The Bleak Reality Awaiting Netanyahu Back Home

Poisoned headlines and a looming Histadrut strike in the south await the newly returned PM, while visions of unity governments and rotations fill various party leaders' heads.

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

Immediately after landing back in Israel on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hurried to the briefing room in order to respond personally, on camera, to Barack Obama. The president had claimed that, in his speech to the Congress the previous day, Netanyahu said nothing new and had not offered a practical alternative to the emerging agreement with Iran. But no proud Churchillian leader like Netanyahu would allow a fading, worn politician in the twilight of his career to have the last word. Certainly not when the calendar shows less than two weeks to Election Day.

Henceforth, at every opportunity he finds until the polling booths open, Netanyahu will hammer us over the head with Iran, Iran, Iran, and with declarations about how time is running out and about the terrible danger and the looming second Holocaust.

Yes, this is the same Iran that, during the premier’s last six years in power, has increased enormously the number of active centrifuges in its possession, and is closer than ever to becoming a nuclear threshold state. It’s the same Iran whose foreign minister is exchanging smiles with the U.S. secretary of state, who a few days earlier had talked insultingly about Netanyahu’s flawed judgment.

Meanwhile, the prime minister won’t dare say a word about the collapsing health-care system in Israel, or about the housing crunch and the high cost of living here. A confirmed rumor has it that Likud’s social-economic platform has been sitting for two weeks in a secure email file, waiting for someone to release it to the public.

But even if it is published, is there any guarantee that it will be implemented, assuming the Likud leader forms the next government? Even a child knows that the next budget will be extraordinarily cruel and riddled with brutal cuts.

The two instant polls that came out the day after the Capitol Hill speech showed something of a recovery in Likud’s unremarkable condition. It is now getting an estimated 23 Knesset seats, after being at the 21 mark, very close to its red line.

In any event, the true electoral test for Netanyahu and his cohorts is next week, crunch time. If 23 seats marks Likud’s glass ceiling in the election, the party has cause for concern. The stardust from Washington will quickly settle, and mundane reality – life itself – without standing ovations or Elie Wiesel in the gallery, will poison the headlines again.

Next Thursday, the Histadrut labor federation might call a general strike from Ashdod southward, to protest the dismissals by Israel Chemicals and the worsening employment situation in the south. A strike in the public and private sectors, along with demonstrations and the weeping and wailing of the new jobless, five days before the election is not what the doctor ordered for Likud. They think that the Histadrut is working all out for Isaac Herzog anyway.

“Even if the dismissals are canceled and every worker gets a bonus, the strike will go ahead,” a Likud minister said this week in a worried tone. He and his colleagues know that at the grass-roots level, Likud is tired and listless. But the party’s main strength lies precisely in the towns and communities where the strike is planned.

Early this week, before Netanyahu’s AIPAC and congressional speeches in Washington, a bat mitzvah was held for the daughter of a key Likud activist. Quite a few MKs and other candidates attended. One of them, who does not hold a realistic slot on the party ticket, had returned from a tour of the party’s branches in a glum mood. “If we get 21 seats,” he said, “that will be an excellent result.”

Sad joke

Netanyahu, king of the campaigners and strategist of victories, has an ironclad rule: “Never let one story overlap another.” All the more so, when the original story has to be cultivated and kept on the public agenda. So it’s odd that on Wednesday, Likud campaign headquarters, which is controlled exclusively by Netanyahu, made the monumental mistake of releasing to the Internet a clip in which all the Likud ministers appear in sports attire, in a dressing room, boasting about their magnificent social-welfare achievements.

Instead of continuing to beat the Iran drum for all it’s worth, at least until the beginning of next week – some incompetent in campaign headquarters decided to upload a video that returns the discourse to the most lethal arena for Likud, almost immediately after Netanyahu returned to Israel with a proven achievement, as the polls that evening showed.

Within minutes the clip became a mockery, a sad joke. “We scored a goal against the cost of living,” brags Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. Really? Is there one Israeli who’s capable of agreeing with that statement? Is there one Israeli who breathed a sigh of relief when looking at his bank account in recent years, or did the overdraft just keep expanding even as the dream of owning a home grew more remote?

With one bizarre misstep, Likud did what Zionist Union has been trying to do since the start of the campaign: to place the cost-of-living issue at the head of the agenda. According to in-depth polls commissioned by Likud, this is the most volatile issue for voters, with regard to which hardly any, including the most dyed-in-the-wool Likudniks, believe the party.

‘Blocking bloc’

“I meet hundreds of people every day, thousands every week, and maybe one or two ask me about Iran,” Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog said yesterday on the way to stump the area around Kibbutz Yotvata, near Eilat.

He’s right. What people are talking about next to the watercooler is not Iran. Nonetheless, during the past week, we got more Bibi and Iran, Bibi and Obama, Israel and the United States. The prime minister’s scary Holocaust-infused address was intended to embed the Iran issue in Israeli consciousness in order to eradicate any memory of social-welfare issues.

Herzog appears to be gradually acknowledging that the only way he will get to be prime minister is through a rotation agreement in a unity government. To have the most Knesset seats is not enough, unless the gap is at least four or five seats – which is not what the polls are showing. He needs to obtain a “blocking bloc” of 60 seats, with the support of Yesh Atid, Meretz and the Joint List of the Arab parties. At the moment, that doesn’t look feasible.

There’s still Moshe Kahlon. If he recommends Herzog to President Reuven Rivlin as the person who should form the next government, and if Avigdor Lieberman recommends himself for that job, as he announced this week, the way to rotation will be open. Even though Netanyahu declared – almost swore – that he would never form a coalition with Herzog and Tzipi Livni, no one in the political arena takes that seriously.

Interviewed on Army Radio yesterday, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who usually has a hard time lying, completely contradicted Netanyahu. “We haven’t said no to anything,” he told the interviewer. “Obviously, though, the first thing is to form a natural bloc, a natural coalition of a right-wing bloc.”

That’s what Netanyahu is aiming for, as in 2009: to strike deals with Habayit Hayehudi and the ultra-Orthodox and Eli Yishai’s party, and with Kahlon or Lieberman or both of them, and only then to approach Herzog.

Arye Dery is already in Netanyahu’s pocket – not exactly an earth-shattering development. He announced this week that Shas would recommend Netanyahu to form the next government, as will United Torah Judaism and Yishai’s Yahad party. All told, they are projected to have 18 seats, the same as the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the outgoing Knesset (UTJ and Shas).

A year ago, at the height of the crisis between the Haredim and Likud over the new draft law, Dery said Herzog would be his next prime minister. Now he’s declared that Netanyahu has “repented” and is kosher for another term. And then the politicians roll their eyes and complain that people don’t believe them, as though they were auto mechanics. Or journalists.

Dery’s motive is primarily electoral: to make it easier for the voters who are undecided between Shas and Likud to vote for Shas in the knowledge that the party will back Netanyahu anyway. But there is also a political reality: Shas’ constituency is right wing, no less so than Likud, maybe more. They won’t easily swallow a Dery defection to the other camp without a very good reason.

Kulanu kingmaker

As the election campaign draws to a close, it’s clear that the rumors of the political demise of Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party were premature. No poll is forecasting fewer than 12 seats for the least popular and least esteemed finance minister that has served here. Being fired by Netanyahu was the best thing that could have happened to him.

Over a relatively short time, with hard work and with tons of personal charm and endless shticks, the skilled presenter was able to slough off the image of the inept, disappointing minister, and remove from Yesh Atid the stigma of a one-term “atmosphere party.” Amazingly, he is again coming across as the promise, the hope, the dream. Yet if he had run as finance minister and not as trenchant opposition, his fate would have been sealed.

The resurrection of Yesh Atid and the buzz that it will again be the surprise of the election and win 14-15 seats has generated a new scenario: The morning after, Lapid will make common cause with Kahlon’s and Lieberman’s parties. They will recommend him to the president as prime minister. Zionist Union, which will have only the recommendation of Meretz, will also have to support Lapid, while Likud will have Habayit Hayehudi and the three ultra-Orthodox parties behind it. Overall, each bloc will have 50-plus seats. The Joint List will stand aside and not recommend anyone.

In this scenario of paralysis, President Rivlin forces Netanyahu and Lapid to form a unity government. Lapid will demand rotation. Netanyahu will likely be first in line, as Likud will have more seats than Yesh Atid. In this case, Herzog, too – if Zionist Union ends up with the most seats – might demand to be part of the rotation. A triple rotation, with only Tzipi Livni left without a crumb. She’ll go to sleep hungry, poor thing.

The fact that Yesh Atid removed from its platform the commitment to support the head of the largest party as prime minister took people by surprise, and strengthened the feeling that Lapid is concocting all manner of schemes. But the truth is that this scenario is completely unfeasible. Rather, the prospect that Netanyahu will head the next government, whether narrow or broad, whether in rotation or for a full term, is likely and then some.

Lapid, too, knows this, and is getting ready. He is aiming to reprise the successful move of 2013 and forge a new fraternal alliance ahead of the coalition talks. According to political sources, a senior figure on behalf of Lapid recently urged Moshe Kahlon of Kulanu to form a two-party front immediately after the election and conduct the bargaining for the ministerial portfolios jointly in a Herzog-led government.

Kahlon rejected this outright, as he rejected an offer from Lapid to merge the parties at the start of the campaign. In both cases, the logic that’s guiding Lapid is the opposite of Kahlon’s logic.

Lapid understands that he is radioactive. Netanyahu isn’t wild about him and the Haredim loathe him and the rabbis dismiss him from the get-go. Lapid’s only chance to obtain another ministerial portfolio exists in a Herzog government, on the assumption that the alchemist from the Labor Party will be able to persuade the ultra-Orthodox to sit together with the man they hate. Lapid will not have a place either in a unity government with the Haredim or in a narrow Netanyahu-led government.

Kahlon, in contrast, is a welcome partner in every government. At the moment, he is looking like the kingmaker. Neither Herzog nor Netanyahu will be able to form a government without him. Why should he have Lapid around his neck? To shackle himself to someone who’s regarded as a political leper would be suicidal. For Kahlon, Lapid is a weight dragging him down.

Kahlon’s camp declined to comment on the report that Lapid had proposed a two-party front; a spokesperson for Lapid issued a denial.

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