenazi, the political establishment would be in a frenzy now. Lights in the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem would be on all night, while the sounds of pots and dishes being smashed against walls would be heard from the second floor. Political situation rooms would be set up in the ministers’ bureaus and the offices of the major parties. The media would be in a tizzy.
But none of the above is happening. Gantz still has 10 months to go as chief of staff, the cooling-off stipulation is here to stay, and not even those with the wildest imagination see him diving head-first into the turgid waters of Israeli politics, where his fate would be akin to that of a carp who accidentally strayed into a school of piranhas.
But why have the People of Israel suddenly fallen in love with him? He’s not a moving sort of person like Ashkenazi, not brilliant like Ehud Barak, not legendary like Moshe Dayan, not covered in victory garlands like Yitzhak Rabin. Which may be the answer to our question. It’s precisely Gantz's somewhat anemic character, his lack of charisma, his averageness, the calm and tranquility he exudes, not to mention the soporific boredom he projects – all this has made him a soldier whom all Israelis like. A guy who only wants to get home safely. Someone who’s suitable for the kitschy commercials now being broadcast on television by food and cell-phone companies. The daddy of the soldiers.
This week's poll is also illuminating about other beloved figures:
• The public seems to like Karnit Flug, the new governor of the Bank of Israel. Her predecessor, Stanley Fischer, ranked in the top three on the popularity chart in the past. Flug, though, is still very far from the person who was perceived as the "responsible adult" of the Israeli economy in recent years. She lacks Fischer’s authority, charisma and American-style manners, which made him one of the most esteemed and popular public figures in the country.
• Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon continues to head the list of relatively popular politicians, though he still hasn’t recouped the excellent ratings he had before he declared war on the Americans in recent times.
• Benjamin Netanyahu has improved his own position somewhat compared to the poll of six weeks ago.
• Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is the surprise this time around: The percentage of those satisfied with his performance has shot up. The public wants its foreign minister to be an external-affairs sort of person, not an anti-external affairs type. The people want diplomacy, not antipathy. They want him to cool things down, not heat them up. In the past few months, Lieberman has begun, albeit with hesitant steps, to draw close to that place, and the results are apparent here.
• Once again, Finance Minister Yair Lapid succeeds in finishing last in the public’s satisfaction list. Nothing stands between him and the abyss. He is at minus-42 percent – though six weeks ago he was at minus-55 percent. That’s a giant leap for him, which should be attributed to his initiative to allow a certain segment of the population to buy a new home without paying VAT. Despite the experts’ criticism of his plan, the public was apparently impressed by Lapid’s good intentions and good will, and rewarded him in the form of a bit less opposition.
• Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog (Labor) has a positive rating for his performance. However, his party continues to tread water, at around the 15-seat mark, which is the same as in the present Knesset. If Herzog hasn’t been able to add a few solid seats to his party even after all the ruckus generated by the opposition over the three controversial laws the government passed recently – he should be concerned. This week, in a speech to the Knesset, he proposed new elections. But he didn’t really mean it.
Anyone but Bibi
Around the middle of Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, between 1996 and 1999, the phrase “Anyone but Bibi” was widespread in these parts. Large segments of the public, the media, and above all his party, were fed up with the young prime minister. One after another, the cabinet ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, David Levy and Yitzhak Mordechai resigned from the government. The mayor of Tel Aviv at the time, Roni Milo, founded a party whose whole purpose was to topple Netanyahu. He was joined by Meridor, Amnon Lipkin Shahak and Mordechai.
Thus the Center Party, of blessed memory, was established. Begin tried to gnaw at Netanyahu from the right, and the sentiments involved were purely personal. These people simply couldn’t stand the premier, and each of them separately and all of them together accumulated a critical mass of feelings of revenge.
Moshe Kahlon is motivated by exactly those same feelings. He has no problem with Likud. It’s not such an "anti-social welfare" party, as he says, and he, who was always on the right wing of the party, can’t complain about its surplus of rightism. He wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to come back – if only the head honcho wasn’t there. Years of nonstop badgering, envy and petty harassment by Netanyahu drove the most popular minister out on the eve of the last election, and that is the non-biodegradable inflammatory material that’s propelling Kahlon back into the political world.
True, in the eyes of the public, Netanyahu is still the only relevant candidate for prime minister, far ahead of anyone else. But in Israel the people don’t vote for prime minister but for a party. Likud-Beiteinu comes out very well in the current poll, but in the next election the two parties (Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu) won’t run together.
After the election, anything is possible, and Bibi would do well to start looking behind him, not to mention to the sides and to the front. Someone might be setting an ambush for him.
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