After Netanyahu's Magic Act, the Cards Are Now in Kahlon's Hands

There’s no doubt that the biggest surprise is the Likud's incredible electoral achievement, but Kahlon holds the key to the future coalition.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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A photograph of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on the floor with Likud ballots at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.
A photograph of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seen on the floor with Likud ballots at the party's headquarters in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

No one expected this election's startling drama; certainly no one envisioned the numbers that have emerged. Not the pollsters, who need to thoroughly reexamine their conclusions, not the polished political players who painted a completely contradictory reality from the one that arose Wednesday morning. Not even the veteran analysts could translate their experience and seniority into more accurate figures. The truth is that not even sworn optimists among Likud supporters could have predicted the election results. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can say Wednesday morning what Menachem Begin said when he rose from his sickbed on the eve of his surprising 1977 election victory: I have been resurrected.

Israel's sitting prime minister is strong, even if his party didn’t appear so throughout this election campaign. The Israeli people appeared to have grown sick and tired of him, to have been yearning for a replacement. What started as a tie with the Zionist Union in the exit polls turned into a wide gap between the two parties by morning, when Israelis awoke to something of a revolution: a sweeping victory for Likud, against all odds, as Netanyahu himself aptly described it.

Perhaps it will be more "socially minded," due to pressure from Moshe Kahlon and Arye Dery, but also because Likud members heard and internalized the nation's bitterness and frustration with the high cost of living and housing, the low salaries and the general lack of hope for the future. The people complained, pondered how their lives have improved in the past two years or six years that Netanyahu has been at the helm – and for some reason voted again for Netanyahu and Likud, Likud and Netanyahu.

This amazing achievement is mainly a personal one for Netanyahu. He endured massive attacks in the press in recent months and not only survived them, but apparently was boosted by them. The Likud ticket grew by more than 40 percent in relation to the latest polls. No ruling party has achieved such growth since 1981 – and this despite the disaffection and weariness felt toward Netanyahu.

Nothing remains of the mantra, the prayer, the new anthem, “Anyone but Bibi,” which was heard from everyone, all over the country, and led many to predict that Likud would get only 17-18 seats. At the moment of truth, when the hand reached for the ballot slips, the people chose Netanyahu once more.

The best campaigner of all did it again. He did it without hesitating, veering sharply right, abandoning the two-state commitment he made in his 2009 Bar-Ilan address, confronting U.S. President Barack Obama in an unprecedented fashion, and shamefully excoriating the Arab public shamefully (“The Arabs are flocking to the polls in huge quantities,” he said, as if Israel’s Arab citizens exercising their democratic right was a plague of locusts that needed exterminating). He did it using propaganda and borderline incitement against the free media (on Tuesday accusing Channel 10 of trying to unseat him), and of course, through a methodical campaign of lies, falsehoods, and fabrications against his rivals, dead and alive, like former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, the V15 organization, and naturally, Kahlon.

Netanyahu is one of the world’s experts in conducting a “gevald” (“save me”) campaign. He used it consistently and effectively when he faced Moshe Feiglin in the 2012 Likud primary; then, too, he cried out that he was on the brink of defeat. He didn’t invent the genre, but he improved on it and turned it into an art form.

During this round he trampled on his sister party on the right, headed by younger brother Bennett. The hysteria Habayit Hayehudi was exhibiting in recent days was not spin, as it turned out, but was firmly grounded. The party heads saw with their own eyes how voters were slipping through their fingers, like shifting sands, and going to Likud. Families split their votes – one would vote Bennett, the other, Bibi.

The result – a strong Likud, a weak and shrunken Habayit Hayehudi – is healthy from a democratic perspective, but it was achieved in an unhealthy fashion. Habayit Hayehudi was “crushed,” a word Netanyahu used last summer. The merger between the old National Religious Party and the extreme Tekuma movement didn’t prove itself. The benighted homophobe, organizer of the 2006 anti-gay “beast parade,” Bezalel Smotrich, turned secular voters away from the party. Now Habayit Hayehudi hopes, perhaps naively, that Netanyahu will “reward” the voters who rushed to help him and his party by giving Bennett a senior position and fitting place in the next coalition. We’ll see.

Netanyahu will be prime minister for the fourth time, the third time in a row. Only David Ben-Gurion accomplished this before him, and if Netanyahu serves a full term he will surpass Ben-Gurion as the country's longest running premier.

The prospect of forming a unity government, which appeared likely as the voting booths were closing Tuesday night, is finally out of the question. Even if Netanyahu implores and Isaac Herzog wants in, his party won't allow it. It refuses to be a fig leaf, a whitewasher, and contractor for Netanyahu's government.

For Herzog, Tuesday night was bittersweet. There’s no doubt he achieved an unbelievable electoral result. But very quickly he is liable to find himself in a position similar to the one his partner, Tzipi Livni, found herself in 2009, when her Kadima party got one seat more than Likud, but she ended up wandering in the opposition, where she dried up, withered, and finally left, leaving behind no mark.

'Be Kahlons'

“Be Kahlons,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his ministers, in the midst of the cellular revolution that then-Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon was conducting during the previous government. Netanyahu soon regretted giving Kahlon such a buildup, and began torpedoing, dwarfing, and tripping up the “the kid from Givat Olga,” as he once referred to him.

In the end Kahlon got fed up and walked out of Likud, slamming the door behind him. He sat out the last election but he swore he would return – bigger, stronger and totally independent.

On Tuesday, it happened. Netanyahu may still be the Caesar from Caesarea, but Kahlon is king of the hill. It is now in his power to determine not only who will be prime minister, but also the composition of the next government coalition and even its life expectancy. He suffered plenty of humiliation in recent years from Netanyahu, including the nasty trick Likud played on him Monday when it distributed a two-year-old recording of Kahlon expressing support for the prime minister.

Now Kahlon will pay him back in spades. Now he, alone, is in the same position that the "brothers from hell" – Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett – were in after the 2013 elections; even more so if he forges an alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu’s Avigdor Lieberman, who was behind the brilliant idea of raising the electoral threshold and survived this election by the skin of his teeth.

All the cards are in Kahlon’s hands. The key is in his pocket. The Finance Ministry is almost certainly his. The question is just how much he will enjoy making Netanyahu grovel during the coming days and weeks, and in the coming years as a strong minister in Netanyahu’s fourth government. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. Kahlon waited two years, and revenge has come, properly chilled.

The benevolent President Reuven Rivlin said Tuesday night he would do his utmost to get Netanyahu and Herzog to form a unity government. "We need a unity government to prevent the rapid disintegration of Israeli democracy and additional elections in a short time," he told political figures after the exit polls came out. With all due respect to Rivlin's good intentions, he will at best be able to ask for that nicely, to raise the notion – but no more than that. Netanyahu has indicated he is seeking to form a "nationalist" government. He will be given a mandate to form the next coalition sometime next week, paving the way for his fourth term.

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