Obama or Romney? Israel's Politicians Await the Results of the U.S. Elections

The race to the White House concludes next week and the outcome will likely have a bearing on Israel’s elections in January. While Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni weigh their options, Moshe Kahlon dreams of being a game changer.

Kadima MK Dalia Itzik celebrated her 60th birthday two weeks ago, in a private apartment high up in the Gan Ha’ir building in Tel Aviv. Among the guests were relatives, friends and three politicians in various stages of transmogrification: President Shimon Peres; Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman (prior to his union with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu); and the Hamlet of the 2013 elections, former prime minister Ehud Olmert.

“It is possible to defeat Bibi, it is necessary to defeat Bibi,” said Olmert enthusiastically about the premier, but then hedged, “but not with the way the [political] map is currently structured."

A few days later, Olmert flew to London for two days of private business, during which the unification of Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud struck the political playing field like a bolt of lightning. Olmert returned to Israel and embarked on a series of consultations aimed at preparing his comeback in the political arena, at the head of a very broad ticket: at a minimum with Tzipi Livni and Kadima chair MK Shaul Mofaz, down the road with Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, and possibly with another two or three smaller slates from the left side of the map.

Olmert isn’t counting on MK Shelly Yacimovich’s Labor Party. He is convinced that when it comes to making recommendations to the president about forming the next government, if she will have to choose either the Bibi-Lieberman duo or him she’ll choose him. On Wednesday, he met with Livni and they issued a joint statement, to the effect that “in light of Israel’s deteriorated state in recent years, the government must be replaced".

The question is whether the decision will be carried out their relations are still fraught or whether only one of them will actually run, with the other’s support. They will look supremely silly if, next week or thereafter, they both announce that, despite the situation, they have decided not to act to replace the government, and instead continue to complain and pursue other livelihoods.

The target date for an official decision has been postponed again. The excuse for the latest delay? The U.S. presidential election. The prevailing assumption among politicians here is that the reelection of President Barack Obama would clip Netanyahu’s wings; he would look like someone who backed the losing candidate. Israel is liable to find itself in sharp conflict with a second-term president who will neither forgive nor forget what Netanyahu tried to do to him.

This will be the “testosterone shot” that Olmert-Livni, or one of them, needs. They will tell the voters that another four years of quarreling between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States will be disastrous for Israel’s standing. They will present to the public their respective tenures as prime minister and foreign minister as the golden age of relations between Israel and the United States.

However, if Republican candidate Mitt Romney is elected and this buddy of Bibi’s who only a few months ago declared that there is no chance of peace with the Palestinians since their sole desire is to destroy Israel enters the White House Netanyahu really will be King Bibi, big-time.

In recent months, former Kadima head Haim Ramon has been energetically consulting figures outside of politics who were supposed to have populated Livni’s slate. Ever since Olmert, following his light sentence in September, began to signal that he was about to return any minute, the consultations have ceased.

Who to join?

The potential candidates don’t know who the hell it is they are supposed to join:
Olmert, Livni, or both of them? Ramon is torn between Tzipi and Ehud. The former brings in more votes in the public opinion polls. The latter has a better chance, theoretically, of forming a government. About 10 days ago he and she met, then for two days they didn’t speak. A rumor spread that they were having a fight. The rejoicing mainly Shelly Yacimovich’s was premature and excessive. The two are meeting again. And waiting. For Olmert. For the public opinion polls. For Obama. For Kahlon.

Three scenes

1. An events hall in Petah Tikva. The Yemenite Association is celebrating the 130th anniversary of immigration by Yemenite Jews. The guests of honor are Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, Communications and Social Affairs Minister Moshe Kahlon and Deputy Minister Gila Gamliel. All of them from the Likud. Rivlin welcomes everyone; about 600 or 700 Yemenites honor him with loud applause. Rivlin is moved to tears. Moderator Avner Gadassi calls on Kahlon. The audience goes ballistic. Rivlin exchanges astonished glances with Erdan. “I thought they had applauded me,” he says. “Compared to his, I was greeted with chilly British courtesy."

2. An events hall in Or Yehuda. A private party for Anat Marciano, the legendary bureau chief of a number of Labor Party leaders, in the presence of many current and former members of the Labor Knesset faction. Also on hand is a key Likud activist, Shimon Sussan, head of the Modi’in district regional council. Sussan is one of the people closest to Kahlon. He works the crowd, brandishing a poll by the Rafi Smith Institute from the day before, which gives Kahlon 20 Knesset seats running on a socially-oriented ticket and, together with Livni, 26 or 27. Kahlon, according to the poll, could bite into all the parties.

3. Thursday morning. A young fellow is in a cab from Tel Aviv to Herzliya. Here is what the driver says, verbatim: “Until yesterday I didn’t know who to vote for. I have always voted Likud, like an idiot. Only Kahlon can bend Lieberman and Netanyahu. Kahlon’s people are already on the ground persuading us, the drivers. And you know what the name of his party will be? Koach La’am Power to the People. Also, because the letters that spell Koach [in Hebrew] are the first letters of his name. They will also be the letters on the ballot-box slip."

Bullying and arrogance

Two weeks ago, Kahlon made the surprise announcement of a two-year time-out from politics. He planned to study a bit at Harvard University and go into business. And now he is already ready for a comeback. And not to the Likud his political home since infancy but rather a “social” party that will challenge the Likud, which has meanwhile become Likud-Beiteinu.

Kahlon is surrounded by fantastic polls, polls that are way too good. Politicians and parties are courting him. Yacimovich did something she had never done before: She published the results of an internal poll she commissioned, checking a scenario in which she and Kahlon run together.

The survey, conducted by the Dahaf Institute headed by Dr. Mina Tzemach, showed a tie: 32 Knesset seats for Likud-Beiteinu, 32 for Yacimovich-Kahlon. What difference does it make if his policy positions regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict are worlds away from hers? MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) tweeted yesterday: “Balad announces: ‘If Kahlon heads our party, we will win 12 Knesset seats’” with Balad being a rival Arab party with three seats in the current Knesset.

In conversations with a number of people, Kahlon talked about Netanyahu’s and his coterie’s bullying, arrogance and rapaciousness. After he announced his resignation, Netanyahu really did try to persuade Kahlon to stay.

“He thought I would be his David Levy,” he said, referring to the Morocco-born politician who, after a period of submissiveness, eventually broke away from the Likud in Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. “When he passed the decrees a few months ago, I asked for another NIS 190,000 for the elderly. They told me no. I voted against the decrees and said I hadn’t the heart to raise my hand against the elderly. At the Prime Minister’s Bureau they said that if I didn’t have the heart, I should go to a cardiologist. Okay, so I am going to a cardiologist.

“If I am not a game-changer, this whole move is superfluous. I have to be double-digit [i.e., in the number of Knesset seats], so that after the elections I will join the Likud and influence Netanyahu from the inside to go in a different direction. I won’t go with Shelly and I won’t go with Tzipi. I will go with Bibi, but I will make sure to put restraints on his social and economic policy. To weaken him. In the end, I am a Likudnik. But I am a real Likudnik. Social. Not what we are seeing today."

Last Thursday, Kahlon was summoned urgently to the Prime Minister’s Bureau. He thought Netanyahu was about to offer him the Finance Ministry. Instead, Netanyahu said: “Yvet [Lieberman] and I will run on a joint slate. I expect your support."

That broke Kahlon. In addition to Sussan, Kahlon has another active supporter and confidant in his party (as of Thursday evening): chairman of the Likud branch in Tel Aviv, Arnon Giladi, also the city’s deputy mayor. “I have been around for a long time and I haven’t seen anything like this since [Menachem] Begin,” Giladi told me yesterday. “People love him. People will follow him."

 You’re saying he has already made the decision. He is running.

“Yes. The decision in principle has been made. We will meet today and tomorrow [Thursday and Friday] and we will look at the findings of the in-depth poll conducted on Wednesday. If it emerges beyond any doubt that he has a double-digit figure 10 Knesset seats or more he will run, at the head of a purely social-oriented party. A party that will be the real Likud, Begin’s Likud."

Isn’t it too hasty to run on the basis of two or three opinion polls?

“No normal person who had seen a survey that gives him 20 Knesset seats and enables him to change the face of this country would remain indifferent. Apart from that, you are seeing that everyone wants to go with him. MKs from the party are contacting him. There isn’t any other address these days. Only Moshe."

You know that what starts out as 20 Knesset seats often ends as six.

“Not in our case."

 If the skullcap fits ...

The election in the United States on Tuesday isn’t the only upcoming vote: The primaries also take place then for Habayit Hayehudi, the former National Religious Party. The contenders for its leadership: MK Zevulun Orlev, who will soon turn 70, and Naftali Bennett, who was formerly in high tech and is 30 years younger. The only thing that connects them is the skullcaps they wear. There were never primaries in the NRP. The initiative came from MK Uri Orbach, who supports Bennett.

The current party chairman, Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz, dropped out of the race about two weeks ago and has given his support and about half of his activists to Orlev in return for promises: a ministerial portfolio, a rabbinical position, an academic post. At a joint press conference, the two called upon Bennett to join them. He refused. Apparently on Orlev’s behalf, a prominent rabbi who is one of the leaders of religious Zionism contacted Bennett last weekend and invited him to join a tripartite leadership.

“Does that mean there won’t be primaries?” asked Bennett. 

“Yes,” replied the rabbi.

“Then no,” said Bennett.

From 2006 to 2007, Bennett headed opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign staff and ran his primary campaign for party leadership (against Moshe Feiglin and MK Danny Danon) in August 2007. The most important lesson he learned: When an activist from a certain city comes to you and says, “150 voters on me!” you have to thank him warmly and ask him for the names and phone numbers of those 150 people. From the moment you have the names in your possession, the activist will have to bust a gut to bring them to the polling station because you as a candidate will be able to find out, right afterward, whether he kept this promise on the basis of the voter count at the polling booth."

At Netanyahu’s bureau, they are very worried about Bennett. After all, he used to be one of them. He knows all the boss’ secrets. He had to leave his position after “the lady” became displeased with him; the same lady who didn’t want him then will now have to swallow him as a key minister in the third Netanyahu government.

After the primaries for the leader of Habayit Hayehudi and for the slate, which will be held on November 13, it is expected that the unification of Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union will take place. The joint slate could rake in seven to nine Knesset seats. The melding of Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu is good news for the right-wing religious factions: The skullcap-wearing voters for two of the Knesset seats now held by the Likud will consider voting for Habayit Hayehudi-National Union.

The new faction’s campaign will have a three-headed message: traditionalism, being rightist and favoring Bibi. We will go only with Netanyahu, the message will be, so you, the religious voter, can feel free to vote for us. In any case, Netanyahu is the next prime minister, certainly when he is on the united ticket with Lieberman. A strong rightist party at his side will ensure that he does not, heaven forfend, stray from the straight and narrow.