A Painful Price

The damage that Benjamin Netanyahu caused himself by his contest with Moshe Feiglin is apparent in the latest polls. The only bright spot for the Likud chair was the new free daily, Yisrael Hayom

It was 10:30 P.M., toward the end of the day of the Likud leadership primary. The main polling station, in the International Convention Center, Jerusalem, was deserted. The ushers started to put away the equipment, the activists collected the leftover sandwiches, the day of battle was over. From the shadows, a familiar figure emerged. He marched quickly up to the computer, identified himself, went from there to the polling booth and, from there, even more quickly, back outside into the welcoming night. Dan Meridor had left the building.

The man who for a decade, ever since the 1996 elections, had refused to insert any ballot bearing the name of Benjamin Netanyahu into a ballot box did so last Tuesday. And his hand did not even tremble.

In an adjacent room, at Netanyahu headquarters, sat MK Reuven Rivlin. Someone reported the event in the hall to him. Rivlin rushed to the polling area to say hello to his close friend, but Meridor had already evaporated as though he had never existed. Only the check next to his name on the computer, indicating that he had voted, testified to the fact that he had passed through.

At exactly the same historic moment, Netanyahu worriedly contacted Rivlin to ask about the voter turnout. "You can calm down," Rivlin told him. "We've reached a 40 percent turnout. And besides, just now, you received another vote."

"Whose?" asked Netanyahu. "Meridor's," replied Rivlin. "Really?!" said Netanyahu in delight. "What did you think?" replied Rivlin. "Dan, as someone born into the original sin, the Herut party [a forerunner of Likud], didn't come only to vote against [Moshe] Feiglin. At a time like this, he decided to stand with you, but even more, with the party."

"Good," said Netanyahu. "We have to pursue this matter."

"This matter" is Netanyahu's ambition to bring Dan Meridor back onto the Likud Knesset slate. These two, who were bitter rivals, have been in close contact during the past year. They have met eight or nine times, in private, mainly for discussions on national security issues, a subject in which Meridor is involved on an ongoing basis through the various Defense Ministry committees he heads. They do not discuss politics, at least according to one of them. But between meetings, Netanyahu makes sure to send messengers to Meridor - like Rivlin, for example, who pleaded with him to return to the political arena. Meridor is almost ready to return, and even to run in the primary that will choose the Likud's Knesset slate. But for him, the decision is still premature; he will make it only after a date for the elections has been set. If one may venture a guess, however, he will come back.

The thought of Meridor and Netanyahu joining forces, after everything that has happened between them, no longer causes anyone in politics to fall off his chair. Less than a decade ago, then prime minister Netanyahu forced Meridor to resign from the Finance Ministry (two years later, in a private conversation, Netanyahu said that Meridor was one of the best finance ministers Israel ever had). That prompted Meridor to establish the Center Party, whose avowed purpose was to remove Netanyahu from the premiership.

Meridor is longing to return to political life, and the truth is that he does not have many options. Kadima is closed to him, because that was what his former good friend Prime Minister Ehud Olmert decided. He has close relations with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and they often meet and talk - about security matters, of course. Political cooperation would thus seem logical. But Meridor will never be part of the Labor Party. The thought of it nauseates him. What's left? The Likud.

A scare campaign

Were Netanyahu able to get his hands on the neuralyzer - the device that erases memory in the film "Men in Black" - he would not hesitate to use it against every citizen of the country, in order to erase from the collective memory any trace of those terrible days of August 2007, when he ran around from one Likud branch to another as though pursued by the lunatic figure of Moshe Feiglin, a blocker of roads who became a national figure thanks to Netanyahu. Only by luck did Netanyahu and his MKs, via a classical scare campaign that picked up speed in the final week, succeed in arousing fears among registered Likud voters, pulling them away from their air conditioners and swimming pools and dragging them to the polls.

People who worked with Netanyahu in recent weeks saw him becoming increasingly nervous, increasingly worried, to the point of panic, over the possibility that voter turnout would not exceed 30 percent. That would have increased Feiglin's strength far beyond its actual dimensions and landed a mortal blow to the Likud and to Netanyahu's chances of putting together a sane centrist slate before the Knesset elections. This week ended comparatively well. But if Feiglin succeeds in the future in getting onto the Likud slate, either by himself or along with any of his supporters, Netanyahu will be in big trouble. Some of Netanyahu's people wondered, not for the first time, whether he is suited to be prime minister again if this is how he functions under pressure, if this is how he makes decisions.

The unsympathetic media frenzy - to put it mildly - that accompanied Netanyahu over the last few days, the Feiglin days, has already exacted a price from the Likud chair where it hurts him most: According to a poll by Professor Yitzhak Katz, which was publicized yesterday morning on "It's All Talk" on Israel Radio, Netanyahu and Ehud Barak have almost equal support for the premiership. Over the last two weeks, quite a few voters have moved from Netanyahu, who until now was the unquestioned leader in the polls, to Barak.

When one places Barak against Olmert and Netanyahu, for example, the result is 32 percent, 5 percent and 30 percent, respectively. Barak, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Netanyahu yield the following result: 24 percent, 29 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The logical conclusion is this: The last two weeks, during which Netanyahu fought against Feiglin, have harmed him. During those same two weeks, Barak began to expose his views in a series of public statements, off-the-record quotations attributed to him and security-related soundbytes set against the backdrop of dusty combat scenes. This improved his situation considerably.

"Ah," said Netanyahu disdainfully the morning after the primary, "this is a marginal issue." He refuses to admit that he made a mistake by pushing Silvan Shalom out of the race, a step that left him opposite the giants Feiglin and Danny Danon, or by calling the primary in mid-August. He also denies that he was worried. I was not nervous, he claims; I applied pressure, and the fact is that it worked. "Feiglin is insignificant," he said, ignoring the fact that Feiglin has increased his strength over the course of three Likud primaries from 3 percent five years ago to 13 percent a year and a half ago to 24 percent this week.

"I worked on this for two weeks, and now I'm free," he said. "During the coming months, I won't have to deal with these issues at all. I'll be able to concentrate on putting together a few focused plans in various areas, bringing new people into the Likud, forming a slate, starting a dynamic."

Netanyahu made one decision already on the night of the primary: to stop playing the democratic game with Feiglin. He will clash with him now in every party institution and in every other possible arena. On Tuesday night, he closed the door of the room where he delivered his victory speech in the faces of Feiglin and his followers. The Feiglin faction was in shock. "Even during [Ariel] Sharon's time, they didn't treat us like that," one of them lamented to an associate of Netanyahu's.

Netanyahu is trying to make the most of the formative experience that he underwent in the exhausting August heat and humidity. For example, he has become familiar with the registered voters, the various groups, the centers of power. Who is against whom and how many they number. In the future, when he wants to influence the composition of the Knesset slate, or to promote some individual or other, he will already know what to do, with whom to work, on which groups to focus. He estimates that beginning in the middle of the Knesset term, in about a year from now, preparations for the elections will begin. Incidentally, Ehud Barak shares this opinion, but more as a commentator than as an active player.

"Now I'm free," Netanyahu repeated. You're available, someone told him. Netanyahu liked that, but his interlocutor warned him that it does not sound good. Say that you are available to lead, advised the man. Netanyahu liked that even better.

'Netanyahu Today'

If Netanyahu had a ray of light during those pressured, hysterical days of the campaign against Feiglin, with the print and electronic media reminding him daily of his mistakes, it was Yisrael Hayom (Israel Today), the new free newspaper belonging to Netanyahu's best friend, Sheldon Adelson. With a newspaper like that, who needs advertisements? The paper's mobilization for the cause, with such self-sacrifice, without an iota of criticism, succeeded in arousing discomfort and embarrassment even among Netanyahu's close associates.

A day before the primary, the paper came out with a prominent headline on its first page about Netanyahu's call to members to go vote. On the day of the primary, the front page headline screamed in white letters on a blue background: "Likudniks are called to the polls today." Inside, on page 2, was an article by Gonen Ginat. "It's not enough for Benjamin Netanyahu to win," it said. "As they say in the Israel Defense Forces, the victory has to be seared into people's consciousness. A great, clear and unequivocal victory." The day after the primary, the paper was beside itself with joy: "Netanyahu won big," it reported proudly to its readers, while the headline of the editorial declared: "The victory of maturity."

Well, if anything has been seared into anyone's consciousness at this point, it is the fact that all the fears were realized. Yisrael Hayom is Netanyahu's house organ. Netanyahu's investment (unlike Adelson's, so far) has paid off. The name of the paper could be changed to Netanyahu Today. It would not be less irritating. But it would be more transparent.

Former prime minister Ariel Sharon occasionally used to tease the late journalist Uri Dan, who for decades served as Sharon's mouthpiece. "Attack me occasionally, so they'll think you're objective and will believe you," Sharon used to tell him. But Dan was incapable of doing so. Until the disengagement.

Someone, maybe even Netanyahu, should send a similar message to the editors of Yisrael Hayom. The question is: Is Netanyahu capable of doing so?

Close enough to touch

When Netanyahu delivered his victory speech in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, in a side auditorium of the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds that was closed to Feiglin (in order to prevent a joint photograph, which would hurt Netanyahu), Limor Livnat stood beside him like a wall on the dais. About a year and a half ago, on the night of the Knesset elections, at the same hour and not far away, it became clear that the Likud would have only 12 Knesset seats, and Netanyahu delivered his concession speech.

At that time, Livnat was not standing beside him. She was nowhere to be seen, and eventually claimed that notice of the event had reached her late. This week, with Netanyahu leading in the polls for prime minister, and with predictions that the Likud will receive 30 seats, Livnat would not have dreamed of missing out on a photograph alongside the leader. She was in the right place at the right time, and very near to Sara Netanyahu, who also made a comeback this week.