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Let the Games Begin: Talks of Joining Netanyahu-led Coalition Begin Even as Center-left Tries to Coordinate Positions

The foreplay of coalition talks began this week, as the trio of center-left party leaders met to supposedly form a united bloc. Meanwhile, it's interesting to ponder how many votes for registered Likudniks Benjamin Netanyahu will lose to Habayit Hayehudi.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

The antiquated election-campaign commercials, from which it's impossible to escape, started airing this week. They ran the gamut from boring, to pretentious and stereotypical - to outright racist. The latter ad came from the new Shas, which Aryeh Deri promised would serve as a bridge between all parts of the nation under his leadership. The clip that offered a stereotyped, if not repulsive, depiction of a Russian bride stirred a furor and was removed. But Shas got what it wanted: People talked about it. Yisrael Beiteinu might also be able to glean a few voters whose honor was impugned by the same ad.

The most effective spots were those of Kadima and Habayit Hayehudi. The former portrayed Shaul Mofaz as a tragic figure. Voters were called on to save him from extinction, as though he were a rare species of panda. The other ad, by means of winks and nods, was aimed at the young generation which, as in previous elections, has no party that represents it, without actually saying anything about what, who and why.

Most of the recent polls have showed that the decline of Likud- Yisrael Beiteinu has halted, the enfeeblement of Labor has ended and the rise of Habayit Hayehudi has peaked. The inter-bloc balance remains intact, with a clear majority of support - equivalent to 66-68 seats - for Likud-right-ultra-Orthodox, with the remaining 52-54 seats going to center-left-Arabs.

One question remains unresolved: Who will be in Netanyahu's third government? As things look now, Netanyahu will have to include at least one party from among his "natural partners" - Habayit Hayehudi or Shas plus/minus United Torah Judaism - and co-opt one or two parties from the other bloc: Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and/or Mofaz's Kadima (if it gets enough votes to enter the Knesset ), and/or Tzipi Livni's Hatnuah.

The foreplay of Netanyahu-Lapid coalition negotiations began this week, when the latter party leader toughened his stance on drafting Haredim. Lapid's goal is to force Netanyahu to leave the ultra-Orthodox parties (estimated to have 17-19 seats between them) in the opposition, and to have Yesh Atid join the coalition together with Kadima (the two parties now have about 14 seats worth of support between them) - and maybe also Hatnuah, which has 8-10 seats in the polls. But will Lapid enter the government a decade after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon left Shas and UTJ out of his second government, and brought in Yosef Lapid, Yair's father, who headed the anticlerical Shinui party?

In contrast to Lapid, Livni will try to get Netanyahu to forgo Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, and his cohorts. If he does, that will make it easier for her to slip into the coalition, because she will be able to depict that as a sign of Netanyahu's moderation. She too will want to co-opt Kadima if that party makes it into the Knesset. It will be harder for Lapid - or for Livni - to join this scenario, but it will be equally hard for him to play second fiddle to Labor's Shelly Yacimovich in the opposition.

The center-left bloc finishes this week on a down note, after seeming to pick up steam at the end of last week. This bloc is operating under two unhealthy vectors: The first is splitting the vote, weakening the leading parties and bolstering weak parties like Kadima and Eldad Yaniv's Eretz Hadash. The second is reducing the proportion of votes that will be cast in this bloc, owing to disinterest, hopelessness and inability to compromise.

Once again we are witnessing a situation in which the battered bloc is scrambling for a pool of Knesset seats that on a good day numbers 45 (excluding the Arab parties). In the outgoing Knesset, those seats were divided among Kadima, Labor and Meretz. In the incoming parliament, the same number of seats will be spread out among Labor, Hatnuah, Yesh Atid, Meretz, Kadima and maybe also Eretz Hadasha. And on this subject there’s no more left to say.

Comedy central

The satirical Channel 2 program “A Wonderful Country” depicted the much-ballyhooed meeting between Yacimovich, Livni and Lapid as a pajama party of teenage girls. But in this case, reality outdid satire. If the nocturnal meeting at the Tel Aviv home of the writer Shulamit Lapid, Yai’r’s mother, had been filmed, it would have become an instant hit that would have had the whole country rolling with laughter.

As a worried Livni looked on, Yacimovich entered Shulamit Lapid’s home, gave her a big hug and asked her to make supper for her. Contrary to the reports, not all the participants nibbled on strawberries. One of them ate a hearty meal of fresh chicken salad. Ms. Lapid seemed to be very familiar with Ms. Yacimovich’s culinary preferences. Livni’s people wondered whether this familiarity meant that Yair and Shelly met regularly there, for example, in order to coordinate moves against Tzipi.

The day before, Lapid revealed on “Meet the Press” that a week earlier, he had had a cup of coffee with Yacimovich. During the tripartite meeting, Livni saw that the two others responded with sarcasm to everything she said. They rejected all her suggestions, pooh-poohed all her ideas.

Livni suggested a joint campaign in which the three would call on the bloc’s potential voters who have not been intending to go to the polls, to vote for one of the three parties. “As far as I am concerned,” she told them, “Shelly can get two and Yair two and I will just get one. The important thing is to enlarge the camp.” Yacimovich and Lapid exchanged looks. “A joint campaign? How is that possible? After all, each party wants to recruit voters for itself,” the two wondered out loud.

“My polls show at least two seats undecided between Naftali Bennett and me,” Lapid said. “How am I supposed to get them to vote for me if I hook up with you?”

Livni: “I suggest we publish photos of the three of us, with a caption stating what each of us stands for. Under Yair’s photo we will write something like ‘Against Haredim, in favor of sharing the burden’; under mine, ‘For peace’; and under Shelly we’ll write something social-democratic.”

Yacimovich thought she hadn’t heard right. “Excuse me? What did you say?” she asked Livni. Lapid burst into laughter and Yacimovich joined in.

“As I see it, they came to the meeting after coordinating their positions,” Livni says. “I realized that 10 minutes into the meeting. I suggested that either we enter the government as one bloc or that we all stay out of the coalition and force on Netanyahu a government he doesn’t want and that will not last. Shelly said she had committed herself to not entering a Netanyahu-led government under any circumstances. I told her she had made that commitment as head of a party that will have 16-17 seats. Maybe if we are a bloc with 40-plus seats, we will be able to make Netanyahu change his social-economic ‘religion’ and become a socialist? But she rejected that, too.

“I then raised more ideas, based on a document I was holding. They could have accepted some of the suggestions, not necessarily all of them. I said it was modular,” Livni continues. “I told Yair, at least don’t keep repeating that Netanyahu has already been elected and the game is over. What kind of message does that convey to our voters? The problem is that he’s afraid that the connection with us propels him leftward.”

Livni was surprised by the sharpness of the communique issued by Yacimovich and Lapid after the meeting (“disgusting,” she calls it), just before the 8 P.M. news. “I assumed they would give a briefing against me, but I didn’t think they would issue a joint statement. They claimed I had revealed things from our conversation. I made public only what I had said. In diplomatic conversations, too, the custom is for participants to relate what they said, not what their interlocutors said.”

The Yacimovich and Lapid camps reject this. “Most of what she went public with from the document she didn’t say in the meeting,” one of them says. “Most of the time we didn’t understand what she wanted from us. It’s true that at one point she took a wrinkled piece of paper out of her bag ... So let’s say that was the ‘document.’ The point is that we agreed not to make public anything that was said.”

“I suggested,” Livni elaborates, “that we commit to recommending a candidate from the bloc. I didn’t even reject the possibility that the candidate would be the head of the largest party, which is quite obviously Shelly. Lapid did not accept that. My impression is that what they were really opposed to was not the content of what I said, but the connections: Each is thinking about his constituency. They became uptight when they saw I was at the forefront of a move that had support among our public, and the two of them decided, in coordination, to torpedo it.”

The other camp as we will call it guffawed at this description. “Really, now. Each of us wants to increase his strength. That’s what you do in elections. Does anyone see Netanyahu and Bennett running a joint campaign even though they are both in the right-wing bloc? Lapid has potential among Likud voters, so does Yacimovich. Livni won’t get even one vote from there. If we had hooked up with her, we would have become a laughingstock and also reduced the size of the bloc. That whole exercise was intended only to allow her to present herself as head of the camp and to gnaw away at our votes, out of despair. It’s cannibalization. She did the same thing in 2009 that’s what she does best: how to eat her own kind.”

Livni: “I came to the meeting there in all seriousness. I prepared a plan so they wouldn’t say it was a spin. I detailed section after section. All they wanted was to finish and issue a brief communique, in the hope the whole thing would disappear.”

Hostile takeover

When the voting results are published after the elections, the senior members of Likud will look closely on those from the West Bank, especially the religious settlements. Many of their number joined Likud in recent years; that trend was also evident in the party primaries.

In November, the settlers streamed to the voting booths and propelled the hard-core/extreme right to the top of Likud’s list of Knesset candidates: Tzipi Hotovely, Danny Danon, Yariv Levin, Zeev Elkin, Miri Regev and, of course, Moshe Feiglin. On instructions from above they booted out cabinet minister Benny Begin, who had the audacity to express fealty to a concept that is anathema to them: “the rule of law.” It was part of a hostile takeover, albeit completely legal, of the party machinery, which began a decade ago.

It’s possible that in the election, Likud will discover that it has many more members than voters in some settlements, whereas parties such as Habayit Hayehudi have many more voters than members in the same settlements. That, at least, is the prevailing assessment in Likud.

Let’s say that a particular settlement has 300 registered Likud members and that in the primaries the vast majority of them voted for the candidates mentioned above. And let’s say that in the Knesset elections the
Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu party gets only a few dozen votes in that settlement, while most of the votes go to Habayit Hayehudi or to the ultra-nationalist Otzma Leyisrael led by Aryeh Eldad and Michael Ben Ari. After the election, the Hotovelys, the Danons and the Elkins intend to demand that Netanyahu appoint them to cabinet portfolios. Mr. Prime Minister, we won the voters’ trust, they will say. To which Netanyahu will reply, as he shows them the voter-distribution printouts: Voters? Whose voters, exactly?

In other words, on the 23rd of the month we will all know how large the Likud “branch” of Habayit Hayehudi is and how many Likud MKs who owe their upgrading on the list of candidates to the constituency of Habayit Hayeudi preferred to dance to Bennett’s tune than to that of Netanyahu’s pied pipes.

Some in Likud are eagerly awaiting that day. And if Netanyahu is not well informed about the distribution of votes because he is busy cobbling together a coalition, they will see to it that he is briefed, polling station by polling station, ballot by ballot.

IllustrationCredit: Amos Biderman

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