To Win the Election, Netanyahu May Turn to an Unlikely Partner

If Tzipi Livni can strike a rotation deal with Isaac Herzog – why can’t Naftali Bennett do so with Benjamin Netanyahu?

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, July 2, 2013.
Habayit Hayehudi leader Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset, July 2, 2013.Credit: Tali Meyer
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Before the election campaign kicked off, the conventional wisdom of the genre’s fans was that one candidate, Benjamin Netanyahu by name, would be running for prime minister. And that there would be five or six parties in the next Knesset with double-digit numbers of seats, and a few more of the single-digit variety. A parliamentary and coalition nightmare, but unavoidable.

Now, however, that picture has changed. The entry into one political bed of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni has given birth to two candidates for the premiership – Bibi and Buji (okay, Tzipi too!) – and two leading parties: Likud and the Zionist Camp, with 22-23 seats each, according to recent polls.

Moreover, two parties that were supposed to be members of the medium-sized club, Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, are experiencing serious downsizing in terms of estimated Knesset seats. The former because of Eli Yishai’s departure and the drama surrounding Aryeh Deri; the latter because of a major corruption investigation that’s sending the party’s biggest activists to police interrogations.

Clearly, the hookup between Labor and Livni’s Hatnuah is the most significant development of the 2015 election campaign, for now. However, in contrast to the dramatic import of the 2013 Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu merger – which meant curtains for anyone who wasn’t Netanyahu, in regard to forming a government – the new center-left entity is not causing Likud folk to lose sleep. Rather, Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett is doing that.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

A scenario in which Likud loses two-three seats and ends up with 18-19, and in which Habayit Hayehudi picks up the same number of mandates and ends up with an equal number – or, heaven forbid, even more seats than its big sister – is being seen as the biggest threat hovering over the head of the ruling party. The prevailing view is that anything under 20 seats for Likud means that the party will no longer be in power.

In fact, Likud has plenty to worry about. Israel’s political history shows that in the last four elections in which Netanyahu headed Likud’s slate (or, as in the last election, Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu’s), the party ended up with 15-20 percent fewer seats than the polls had predicted early on. This was so in 1999, 2006, 2009 and 2013.

Likud people will tell you, if you ask, that the main responsibility for this gloomy situation lies with the boss. He insists on managing, navigating and deciding everything. He believes that he’s the campaigner, the strategist and the big asset, whereas the party is a burden. He thinks that he alone understands the spirit of the nation, and knows the people’s innermost yearnings. He alone. But it’s not true. Generally, he shoots himself in the foot in election campaigns. He appoints inappropriate people, sometimes because they’ve found the path to The Lady’s heart.

Incidentally, the only time the ballot boxes gave Netanyahu and Likud a better result than the polls had foretold was in 1996. In that case, Netanyahu left the management of the campaign to experienced pros; he didn’t intervene and didn’t hinder them from leading him to a historic victory over Shimon Peres.

This time, though, it’s life or death. A poll in Haaretz this week gave Likud 22 seats, and a Panels Research poll, commissioned by the Knesset Channel, predicts 24 for the party. Deduct 15-20 percent from those numbers and the “nightmare scenario” in which the Zionist Camp is the only party with more than 20 seats comes true, allowing President Reuven Rivlin to entrust Herzog with the formation of the next government. If we know Herzog, he won’t bungle it; he’s not Peres.

What this means is that in the home stretch, or close to it – at the end of this month, which is the deadline for parties to submit their slates – there is a real possibility that we’ll see a union of Likud and Habayit Hayehudi in order, they will say, to save the country from the catastrophe of “the left” and of “Tzipi and Buji.” After all, it’s a common interest. Netanyahu is the only share that Bennett holds. Unlike the case of most other parties, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi has no other options. If Netanyahu goes down, Bennett will be hurled into the opposition; if Netanyahu wins, Bennett will be a senior minister – maybe a very senior one.

The word in Likud is that the price tag Bennett will put on the table in return for a union of the parties will not be the defense, foreign affairs or finance portfolios. That is, one of them yes, certainly defense, but only for the first half of the term. For the second half, he will demand rotation of the premiership with Netanyahu. Until then he’ll learn from the head honcho how a prime minister does things. Bibi will educate him.

Bennett has a reference point: If Livni, who headed a party with four seats in the polls, and which almost went into meltdown, could strike a deal with Herzog, why can’t the person whose party looks like it will be the third largest in the next Knesset do so?

Personal security

When Herzog is asked what’s happening with his anticipated vaunted security expert, and whether the 11th slot on Zionist Camp’s slate will be manned by former defense minister and chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, or by former director of Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin (whose father, Aharon, was a ranking Labor figure in the 1960s and ‘70s), he utters a simple mantra: “We’re checking it out.”

The problem is that the internal public opinion polls Herzog sees indicate that while Mofaz is perceived by the public as a serious security professional and a good soldier and chief of staff, he doesn’t get such support in terms of his suitability to be defense minister. The nation apparently isn’t wild about him as a political figure.

Despite his checkered political career since leaving the Defense Ministry in 2006 – including leadership of Kadima when the party plummeted from 28 seats to two – Mofaz is presenting conditions similar to Livni’s for joining Zionist Camp. Not only a guarantee that he himself will be in 11th place on the slate, but that two of his people will get realistic slots on the joint ticket.

The negotiations seemed to have hit an iceberg and it looked as though Mofaz was going to leave politics, but the ice has melted somewhat in the past two days. The sides are using more restrained language; Herzog and Mofaz are still conducting intensive talks. The final decision will be made after the Labor primary, next week.

Herzog, ever the gentleman, wants to allow MK Omer Bar-Lev, a retired colonel who was the commander of the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, to compete under fair conditions. Because if Mofaz or Yadlin is on the ticket, Bar-Lev might no longer be needed.

There is plenty of bad blood between Mofaz and Livni from their time in Kadima. But Livni told Herzog she would not intervene in this matter, and that if a meeting is needed between her and Mofaz to clear the air, she will be there. Mofaz has also agreed to this.

As for Yadlin, he’s told Herzog he doesn’t want to be an MK and be given the 11th slot on the slate. People who know him say this has nothing to do with modesty; on the contrary, he’s a person who knows his worth – and how. It’s beneath his dignity to be an MK, one of 120. He’s angling for defense minister. Period. Well, after all, he’s a pilot.

If Yadlin wants to be a minister who is not an MK, Herzog could place the economist Manuel Trajtenberg, who joined Labor and is Zionist Camp’s candidate for finance minister, in the top 10 on the ticket, as Trajtenberg thinks is only fitting. Herzog could give Trajtenberg the seventh slot and move the Labor’s secretary general, MK Hilik Bar, to 11th place, for the benefit of the party and the people.

In the meantime, Herzog is trying to create order in the campaign headquarters, where, according to people in the know, chaos reigns because of the duality caused by the entry of Livni’s people: Every appointment needs the approval of both her and Herzog. People who meet in the corridors of campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv ask each other, “Are you from the bride’s side or the groom’s?”

The Herzog-Livni partnership has done wonders for Labor at the public level. But the party machinery, which should be running like a well-oiled machine by now, is still sputtering. Labor can only take consolation from the fact that things aren’t much better in Likud.

Looking for a lift

“It’s time to get one’s head above water,” former naval commando unit commander Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant wrote on his Facebook page on Tuesday – a day before Moshe Kahlon planned to present him at a press conference as a candidate on his party’s slate. Ironically, abundant water from the heavens forced postponement of that event. Kahlon didn’t want the reports about his most glittering acquisition, however bruised and stigmatized he may be, to be shunted to the end of the newscasts after the storm reports.

Galant’s coming in from the cold will kick off public debate over his moral fitness to be appointed a cabinet minister, as promised him by Kahlon. Four years ago, the attorney general noted that appointing him chief of staff would entail “significant legal difficulties,” because he apparently seized public land for personal purposes. And isn’t Kahlon, who is perceived as being the cleanest of the party leaders, and promised his slate would have only people of immaculate behavior, reneging on that promise?

One thing is clear: If Galant doesn’t use his debut as politician to admit his mistake and express contrition, without beating around the bush, he will instantly become a burden to Kulanu, Kahlon’s party, which is already having difficulties taking off. No one knows better than Galant himself that he needs to apologize: It’s all there, in the state comptroller’s report and in the attorney general’s opinion. A clear mea culpa is his entry ticket to the premier league of elected officials. Without it, he can forget about a political career.

Some will say that even that isn’t enough, but the public likes to see its elected officials admitting mistakes, as long as the admission rings with authenticity. And reasonable folk will agree that Galant paid heavily for that episode: He lost the appointment as chief of staff, which was already his, not to mention the public embarrassment he endured. Nor does anyone dispute his security record or expertise in military matters. (In any event, he should find a way to get rid of the appalling and megalomaniacal four-turreted castle in which he lives. It looks like something kids would be afraid to walk past in the dark.)

Galant’s presence on the slate is meant to revivify the secret, incomprehensible and stumbling campaign of Kulanu. This week’s Haaretz poll showed the new party consistently losing ground. Kahlon was dubbed a “present absentee” in these pages, and he’s actually more absent than present. He hasn’t given a single interview, not even when the social-welfare agenda was in the headlines.

No wonder Kahlon’s fading, while Yair Lapid, who is in radio and TV studios every day, is gaining strength, and is again becoming a kind of promise or hope for those who want change and haven’t yet despaired. He has almost literally come back from the dead, as Menachem Begin said of himself in the 1981 election campaign.

Kahlon’s people admit that he made a mistake by not leaping into the arena as soon as the Knesset was dissolved. “But we built a party, established infrastructures, opened branches, looked for candidates and tried to raise money,” they say. “We’re a new party. All the others are organized and flooded with money.”

Next week Kahlon plans to present the top 10 in the party ticket and officially launch the campaign. He’s not perturbed by the negative turn in the polls; he doesn’t think its fatal.

Together, Kulanu and Yesh Atid look set to garner around 22 seats. When Lapid was polling 8-9 seats, early in the campaign, Kahlon was showing 11-12. Now the wheel has turned. Kahlon is convinced that it will turn again as soon as they enter the arena. Sixty days is a long time, and what went up can also come down.

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