As Elections Near, the Big Parties Turn on Their Smaller Allies

President Reuven Rivlin has a certain amount of leeway when it comes to deciding who will form the next government. For the time being, Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops, even distancing his pal Naftali Bennett, so as to be that person.

Immediately after the 2009 election, when the number of seats finalized at 28 for Kadima under Tzipi Livni and 27 for Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing candidate was worried. The president was Shimon Peres, of Kadima, who had never been a big Netanyahu fan. As the president has absolute discretion in deciding who to call on to form the government, Likud was concerned that Peres would give the nod to the head of the largest Knesset faction, even though Netanyahu had more potential recommendations from elected MKs.

One of Netanyahu’s advisers asked a journalist to call a former president, Yitzhak Navon, and ask him what his considerations were when making the decision. Navon told his interlocutor that although the president is free to decide, he would definitely give the nod to a candidate who had the support of 61 MKs.

Whereupon, Netanyahu acceded to all the demands made by the head of Yisrael Beiteinu, Avigdor Lieberman, who was vacationing in Eastern Europe. Lieberman’s party got the foreign affairs, public security, tourism, immigrant absorption and infrastructure portfolios, as well as the chairmanship of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, and other goodies. His 15 seats, added to those of the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties, gave Netanyahu an absolute majority of 65. Livni’s chance to form a government was blocked for the second time in less than a year.

This week there were reports that President Reuven Rivlin might tip the leader of the largest faction to form the next government. That’s a possibility, but it’s the last option in the presidential toolbox. Rivlin was asked on Wednesday, during a meeting with Israeli ambassadors from Latin America, how he would decide who will form the next government.

“Israel’s unwritten constitution affords me absolute freedom,” he replied. “But I will make the decision after consulting with representatives of all the factions about who will have the best prospect of succeeding in forming a government.”

In short, the number of recommenders will tip the scales once again. In this arena Netanyahu has a built-in advantage, as he did in 2009 and in 2013. The right wing (Habayit Hayehudi and Yisrael Beiteinu) and the Haredim (Shas, United Torah Judaism) are closer to him and to Likud ideologically, historically and in coalition terms, than they are to Isaac Herzog and his party. From this point of view, the battle is seemingly over.

But what will happen if Zionist Union obtains three more seats than Likud? In that event, Herzog and Livni will say to the president that the people have spoken, and Herzog might be able to persuade the Joint List to recommend him – something the Arab parties don’t usually do – and thus create a tie, or something close to a tie, in the number of recommenders. In that scenario, the number of seats could tip the balance, though even then Herzog would have to perform superhuman acrobatics in order to form a government – given that the Haredim would boycott Yair Lapid and Lieberman would boycott Meretz.

That’s why Netanyahu went to the settlement of Eli on Wednesday, a salient bastion of Habayit Hayehudi, to speak to pre-army yeshiva students and try to peel away more seats from Naftali Bennett’s splintered and bleeding slate.

Looking grim and worried, seemingly on the verge of tears, and making plenty of dramatic pauses, Netanyahu reported to the students about “authoritative sources” (in the President’s Residence) who had supposedly briefed his aides about Rivlin’s intention to give the nod to the leader of the party with the most seats. Rivlin’s bureau issued an angry denial within half an hour, but the effect had already been achieved. Again it was Netanyahu who set the agenda.

Now, the issue of the “biggest party” is on the table, to the satisfaction of Likud and Zionist Union alike, but to the displeasure of the satellite parties in both blocs, notably Habayit Hayehudi on the right and Meretz on the left.

Bennett was furious when he heard about Netanyahu’s visit to Eli and about his intention to visit nearby Kfar Etzion in another two weeks. “Why is he doing this to me?” Bennett railed in private discussions. “After all, I backed him completely in all his political confrontations with the left wing in the government.”

Netanyahu only visits settlements during election campaigns. This time he’s appointed MK Tzipi Hotovely (Likud) as his campaign chief for the settlements. She’s well liked among the national-religious public. This too riles Bennett: “Instead of trying to get back seats that will go to Lapid and to [Moshe] Kahlon, he’s aiming all his fire at us,” Bennett says. “After all, these elections are bloc-based. I will go with Netanyahu in any case, Lapid will definitely not, and we don’t know what Kahlon will do. Let him drum up seats there.”

Bennett won’t say so, but he must be contemplating the disturbing possibility of a return of the saga of the 2013 election, with the possible replay of the old and currently dormant feud with Sara Netanyahu, which not even a thousand plastic bottles can extinguish. Could it be that after the election he’ll discover that Netanyahu isn’t calling him again because he’s busy forming a government with “Bougie and Tzipi”?

The new Putin

Netanyahu’s frontal attack, via Facebook and the social networks, on the publisher of Yedioth Ahronoth, Arnon (Noni) Mozes, revived the primal fears of the directors of the two commercial television stations. When the prime minister removes the mask and drops the gloves and accuses Mozes of plotting to topple him and “close down Israel Hayom” (as though he and U.S. billionaire Sheldon Adelson’s freebie were one and the same) – not only is he openly supporting his propaganda sheet but he is also perceived to be signaling his future intentions in the media realm.

Next year, the system of television franchises is to be replaced by licensing: Everyone with the requisite wherewithal will be able to purchase a license from the regulator and launch a television station. On the assumption that Netanyahu remains in power, someone might exploit the incentive to establish a Bibi TV mouthpiece, based on the proven success of the print product. Someone, possibly through a front person or a front company, will obtain a license, hire a few talents for dream salaries, reduce the cost of commercials to next to nothing, flood the already-saturated advertising market, and inflict an economic disaster on the rival channels.

After the 2006 election, when he led Likud into the opposition with just 12 seats, Netanyahu told his aides repeatedly: “I need a newspaper. If I had a newspaper, I could win the election.” Within a year, the newspaper was born. It’s not hard to imagine him fantasizing about the next stage: a private TV station, a kind of updated poor people’s Fox, whose news company would parrot his spokesmen’s briefings, whose commentators would tear the political rivals to pieces every evening, whose reporters would cover fawningly the Lady’s royal visits to the grateful natives, and whose newscast would open each day with a determined national Zionist quote from the Beloved Leader.

For the past few years, Netanyahu has been undergoing an accelerated process of Putinization. He’s come to believe that he is irreplaceable. His readiness to further erode the already poor relations with President Barack Obama at the price of an election speech in Congress, the war he’s declared on the media, and his demolition of the Israel Prize institution are instruments in the service of the sacred cause: to steal another seat from Habayit Hayehudi. There’s no knowing what a third consecutive term in office, and more than 10 years in power cumulatively, will bring in their wake. But it’ll be interesting to see.

Most of Netanyahu’s advisers thought it wouldn’t be smart to generalize the assault on the media. After all, Adelson’s Israel Hayom is also part of the media, and to say “the media except for Israel Hayom” would be to admit that the freebie is not part of the media arena but a pamphlet or manifesto.

Still, it has to be admitted that the treatment Netanyahu gets from the Yedioth group, and especially from its website Ynet, is sharply biased against him and often goes beyond the legitimate if biting criticism leveled at every prime minister. For Netanyahu and his wife, Mozes is the root of all evil, and someone who also feeds negative information to other media outlets, to augment the effect. Likud candidates have become, to their detriment, warriors in the personal vendetta of the Netanyahus. Those who display faintheartedness are suspected of dual loyalty – not to both Israel and the United States, but to Sheldon and Noni.

In the Prime Minister’s Residence, every item in Yedioth Ahronoth and on Ynet is scanned: It’s all perceived as part of the wicked conspiracy to topple Likud. As long as Netanyahu didn’t have an effective weapon of his own to give the Mozes family a fair fight, one could identify with his victim’s mentality. In the present situation, he doesn’t have the right to whine about one-sided coverage. Electorally, though, it was a smart move: It sets an agenda. And it also served Netanyahu’s internal purposes – Likud has always been hostile to “the press” and its response to Netanyahu’s assaults on the same is positively Pavlovian.

In this election campaign everything is open and transparent. They’re pissing from the diving board; there are no restraints, no shame, no style. With his right hand, the prime minister of Israel uses his official Facebook page to attack a newspaper publisher and sends (via his elder son, according to sources in Likud campaign headquarters) Likud’s young guard to demonstrate outside the newspaper’s building. With his left hand, he posts on the same Facebook page an article lauding the stunning beauty, splendid manners and erotic qualities of the woman he lives with. Fifty shades of gray, God help us, in the official residence. Everything goes, it’s all grist for the mill, and nothing is too grotesque or too low.

Tit for tat

Something happened this week in Zionist Union. Someone there decided to post two strong negative videos about Netanyahu, one of them about hedonism, on the Web. The question is whether it’s not too late and too little. Herzog and his aides are breathlessly awaiting the state comptroller’s report about expenses in the prime minister’s residences, due to be published this coming Tuesday. If some of the rumors about its contents are correct, the agenda is about to change. But we’ll have to wait and see.

In the meantime, Herzog is holding intense talks with the veteran election strategist and adman Reuven Adler, who was long identified with Ariel Sharon. Adler was on the way to working with Labor but was riled by the Herzog-Livni rotation agreement and left. Now, with the campaign sputtering, they’ve returned to him, and shown him surveys and research and data from focus groups. Adler, who is avowedly anti-Bibi, is ready to pitch in, even in the short time left.

The intra-bloc “cannibalization,” in which sister parties gobble each other up, hasn’t passed over the center-left camp. In campaign rallies Herzog and Livni are urging their audiences “not to waste votes on middling parties and atmosphere parties” in order not to hurt the chances of replacing Netanyahu.

Meretz took this lying down for a time, but this week the party uploaded a vicious clip that targets Livni personally – she almost wiped them off the map in 2009 with her excellent slogan “It’s Tzipi or it’s Bibi.” The clip shows a deck of cards being shuffled. On the backs of the cards are portraits of Livni in her various party and coalition incarnations. Finally, the last card shows her again cooperating with Netanyahu in his fourth government.

The implicit message: Let’s admit it, friends, Herzog doesn’t have a government in any scenario and in any combination, so don’t waste your vote on Zionist Union.

Still Mr. Nice Guy

The three television stations are vigorously promoting, each in its own style, political debates between all the party leaders. Channel 2 is initiating a debate between all the leaders. They’re threatening that anyone who doesn’t show up will be represented by an empty chair with his name on it. Netanyahu of course is not even thinking of showing up. And he’s right.

Herzog agreed quickly. And he was mistaken. That’s one of his problems: He has to please people, to be nice to everyone. Not this time. He’s the only candidate running for prime minister against Netanyahu. The two parties are running neck and neck. So Herzog has to debate only Netanyahu and not waste his time with lesser lights. He can always send Livni to one of these mass debates – she’s his partner, and a candidate for prime minister together with him.