Netanyahu Must Be Thinking, What the Hell Was I Thinking?

Make no mistake: The election is still an open game. But it's safe to bet that this weekend, the Netanyahus will reflect on whether it was a smart move to fire ministers and call an early election.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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The final moments before the vote are the most unpredictable.
The final moments before the vote are the most unpredictable.Credit: Amos Biderman
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

In the summer of 1999, after Benjamin Netanyahu lost to Ehud Barak and left politics, Likud held primaries to choose a new leader. One of the candidates, Ehud Olmert, commented, “The era of magic is over.” As some will recall, in his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu was dubbed “the magician” for his virtuoso, Houdini-like ability to extract himself from a series of crises. Olmert never imagined that the then-self-exiled magician hadn’t yet said the last word.

Next Tuesday, we will learn whether the era of magic, chapter two, second generation, has ended, or whether Netanyahu, who is glumly warning Likud activists of a looming defeat, has managed to survive this self-inflicted episode, too. Irrespective of the results – and make no mistake, it’s still an open game – it’s a safe bet that this weekend, the Netanyahus, whether they spend it at the tottering residence in Jerusalem or between the walls of their villa in Caesarea, will reflect on whether it was a smart move to fire the Yesh Atid ministers and call an early election.

Since December 2, Tzipi Livni, who was on the verge of political extinction, is now the senior partner of Isaac Herzog and this week looked to be closer to the Prime Minister’s Bureau than ever before. And from the paltry 13-14 seats Labor was getting in the polls a few months ago, it is now, in its incarnation as Zionist Union, the largest party (according to recent surveys).

Yair Lapid, a failed and scorned finance minister, rose from the grave thanks to his dismissal from the ministry – a move that purified him. And, as though the nation had just awoken from a 21-month beauty sleep, Lapid is again emerging as a giant hope.

What else happened in these 100 days? The state comptroller’s report on the Netanyahus’ profligate spending would probably never have seen the light of day were it not for the election. Ditto for the housing report, the running saga of chief caretaker Meni Naftali, and the inexhaustible spring of Sara’s embarrassments. Netanyahu was barrel-bombed by the free press in the past three months, in some cases justly, in others less so. That has left its mark.

It’s hard to estimate the electoral damage resulting from this; most pollsters put it at two or three seats. Likud election headquarters shares this conclusion – a result, they say, of the “Ynet-Yedioth Ahronoth effect.”

Some maintain that Likud’s decline began with the state comptroller’s report about the expenses incurred by the premier’s residences. Its impact was not felt immediately, but it had a corrosive trickle-down effect. Some believe that the report on the country’s housing situation – or, more precisely, Netanyahu’s indifferent response to it (“Let’s not ignore life itself”) – had nothing less than a disastrous effect on his constituency. But above all there is the weariness with him, the disgust at the annoying behavior of the royal couple, and the anger at the way the social-economic sphere has been ignored.

Likud representatives who visit the party’s branches come back traumatized. They do not see 21 seats on the horizon. They talk about an implosion. One such senior figure was at a rally in a Likud-dominated city this week (he requested that no identifying details be furnished, lest he suffer the consequences). The average age of the audience was 60, he said; no one between 18 and 40 was present. Those present complained that they were unable to persuade their children to vote Likud. “They tell us, ‘Anyone but Bibi,’” was a phrase the senior figure heard repeatedly. Or, “They say, ‘Deep down I’m Likud, but I won’t vote Bibi.’”

“Netanyahu doesn’t understand that he is the problem, not the solution,” the senior personage said. “He appears on all the billboards alone, as though that is what will win us the victory. Only in Russian communities do you see images of Yuli Edelstein and Zeev Elkin next to his. He used to think that only he was the asset and Likud was the burden. That may have been true in certain periods. But today, every sensible person understands that it’s the opposite.”

The public has reached the saturation point with Netanyahu. But the campaign that was managed, steered and dictated in great detail from his official residence is oblivious to that disturbing reality. Netanyahu is being forced down the throats of the voters again, as though they were geese to be fattened up.

“Let’s say I once loved tahini,” a Likud activist said this week, “but now I hate tahini. I can’t stand to look at it, or to smell it. And then a waiter comes and plies me with tahini, only tahini, all the time tahini!”

Closed circuit

Until the past couple of days, the campaign of the head of Likud’s list – the intrepid crusher of Hamas, destroyer of Iran’s nuclear project and annihilator of the Islamic State – took place underground. Like closed-circuit TV or internal mail.

Netanyahu avoided any groups that had not been filtered and were not dyed-in-the-wool Likud. He didn’t want to look them in the eyes. He also kept the crowds small, didn’t invite media coverage and only visited Likud branches or their leaders’ homes for parlor meetings. With them he felt relatively comfortable, though even there he was harangued for ignoring the social-economic realm. You don’t understand what’s really upsetting the nation, activists told him. This week, in one such meeting, Netanyahu admitted that “maybe that was a mistake.”

He also told his interlocutors: “We are going to lose this election. You have no idea what awaits us.”

On Wednesday, in the wake of the panic generated in Likud by the latest polls, members of the media were invited to an appearance by Netanyahu at the Park Hotel in Netanya. And this weekend, he will, for the first time in a long time, give interviews to mainstream media outlets. But he’ll get less kowtowing treatment than he has recently received in his private publication, the freebie Israel Hayom, or in the saccharine interview he and Sara gave Channel 24.

His rivals are working the entire public. No filtering. Netanyahu’s dialogue with his voters is limited and narrow. He doesn’t train the spotlight on his ministers. Take someone like MK Miri Regev. Problematic as she may be, she did some effective things in the social-welfare sphere in the outgoing Knesset. But Netanyahu preferred to make her a one-woman cheerleading chorus and added her to his entourage when visiting Jerusalem’s traditionally pro-Likud Mahane Yehuda market – again without the media, and on the pretext, which turned out to be false, that the Shin Bet had forbidden the presence of photographers.

This week, the premier held a closed meeting with the members of an important media outlet. Everyone who attended agreed that he was stressed. One person compared him to a patient who requests to be disconnected from life-support. As though his energy has dissipated and his strength has run out. Some thought he was making a farewell statement. “Now you don’t understand, now you won’t be able to broadcast it,” he told them, “but in the future you will understand. When the time comes, you will know what I did [for example, on the Iranian issue].” But others who were there had the impression that he’s gung-ho and far from throwing in the towel.

Asked what he would do if Herzog gets the nod to form a government from President Reuven Rivlin – would he leave again, as he did in 1999 – Netanyahu’s reply was: I will stay.

That’s pretty much the whole story as of this writing, five days before the polling stations open. Until a week ago, it was Herzog who was asked in every interview whether he would agree to serve in a unity government under Netanyahu. Now Netanyahu is being asked whether he will stay in politics if he loses.

But, again: It’s not over until it’s over. Past experience shows that the endgame polls can be off-target by as many as 10 seats all told. The tectonic shifts of the last days of the campaign are unpredictable. Both those who are celebrating a turnover and those who are bemoaning failure should wait until the votes of Israel’s merchant marine arrive.

In conclusion, five comments

1. At the end of last week, the leaders of Zionist Union and the campaign strategist Reuven Adler held a secret meeting. On the agenda was the ultra-sensitive issue of the Herzog-Livni premiership rotation, which in the view of insiders is what’s preventing a runaway Zionist Union win. Livni nobly stated that she was willing to forgo the midterm rotation with Herzog. But a poll showed that backtracking from that public commitment so close to the end would do more harm than good. Almost all the participants at the meeting said that Herzog should stick to the agreement. Adler, who opposed the rotation from the beginning, said nothing. At the end, Herzog, ever the gentleman, said: We’re not caving in, we’re not expressing regret.

2. The Haaretz poll published yesterday reinforced the previous polls, with Zionist Union retaining a three-seat lead over Likud. The parties that have focused on a social-economic agenda are enjoying relatively greater public confidence. Moshe Kahlon, who started with zero, gets 11 seats; Lapid, who was down to six or seven seats at one point, now is polling double that; and Shas, which was on the verge of not entering the Knesset after the schism in the party, is holding steady at seven seats.

The surprise is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. The poll shows it at around four seats, below which is oblivion. Lieberman rejected this statistic, and said he will get at least eight or nine seats, mostly from the Russian-speaking community, where polling is tricky. He added that he had spoken with many disgruntled Likudniks. “It’s true that they hate Bibi and want to kick him out,” he said, “but they hate even more the idea of a left-wing government. I have observed the start of a return home, to Likud,” Lieberman said.

3. Many Likud members received an anonymous text message on Wednesday asking them to reply, by clicking, whether they plan to vote for Kahlon. Likud pollsters have discovered that the drift over to Naftali Bennett’s party has been contained, but that now Likud is in danger of losing votes to Kahlon and, to a lesser extent, to Lapid. The cellular poll was intended to mark the fence-sitters targeted for personal persuasion in the few remaining days.

Another phenomenon, visible mainly in the outlying towns, is that Likud activists – some of them on salary – are actually working for the prodigal son, Kahlon. Nothing has been done about this, as far as is known. The activists have not been suspended or dismissed. The reason, say informed sources, is that Likud campaign headquarters is afraid of angering Kahlon. Without him, as anyone who reads polls knows, Netanyahu will have no chance of forming a government of any kind. They think it’s better to grit their teeth now and accept the intolerable situation, in the hope their generosity will pay off on the morning after.

4. Many politicians are in the running for the title of “king of chutzpah” in this campaign. But Yair Lapid is definitely the leading candidate for this prize. The pretentious politician who has accused Herzog of reaching a prior agreement with Netanyahu to form a unity government, himself refuses to declare that he will not serve in a Netanyahu government. Less than two years ago, he barreled into the last Netanyahu government cheek-to-jowl with his ‘bro Bennett. He’s the last person who has the right to roll his eyes righteously and accuse others of the same thing. Zionist Union spokespersons who are saying that Lapid will be part of any government, and that the voters will decide which government – Herzog or Netanyahu – that will be, are telling the truth.

5. According to the Haaretz poll, neither Netanyahu nor Herzog has a “narrow” government in his pocket. What they have is each other and their rivals. Likud needs both Lieberman and Kahlon in order to form a right-wing government. Both of them have reservations about that possibility. Herzog will need to pull off a Houdini-type stunt – the same Houdini we started with – to get Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On and Lieberman to sit around the same table, and also to get United Torah Judaism and Shas to sit with Lapid. The logical solution, toward which President Rivlin will likely push Herzog and Netanyahu, physically if necessary, is the formation of a broad-based government, with or without rotation. Some say that it’s not so much a case of Rivlin having to thrust them into each other’s arms, as it is forcing him to get them into bed together.

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