Let the Loser Drop Out

Benjamin Netanyahu has encased himself in a labyrinth with no exit. His government is in danger of falling apart, which will lead to early elections or the formation of a new government, though the Knesset will remain the same. His grand plan, of redeeming Israel from the Iranian bomb while blocking the efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, has come crashing down. A decision on Iran is moving further out of reach, and the political noose is getting tighter. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell made this more evident than ever over the weekend.

Netanyahu's clumsy moves aimed at showing unity, determination and decisiveness have, as usual, achieved the opposite. These included a decision to issue gas masks to everyone - a decision that involves more talk than action and that sent a message to the world that Israel is preparing for an attack on Iran and a chemical and biological counterattack - and a desperate effort to bolster his government with either all or part of Kadima, as part of an end-of-season sale, 75 percent off and duty-free. But he hasn't found any political suspenders to keep up his pants for when his belt comes flying off.

Staying in the opposition has not harmed Kadima, according to an opinion poll it conducted recently. Were elections held now, Kadima and Likud would each receive 31 seats in the Knesset and Labor would drop to six MKs, half its current size and even less than Meretz's eight seats, the poll found - and that was before Ophir Pines-Paz resigned as Labor MK.

But the group photo of Likud is deceptive. The views of most of its members - in the central committee, the Knesset, and even the cabinet - are a lot closer to those of Likud's Moshe Feiglin than of the prime minister on two decisions that reflect a divergence from the party platform: the limited acceptance of a Palestinian state and the settlement construction freeze. The Likud politicians are worried about the revenge of the Feiglinites in the next election. If Netanyahu has the party vote on his surrender to U.S. President Barack Obama, he will lose.

The prime minister's situation will worsen the minute he resumes talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose declared purpose is to push Israel back to the Green Line, including in East Jerusalem, subject to a Palestinian agreement to exchange territory in return for the settlement blocs. The time frame is two years, a compromise between the three years that Netanyahu demanded (obviously intent on linking the talks with an election period in the United States and Israel), and the one year that Abbas demanded.

Netanyahu is being crushed between the White House and by Yisrael Beiteinu. If the attorney general decides to bring charges against Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister may decide that, in his bid to reach a plea bargain that will keep him out of prison, he is better off bringing down the government, and possibly even the Knesset, and disguising himself as a moderate in a government that has Kadima and Labor at its center.

The specter of Shaul Mofaz's candidacy is submerged beneath these currents. If he wins the leadership of Kadima, he may be able to form a government without elections. He has no real chance of doing so after an election, because Kadima's success depends on Tzipi Livni and the party's few assets, like Roni Bar-On and Tzachi Hanegbi, and maybe even Dan Halutz, for whom Lebanon is increasingly becoming a distant memory. Mofaz is a liability. The voters who left Likud and Labor for a Livni-led Kadima will go elsewhere if Mofaz heads the party.

During party primaries, it is common to ask the candidates to remain loyal even if they lose. This is reasonable in the political culture of Reagan vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Clinton. In Israel, from Yitzhak Rabin vs. Shimon Peres to Yitzhak Shamir vs. Ariel Sharon and David Levy to round one of Livni vs. Mofaz, the No. 2 candidates refuse to accept their rivals' victories and constantly seek to undermine them. It would be better to ask the losing candidates to commit to quitting party politics after the primaries. Livni will not be able to serve under Mofaz, and will not be able to trust him if she does beat him a second or a third time. Let them run again, and let the loser go home afterward.