When Taking Fire, Netanyahu Knows Exactly Who to Send to the Front Lines

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Illustration by Amos Biderman.

One of the golden bits of advice that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to give his staff whenever a new media firestorm sweeps over him and his scandal-prone wife is: “Make it political.” He hammers this doctrine home with the fiery ardor of an evangelical preacher who’s seen the light. Make it political, because as long as the discourse is played out in the electoral arena of right vs. left, media vs. Likud, elites vs. prime minister, the advantage will always lie with the side that’s under attack. Why? Because that’s where the majority of the nation is.

This is an insight that is the product of guile, experience, scars, scandals and investigations. We saw it this week in connection with the state comptroller’s report, when the initial reaction came from Likud, not from the Netanyahus, whose outrageous lifestyle is the subject of the report. And we saw it when the television and radio studios were flooded with ministers and MKs from the ruling party, who volunteered – or were volunteered – to stretch their necks and bare their chests in the face of the embarrassing data that exposed the festival of wastage behind the walls of the residences in Jerusalem and Caesarea.

While the couple sat in their home and chewed on schnitzel for 20 shekels ($5), the Erdans, the Steinitzes, the Katzes, the Akunises, the Danons and the Hotovelys suffered the slings and arrows of the outraged interviewers.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu himself implemented the doctrine when he told an election rally, “The carnival around the report is a smokescreen intended to let [Tzipi] Livni sneak into the Prime Minister’s Office.” That message will henceforth be a Likud mantra, until it sinks into the brains of the voters.

The Likud MKs and ministers who fired shots in the dark this week didn’t believe a word they said. Those who shouted loudest were least convinced. If we lived in a world of fairy tales, they would all be walking around with a nose the length of the Trans-Israel Highway. But when what’s at stake is their place in the next government, and when it’s clear to everyone just who in the living quarters of the Prime Minister’s Residence will have the last word in regard to the distribution of portfolios and other jobs – they hold their noses and do what’s expected of them, afterward expressing contrition to their confidants over the new low to which they have plunged.

By the way, at the beginning of the election campaign, Netanyahu decided that Likud’s senior people would not hold any management posts at campaign headquarters. The declared reason? Their behavior is dictated by ego and vested interests. The truth is that he doesn’t want strong, opinionated, experienced people around who would dare to disagree with him and find it hard to accept the fact that every detail of the campaign was decided on at the Balfour Street and Caesarea residences.

But when the heat’s on him and the Missus, whom does he dispatch to the frontline to humiliate themselves with shameful allegations – including mudslinging at former President Shimon Peres and at the Netanyahus’ former caretaker, the hapless, always guilty Meni Naftali – but these same MKs and ministers? He knows them well, their weaknesses and their fears, their hopes and dreams. And he controls them like a master puppeteer. They also had to justify the video clip starring Sara Netanyahu and the interior designer Moshik Galamin, which instantly became an icon of all that’s shabby, low and wacko in this campaign.

Last week this column noted, in a different context, that there’s apparently nothing too grotesque to be injected into the campaign. That was a few days before we saw the clip of the tour of the official residence, which advanced grotesquerie to a new high (or low).

It’s relevant to recall that in the first term of office of Bibi/Sara (1996-1999), Channel 2 broadcast a satirical program, “The Hartzufim,” which featured puppets depicting our leading politicians. One regular segment was called “Under Sara’s Sink,” which documented the conversations of the cockroaches, rats and other creepy-crawly things under the floor tiles, between the stove and the refrigerator, the drawers and the pantry. How unsurprising that 18 years later, that same kitchen is part of the election campaign of Likud and the prime minister.

The morning after

“As anxious as Netanyahu is to win the election, he’s just as anxious about the morning after the victory,” a senior source – who is intimately familiar not only with the prime minister but also with the political, security and strategic arena, particularly with the fraught state of Israeli-U.S. relations – said this week. The political conclusion to be drawn from this insight is that Netanyahu will, if he gets the nod to form a coalition from President Reuven Rivlin, try to establish a unity government with Zionist Union leader MK Isaac Herzog.

Polls published in the past two days strengthen the prevailing feeling in the political arena that at this moment in time – and the emphasis is on this moment – Herzog will find it extremely difficult to establish a center-left government, owing to the mutual boycotts and rights of refusal characterizing relations between Yisrael Beiteinu and Meretz, and between Yesh Atid and Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox MKs.

In contrast, Netanyahu is capable of hooking up with Habayit Hayehudi, the ultra-Orthodox, Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu and Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu. Or, he could form a moderate, globally placating government with Zionist Union, the Haredim, Kulanu and Yisrael Beiteinu. That would be a government that would allow him to show his face in Washington as an invitee, not someone who sneaks in.

In this scenario, the main bone of contention will be over rotation. Naturally, the leader of the party with the most Knesset seats will demand to be first at the helm. If Netanyahu ends up as the head of the largest party and also has the largest bloc of MKs to recommend him to the president, there will be no rotation. On the other hand, if Zionist Union emerges as the largest Knesset faction, and Herzog manages to persuade the Joint List of the Arab parties (along with Yesh Atid, Meretz and maybe Kulanu) to recommend him to Rivlin – he might become the first prime minister in such a rotation.

In any event, if Rivlin concludes that things are stuck, he will address the nation live on prime-time TV and urge Netanyahu and Herzog to get together and work it out. A situation could arise – though for now this is only a conjecture – in which the two will be happy to have Rivlin push them into each other’s arms.

Playing hard to get

In the last election, the social networks were ahead of the pollsters when it came to Yair Lapid. The meteoric ascent of Yesh Atid in the last stretch of the campaign was apparent on Facebook long before it was tracked by the polling organizations.

In the past week, followers of the Internet have been sensing a similar phenomenon in regard to Kahlon’s Kulanu party. He now has 74,000 followers on Facebook alone, most of whom have joined in the past two weeks. Meretz leader Zehava Galon has a few thousand less after a few very active years.

Kahlon’s campaign is also showing signs of recovery. It’s more focused, and the grass-roots work is increasingly felt. Kahlon himself is attacking Netanyahu and Lapid for their economic failures, thus staking out his territory in the next government: the Finance Ministry. Possibly the state comptroller’s report will push the undecided voters between Netanyahu and Kahlon into the non-hedonist arms of the latter.

In addition, past experience shows that the massive shift in votes, in the last week or two of every campaign, takes place mainly in the center bloc, among the dyed-in-the-wool, undecided fence-sitters. We saw it with Yosef Lapid’s Shinui party in 2003, with the Pensioners Party in 2006 and with Yesh Atid two years ago. If history repeats itself, it’s possible that the early estimates, which gave Kahlon 13-14 seats, will be fulfilled.

One way or the other, even with the 10 seats predicted in Wednesday’s Channel 10 poll, Kahlon is shaping up as the next kingmaker: Neither Netanyahu nor Herzog will be able to cobble together a functioning government without him. Both of them are exerting heavy pressure on him to announce publicly which of them he will recommend to Rivlin to form the next government. In return, they’re willing to give him the moon.

“If Kahlon is with me,” Netanyahu is telling his aides, “it’s all over, the election is decided.” In principle, he’s right.

Kahlon will decide in the final days of the campaign. If he holds steady in the comfortable double-digit range, he will wait until after the election and then set in motion a bidding war between Netanyahu and Herzog for his services. In the meantime, he’s playing hard to get. He won’t meet with either Herzog or Netanyahu, despite their repeated requests, until after the election.

Soft belly

During the past week, though also before that, the word in Zionist Union’s campaign headquarters has been that the partner, Tzipi Livni, has become a burden. She may have been useful at the start, when the union between Labor and Hatnuah generated momentum that propelled the slate to 22 seats, at least in the polls. But now she’s causing damage, the activists say. Polls, focus groups and even taxi drivers are telling Labor people that if Tzipi weren’t there, they would vote Bougie.

Others cite surveys showing that Herzog is more popular than she is in most parameters. She’s hard to swallow, they complain. On the eve of the union, she was on the verge of political extinction, barely polling four seats in the surveys. The voters she brought, say the activists, would have been with us anyway, and won’t defect. But we’re finding it hard to recruit new voters from the center-right, because for them the lady is sheer anathema.

It’s no coincidence that Likud has now released a clip based on the notion that Livni is scaring off voters, these Labor people add. And none of us in Zionist Union, they note, was surprised when Netanyahu targeted her in his election speech this week, branding her a “danger to the country.” He too sees polls and is adept at analyzing them. When he spots weakness in the rival, he goes for the jugular. And at the moment, Livni is our weak point, our soft belly, the activists note.

A few days ago, there was speculation in Zionist Union campaign headquarters that Livni would announce, at her initiative, that she was retracting the rotation agreement with Herzog. That idea was said to have been put forward by the senior strategist Reuven Adler, who was brought in to restore order to Zionist Union’s campaign chaos. Adler is dead set against the rotation concept. But it’s unlikely that now, three weeks before the election, such a far-reaching move will be made, one that would rock the boat even more and call back into question Herzog’s ability to withstand pressure in the negotiations he promises to revive with the Palestinians.

Overall, Adler’s addition to the sputtering campaign this week had a positive effect. Veterans of the campaign headquarters are pleased that at last there’s a responsible adult who is showing the way.

Adler is now looking for “the 2015 liar model,” with regard to Netanyahu, his longtime adversary. In the 2006 election, when he ran the Kadima campaign under Ehud Olmert, he hammered at Netanyahu’s lack of credibility. In 2009, when Adler managed the Kadima campaign under Livni, he came up with the idea of the lie detector, which was attached to Netanyahu in the party’s campaign clips night after night on the three television channels. It had its effect. Kadima won one more seat that Likud, but remained in the opposition. Now Adler is looking for a new card. Undoubtedly he’s already found it.

In the name of the son

A few months ago, Likud’s Young Guard chose a new chairman, David Shian, a well-known figure in the party. Naively, he expected to head the young people’s unit in the election campaign. But the Netanyahus had other plans. Their son Yair has a friend at university, named Dor Ben David. Yair and Sara decided that he would head the unit.

Shian asked to be subordinate to Ben David: He would carry out the instructions of Ben David, who would carry out the instructions of Yair, who is playing a very significant role in the campaign. A senior Likud figure said this week that the idea for the catastrophic clip with the interior designer was Yair’s. By the way, sources in Likud campaign headquarters relate that they were told by the Lady herself that all the activities of the young people’s unit “have to pass through Yair.” By order of she who must not be refused.

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