Why Netanyahu's Party Hopes Obama Stays Angry

It seems as if every slap in the premier's face from members of the Obama administration only strengthens his electoral base at home.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

Senior members of the Likud party – including, some say, even the most senior of them – are keeping their fingers crossed for President Barack Obama. They hope that he won’t fall ill, that he won’t fly off to some distant continent, that a cat won’t get his tongue, and that he won’t become suddenly faint-hearted about the escalating confrontation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As in the well-known joke about the sadist and the masochist, the Likudniks are eager to continue being pummeled by Obama directly or by his secretary of state or by his national security adviser. They’ve reached the conclusion that every American slap in Netanyahu’s face only strengthens support for their party’s leader among his electoral base. This week, a poll the Likudniks were shown revealed that Israelis’ support for Obama – which had been unprecedentedly high during the period of Israel-U.S. security cooperation – has plunged to a new low.

“Obama is our best campaigner,” one of those senior figures said this week, not for attribution. “He’s our man. He threatens boycotts, he’s keeping the most important issue for us – the Iranian nuclear project and the prime minister’s heroic efforts to scuttle it – in the headlines. In the past,” he added, “the Palestinians did the work for us, with their terror attacks. Now it’s the president of the United States.”

That remark was made Tuesday, a day before the flames eating away at the foundations of the strategic alliance between the two countries, which were kindled by the pyromaniac from the Prime Minister’s Bureau, leaped to new heights. The following day, U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice declared that Netanyahu’s acceptance of the Republican invitation to address Congress is no less than “destructive of the fabric of the relationship” between the two countries. Secretary of State John Kerry, still considered Israel’s last remaining friend in Washington, noted with malicious nonchalance in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that with regard to Iran today and Iraq in the past, Netanyahu’s power of judgment was faulty. Not exactly Churchill.

The pre-election speech to a joint session of Congress, a scheme cooked up by Netanyahu with his pal John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, is intended to cement his reelection. It would seem to be a plan of genius. The last stretch of the campaign will be dominated by a political-security-Iran-ISIS discourse. How fortunate for Netanyahu that he’ll always have Iran to flaunt in the faces of the natives and to use to distract them from their domestic woes.

Netanyahu’s advisers believe that the key to another term lies in Washington. They’re probably right. It’s not by chance that Naftali Bennett, leader of Likud’s sister party to the right, is also heading for the American capital. He’ll address the AIPAC conference, be interviewed, and “protect” Netanyahu, his confidants say, from the poison slings and arrows that will likely be hurled at him by the American media. Bennett will try to be his human wall, in the hope that a bit of the stardust will alight upon him, too.

He won’t be flying in the prime minister’s plane. The boycott imposed by Sara Netanyahu is still in force and won’t be lifted even if all the planes in the world are grounded. This is both wasteful and regrettable. But this week’s Israir in-flight chocolate horror show would pale in the face of what might happen there, in first class, between Bennett and the Lady, with him in the role of the flight attendant.

Nor was it by chance that one of the co-leaders of Zionist Union, Isaac Herzog, declined to attend the conference. He’s better off here, either with Tzipi Livni or without her – as has been the case lately, most of the time – than serving as an extra in Bibi’s American extravaganza, in which he has no peers.

Zionist Union’s campaign headquarters understands that it is in a bind (again). On the one hand, the horrific deterioration in Israel-U.S. relations should be a sort of asset, an invaluable treasure, for every opposition party. On the other hand, on this issue, the nation is largely with the prime minister and against the American president. An attack on Netanyahu could boomerang. This week, in connection with the state comptroller’s report on the housing crunch, Zionist Union spokespersons focused on that issue and barely mentioned the dangerous, looming conflagration between Israel and the U.S. Their internal polls are undoubtedly telling them the same story. But next week they’ll have no choice.

Washington, too, is aware of the prevailing political notion that bad-mouthing Netanyahu only strengthens him domestically. Nevertheless, the people there have launched an all-out, frontal assault. Is it that people as cool as they are just can’t hold back? Or are they perhaps hoping that the message will nevertheless sink in, and that Israelis will understand the abyss into which the person running for reelection in their country is dragging them?

Netanyahu’s headlong rush to Washington, his insistence on addressing Congress despite the administration’s response, and his refusal to meet with Democratic senators who are friendly to Israel by using the embarrassing excuse that he doesn’t want to politicize his visit – all this makes one wonder whether he’s lost it completely, or possibly has a surplus-vote agreement with Hassan Rouhani, president of Iran.

Reading the map

Anyone who spoke this week with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman noticed signs of concern even in the metallic voice of this cold-eyed Sphinx. It’s not the situation in the polls of his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, that’s worrying him – he believes the current predictions are wrong. What bothered him on Wednesday morning (before Kerry’s testimony) was what Susan Rice said.

“Never in my life have I heard such a harsh statement by a senior American figure,” he told his interlocutor in a tone of incredulity. “People here aren’t reading the map right. When the national security adviser accuses the prime minister of destroying the relations with the United States – that is something we have never heard before. [Prime Minister Menachem] Begin was also seriously at odds with Washington, but it never came to comments like this.”

In talks with political figures, Lieberman admits that establishment of a narrow government – Likud, ultra-Orthodox, Habayit Hayehudi, “and even Yisrael Beiteinu” – will not allow Israel to withstand the enormous challenges awaiting it in the American and European arenas immediately after the election.

He’s increasingly certain that Netanyahu will suggest to Herzog forming a national unity government. The prime minister’s Facebook post this week, in which he committed himself not to form a government with “Bougie and Tzipi” because of the “deep ideological chasm” between them, made little impression on Lieberman. It’s all just talk, the foreign minister says, adding, “At this time, everyone subjugates his rhetoric to election needs.”

Maybe Lieberman shares the view of Netanyahu’s colleagues – that the prime minister’s only ideology is surviving in power. He is thus also signaling, as of this moment, that he might hook up with Moshe Kahlon and force Netanyahu to establish a broad-based government.

Life as a parable

Nothing better shows Netanyahu’s disconnect from the everyday life of Israeli citizens than his reaction to the state comptroller’s report on the housing situation, which came out this week: a couple of general statements, to do his duty, in response to the colossal failure detailed in the 138-page document (“an important report we did much we will do more in the next government”). And immediately afterward, as though having brushed away a pesky fly, he moved on to the truly important subject – “Life itself,” namely, Iran.

These days, Netanyahu is a one-man promo. Everything he does and says, all his electioneering, is an advertisement for next week’s speech in Congress. His own people grasped the enormity of the folly and deleted the part about Iran from the Facebook post.

In any event, the comptroller’s report said it all in a nutshell: In January 2008, an Israeli needed the equivalent of 103 monthly salaries to buy a home; in December 2013, that number was 137 salaries.

Netanyahu sent his spokespersons, the politicians, to the media with instructions to cast the blame on former Finance Minister Yair Lapid and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and also on Herzog and Livni, who were housing ministers more than a decade ago. He himself took credit for the building-and-planning reform that former Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar initiated on his own. That’s Netanyahu for you.

In the previous government, the finance minister was from Likud, and Netanyahu was in full control of that ministry. The housing portfolio was held by Ariel Atias, from Shas, who looked after his ultra-Orthodox constituency. In the current term, the treasury portfolio was entrusted to Lapid, a well-intentioned former journalist with zero experience and ability, and the housing minister was Uri Ariel, from Habayit Hayehudi, who focused on his settler-brothers who are suffering and groaning in their fine villas in the West Bank.

Netanyahu considers himself a meta-economist. But in these past six years he invested mainly – with an addition of 12 billion shekels ($2.5-3 billion), according to senior security sources – in deployment for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. The economy was neglected, the cost of living soared, and the full scale of the housing scandal has now been revealed in an official, thorough report.

While the working assumption in the political arena is that the housing report will not substantially affect Netanyahu’s chances of forming the next government, some in Likud are worried about unforeseen developments in the final week before the election, as many of the undecided make up their mind.

“When the voters come to cast their ballot,” a Likud leader reflected aloud, “the young people volunteering for Lapid and Kahlon will remind them that they and their children don’t have a home of their own and will never have one, that everything is wildly expensive here, and that Bibi and Sara have three homes and are robbing the state. As the voters wait in line, they’ll start to talk among themselves. Israel isn’t Norway, where no one makes eye contact with anyone. Here you get a dynamic of complaints, experiences, moms and dads with infants. It’s enough if 100,000 people across the country switch and three-four seats move from one side to the other, for Likud to go down to 19 seats – and that will be that.”

Another country heard from

Haim Ramon, a former top figure in Labor and Kadima, and one of the most experienced and effective campaigners Israel has had, thinks Zionist Union is making a critical mistake by focusing on the socioeconomic front and leaving the security front to Netanyahu and the right wing. The key to victory, he says, lies precisely in the arena that’s considered dangerous for the center-left. Instead of talking about peace with our enemies, Ramon notes, tell the public that you’re determined to make a clean break from them – that there will be no connection between us and the Palestinians.

The trick to winning, he adds, is to scare, scare, scare the voters. And, yes, to play in the rival’s court. If Netanyahu accuses Livni of wanting to divide Jerusalem, he should be accused in turn of obsessively wanting to hold onto Wallajeh, Sheikh Jarrah, Issawiya and Ras al Amud, and people should be reminded just where the perpetrators of recent murderous terror attacks came from.

Has anyone seen a video that holds Netanyahu responsible for the mini-intifada that’s raged in Jerusalem lately? Wouldn’t it be right for Herzog and Livni to announce that they will leave the eastern neighborhoods, and build an impassable barrier between them and the city’s western area?

Ramon is also upset by Herzog’s stubborn refusal to declare that he will not serve as a minister under Netanyahu in a unity government. That refusal to come out against cooperation with a prime minister who has failed in both the security and socioeconomic realms makes the campaign of Zionist Union not credible, and even ludicrous, Ramon believes.

Yes, he says – shouts, actually: They must announce that they will not be part of a Netanyahu-led government. Two of Kahlon’s projected seats are expected to come from disappointed Likud voters. A declaration like that from Herzog could push them leftward, along with a segment of Yesh Atid voters.

Force 17

Three comments for readers about Balfour Street in Jerusalem, and for fans of number theory:

1. On May 17, 1999, an election was held in which Ehud Barak defeated the serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

2. On February 17, 2015, the state comptroller released his report on the expenses incurred in the residences of the prime minister and his wife, a report that might lead to a police investigation.

3. On March 17, 2015, in less than 20 days, a general election will be held.

Shabbat Shalom.

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