Israel's Political Parties Gear Up for Election Year

This week, a date was set for the final showdown between Livni and Mofaz for Kadima's chairmanship. The next two months won't be pretty. Netanyahu, too, faces a primary, at month's end. For him, the problem will be the grueling election year that will follow his presumed victory.

Tzipi Livni knows that this will be the last battle. Either she will defeat Shaul Mofaz again and remain the leader of Kadima, or she will make her way to Tel Aviv's Ramat Hahayal neighborhood - and home - on the morning of March 28. "I don't intend to be there to bring him Knesset seats," she is telling her staff. In the weeks ahead they intend to make it clear to the voters that without Tzipi there is no Kadima.

As in the previous contest for the party leadership, in September 2008, the polls predict that Kadima would get more seats in a general election under Livni than under Mofaz. And she has another card to play, too: Yair Lapid, the television personality who announced last week that he was entering politics, now looks poised to become the rock on which Kadima will crash no matter what, but if it is Mofaz who is elected party leader, the party's white tribe can especially be expected to flock to Lapid or to Labor's Shelly Yachimovich. Sad and depressing, but that's how it is.

Kadima Chairwoman Tzipi Livni - Jan. 18, 2012
Nir Keidar

Livni tried twice to form a government - in 2008 and in 2009 - and failed both times. Kadima emerged as the party that won the most seats in the Knesset election, but remained in the opposition and became the laughingstock of the House.

People who spoke to Livni on Wednesday - when she announced that the party primary will be held on March 27 - found her on a high. "I know our voters have been disappointed and I am the one who has to bring them home," she told her supporters, adding that she paid a price for trying to do what was good for the state instead of play petty politics. "After the previous primaries, when Mofaz wanted to leave the party, I told my advisers to embrace him, to make him stay. I did something exceptional: I changed the party charter for him, so that he would be automatically placed in the second slot on the list of Knesset candidates. That was a serious mistake. The result was that the primaries never stopped for a minute. The 'responsible' approach worked against me, not only with regard to Mofaz but also with regard to my supporters. Wanting to embrace everyone, I ended up abandoning those who helped me."

Livni's words were a reference mainly to MK Yohanan Plesner, who was one of her leading supporters in the previous primary but has now joined the Mofaz team.

"When Netanyahu tried to split the party, more than two years ago, I did everything to ensure that those who were on his list [of potential defectors] stayed with us. That was a mistake. I should have let them go," she said.

"This time it will be different," Livni is telling her supporters. "This time, I will remember everyone, everyone who will be with me. This time it's a contest between camps - the Livni camp vs. the Mofaz camp - not just between Tzipi and Shaul. Not that I want people to leave. But I don't intend to do a thing to get them to stay. Anyone who will not accept my leadership after I am elected, or accept my path, which is Kadima's path, can go. We will revitalize Kadima. There are enough good people out there.

"This time there are no hugs. This time it's all-out," she continued. "Anyone who wants to get up in the morning with legislative initiatives that make our supporters uncomfortable can do so, but not with me. Anyone who wants to spend all his time fussing over the question of why he wasn't elected - that's fine, too, but he won't be one of us." It's a fusion of Tzipi from the Mossad, Xena the warrior princess and Joan of Arc. That's the kind of talk you get from someone who knows that this is a fight for the whole caboodle. Mofaz's mood is no different. It's going to be a battle that will go down in history. We're in for 10 bloody weeks, 10 weeks of the last tango in Kadima.

'Traveling circus'

Under cover of dark, in the rain and cold, the heavily armored convoy of the leading candidate for the leadership of Likud is racing between the cities, moshavim and villages of our fair land. The candidate's car stops outside a hall, Benjamin Netanyahu leaps out and disappears between the folds of the blue canvas covering spread by agents of the Shin Bet security service. On Sunday he was in Netivot, two days later he visited Netanya.

The Prime Minister's Bureau has determined that these meetings will be closed to the media. Netanyahu doesn't want to be seen among his voters in public. It's not statesmanlike - the whistling, the chants of "Heide [onward] Bibi." "Heide Leibush!" the prime minister called out in Netanya to a Central Committee member who hasn't tired of shouting "Heide Bibi" for the past 17 years.

The Likud primary will take place in another 10 days. The titanic struggle between Netanyahu and Moshe Feiglin is at its peak. Netanyahu is taking the opportunity to meet the Likudniks. Here's how it works. Half an hour before his arrival, the ministers and MKs are on the scene to shake hands and work the crowd. Then the ministers take the stage and sit at the head table. Netanyahu delivers a 45-minute speech, in which he praises every minister and every MK, and talks about his government's accomplishments. He is the only speaker. All the ministers have to do is look pretty and keep quiet. "Like a silent traveling circus," one of them put it.

Even if the Knesset elections are not held until early in 2013 - the latest realistic date, owing to budget constraints - we are already in an election year. There are primaries in Kadima; Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beiteinu is torpedoing Netanyahu's plan to extend the Tal Law - the law that allows for Haredim to defer being drafted - for five years, and has announced that he will work to get the religious councils abolished, a move that will definitely lead to a worsening of Haredi-secular relations; Interior Minister Eli Yishai from Shas links up with the striking heads of local authorities and delivers their impossible demands to Netanyahu, so that the PM will be the bad guy. Half a year ago, Yishai would not have dared pull a stunt like that with Netanyahu.

A strong prime minister has to wish for a short election campaign, of 90 days, including primaries, which he should win with one hand tied behind his back. An election campaign that drags on for a year is a recipe for trouble. But Netanyahu brought it on himself, when he decided to move up the Likud primary solely in order to stick it to party rival Silvan Shalom. With his own hands, he made it difficult for himself to go on managing the affairs of state.

After the meeting in Netivot, which ended at 10 P.M., Netanyahu and the ministers wanted to go to a local cafe, where the city fathers were waiting for them. The prime minister's bodyguards vetoed the plan. With no other choice, Netanyahu and the ministers went into the next room, a dirty, peeling space that also happens to be freezing cold. Someone set up a table with cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Netanyahu, accompanied by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat and Minister Yuli Edelstein sat down and gorged.

Sa'ar suggested to Ya'alon that he should leave the room, as it wasn't right for the prime minister and the vice premier to be together in such a cold room, in case they both froze to death. Other ministers said they envied Edelstein, a former Prisoner of Zion, who was certainly used to such conditions after Siberia. "If there had been a camera there, no one would believe that this is the face of the senior leadership of Israel," one of the ministers said.


In the previous incarnation of every politician, however decent and honest he may be, are skeletons of the words he regrets. Here's an amusing example, which a diligent researcher pulled out this week from an archive. It's a column by the journalist Yair Lapid that ran in Maariv on October 16, 1998, in the waning period of the first Netanyahu government.

It was a failed, resignation-littered government. This was also the period that saw the birth of the Center party, with its ambition to topple Netanyahu and form the next government. The candidate to lead the fledgling party was the recently retired chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. He was later replaced by the defense minister who was fired from the Netanyahu government, Yitzhak Mordechai, a retired major general. Those two, together with the resigned finance minister, Dan Meridor, and the mayor of Tel Aviv, Roni Milo, were the galaxy of the election campaign. Four potential prime ministers plus a group of social activists, heads of local authorities and success stories.

Lapid was not impressed: "A few months ago, I had lemonade on a Herzliya rooftop with a senior Israeli politician who urged me to join the Center party. There was something tempting about the idea. Journalists dream about politics, in the same way that 16-year-olds dream about sex.

"After two hours of talking, there was one thing I could not fathom in the least: the center of what? The Center Party being talked about was really a code name for a group that wasn't ready to take responsibility. It would be the party of the vague and a few tricksters. Under the word 'center,' they could run without committing to anything.

"There is no more delightful scene than a group of smart and pissed-off guys who go into politics in order to change something. The situation is so desperate that any healthy tantrum will be welcomed ... But let's see true fire in their eyes. Not another center. Not another ultra-judicious, ultra-cautious thing."

In October 1998, the polls predicted that the Center party would get 18 to 20 seats. The party got six seats in the elections held the following spring. Four years later it vanished without a trace.

In his column in Yedioth Ahronoth a week ago, Lapid spelled out in general terms his credo, under the slogan, "Where's the money": He's against isolated settlements, against extremist Haredim, against tycoons. He was ultra-judicious, ultra-cautious, had no fire in the eyes and was plenty vague.

Super trivial

About a month ago, the forum of eight - the political-security kitchen cabinet - held a super-secret, super-sensitive meeting about the most secret and sensitive subject. On the table in the cabinet room were transparencies containing hush-hush information. The atmosphere was serious and sober.

Suddenly the door opened. Into the room burst Netanyahu's chief of staff, Nathan Eshel. He rushed over to prime minister as though to deliver a warning about a nuclear missile heading straight for Tel Aviv. He was holding a hot-hot, fresh-fresh printout from the news site Ynet. A few ministers immediately covered the transparencies, which were not for Eshel's eyes. As the ministers watched in disbelief, Netanyahu started to discuss with Eshel what to do about the report in the printout. According to a senior minister who is a member of the forum of eight, it was a trivial matter. Other ministers describe Eshel as sitting in his office and keeping both eyes peeled on Ynet. He prints out every item he thinks is significant, more or less, and hurries to show it to the boss accompanied by insights, usually hysterical and apocalyptic. The anxieties of boss and aide feed off each other.

I asked the Prime Minister's Bureau for a response. None had arrived by press time.