The State of Netanyahu

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The campaign for the 19th Knesset comes to an end today, and not a moment too soon. Thus ends 100 days that started with a series of political upheavals and ended with one big yawn and one comic episode starring Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Moshe Kahlon.

All the polls predict that the current prime minister will also be the next prime minister, and that the right-wing bloc will preserve its parliamentary majority. Still to be resolved is how the 45 seats of the center-left will be divided and which of those parties Labor, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid or Kadima will be part of the next government.

Assuming the polls are on target regarding the size of the next ruling party, Netanyahu’s difficulties will begin tonight, after the polls close. His “natural partners,” Shas and Habayit Hayehudi, won’t be submitting so quickly. They’ll extort and make claims and demand guarantees on top of guarantees all this even before they go to the president to recommend Netanyahu as prime minister. We won’t even talk about Netanyahu’s other potential partners, chief among them Yair Lapid.

Still, unless the sky falls in the electoral sense, Netanyahu is expected to score a respectable political double: Over the past three decades the prime minister has changed after almost every election since Menachem Begin was re-elected in 1981, Shimon Peres became premier in 1984, Yitzhak Shamir in 1988, Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Netanyahu in 1996, Ehud Barak in 1999, Ariel Sharon in 2001 (and in 2003, making him the exception), Ehud Olmert in 2006 and Netanyahu again in 2009.

Ironically enough, it was the prime minister thought to be the least stable and most prone to coalition tangles who succeeded in not only surviving nearly four full years but in assuring himself another term, his second in a row, and his third altogether. He accomplished the latter by what has already been defined as the formative event of this election the union between the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu and was helped by the impotence and ego trips of the main players in the rival camp, who weren’t smart enough to follow his lead and do the same.

There’s no doubt that if Netanyahu hadn’t made that move, he and the Likud would be doomed. Just think back over the past two months; almost all of Netanyahu’s nightmare scenarios came to pass. U.S President Barack Obama was elected to a second term; Operation Pillar of Defense ended with a cease-fire that incensed voters on the right and launched the stream of voters toward Naftali Bennett and Habayit Hayehudi; his senior political partner, Avigdor Lieberman, was charged with fraud and breach of trust; and only last week the economic front reared its ugly head with the revelation that the 2012 budget deficit had morphed into NIS 40 billion, twice what had been forecast.

So the union between the two parties was a success, even though the joint list has been hemorrhaging seats. It created a faction that will be much bigger than the next largest one (which polls say will be Labor); it fixed the identity of the next prime minister; and it set the character of the election campaign as a battle between right and left.

It’s true that it caused some damage: many right-wing voters now feel free to vote for Bennett. But it’s the people on the back benches of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu who will pay the price not Netanyahu himself, heaven forbid. His seat is locked in and safe.

Nor will he lose any sleep over those forced out. They had to be sacrificed for a greater, more sublime purpose: him.

Three-time leader?

Netanyahu is now one of the most veteran political players on the field. He’s been with us since 1988, but primarily since 1993, when he was first elected Likud chairman. For 20 years he’s been here and there, coming and going, winning and losing, blowing it and recovering, crying and laughing.

We may not have noticed, but the three heads of the large parties in the right-wing bloc are Netanyahu himself or his political “children.” There’s Lieberman, who was director-general of his office during his first term as premier, and parted from him after a big spat and founded Yisrael Beiteinu. And there’s Bennett, who was Netanyahu’s chief of staff when the latter was opposition leader in 2006-2007, and left him and his wife Sara after an even bigger spat, and who eventually took control of Habayit Hayehudi.

No political bureau since that of David Ben-Gurion has produced such an impressive yield of leaders and elected officials. It’s not just Lieberman and Bennett: Ayelet Shaked, No. 5 on Bennett’s list, was Netanyahu’s bureau chief and worked alongside Bennett. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar was Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan headed the Department for Public Petitions to the Prime Minister’s Office during Netanyahu’s first term. Both ministers are expected to get upgraded portfolios in the next government, assuming Netanyahu forms it.

There have been plenty of others. Outgoing MK Ruhama Avraham Balila, a former interior minister, was Netanyahu’s bureau chief between 1996-1999 (leaving after a big spat, etc.). Businessman Danny Naveh, a former health minister in the Likud government, was cabinet secretary for most of Netanyahu’s first term, until he was replaced by Sa’ar.

Thus, during these past 20 years, not only was Netanyahu with us except for some short commercial breaks, he developed and bequeathed to us a long line of heirs and successors, rivals and enemies. He even helped create Tzipi Livni in 1996 when he pulled her out of wherever he pulled her out of and named her head of the Government Companies Authority.

Thus we’ve turned into the State of Netanyahu. He controls the broadcast media to a great extent, either directly, via the Israel Broadcasting Authority, or via indirect, economic and commercial methods, like the commercial TV channels.

At the same time, the print product that serves as the Prime Minister’s Office’s mouthpiece has turned into the country’s most widely read newspaper, one that presents a lovely, rosy picture of what’s happening in the State of Netanyahu, ignoring those dark corners on the left.

It urges its readers to vote, but to vote correctly. Here, for example, are headlines that appeared on the cover of Israel Hayom’s last two political supplements: January 11 “Minister Yahalom: A strong prime minister needs a large party.” January 18 “Netanyahu: Give me the power to lead.” Get it?

Yet there remains a question: If so many people read this tendentious freebie and get their information from it, why has the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu list been dropping in the polls? Why is it forecast to get only 33 seats on average? Why has the joint list lost between eight to 10 seats from the two parties’ combined total in the outgoing Knesset?

Barring unexpected electoral upset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a shoo-in for a third term.Credit: Shiran Granot

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