Netanyahu Watches Warily as Israel's Election Map Shifts

Ostensibly, his path to a third term in office is clear, but there are many question marks. The political ground is trembling beneath his feet.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

People who meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu these days have trouble resisting the temptation: Their gaze inevitably wanders to his legs, to the gap between his shoe and his pants cuff, and they imagine a fistful of dollars tucked into his sock.

Netanyahu is half-amused, half-disturbed by the video clip now circulating on the Internet - courtesy of Eldad Yaniv and Rani Blair, founders of the Eretz Hadasha party - that started the rumor about the dollars in his socks. But that isn't the main thing keeping him up at nights. Definitely not.

He has a 95-day election campaign ahead of him. Ostensibly, his path to a third term in office is clear, but there are many question marks. The political ground is trembling beneath his feet. The tectonic plates are constantly shifting. The shape of the battle isn't yet clear.

Netanyahu, like everyone else, is sitting and waiting. His intelligence about Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni and other potential rivals who might enter the race is derived from cronies, ministers and journalists. As of this weekend, he still didn't know who his principal rival would be - if there is one at all.

The Deri dilemma

But one question mark turned into an exclamation point Wednesday night: Aryeh Deri returned to Shas - to the home that threw him out 13 years ago, to the well he spit into. For Netanyahu, this is not a negligible headache, and it has the potential to become a migraine.

It's clear to everyone that Deri will soon be running things in Shas, regardless of whether he is given the first, second or fifth slot on its list, and despite the fact that he will officially be only one-third of a ruling troika. Current chairman Eli Yishai will be pushed aside with salami tactics: His wings will be clipped; he will lose slice after slice of his power. He'll be buried alive.

Even in the reconciliation photo that was taken at Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's house, Deri sat in the middle, in the place where the leader normally sits. To his right was the stricken, bewildered Yishai, wearing a forced smile that said "I don't believe this is happening to me"; to his left was the sober Ariel Atias.

As noted, Deri isn't good news for Netanyahu. Yishai was in Netanyahu's pocket: the most convenient of partners, a natural ally who didn't make trouble and didn't go looking for trouble. Deri is the exact opposite: fickle, unpredictable, a master intriguer, a serial plotter with boundless ambitions. And he's friendly with people on the left, which makes him potentially explosive in Netanyahu's eyes.

But at the same time, the left's fond hope - that Deri would head a new party that would hold the balance of power after the elections and give the center-left bloc the majority it needs to form a government - has been blown to smithereens. As long as Deri is in Shas, he will conform to Shas' DNA rather than that of his good friend Haim Ramon.

Therefore, the bottom line is that Netanyahu can rest easy. His bloc will remain intact, including Shas. It won't be easy for him, but life isn't a bed of roses.

"Bloc" is the magic word in the prime minister's circle. Netanyahu is convinced that the country's political blocs are set in stone. He doesn't see any realistic scenario that would break up the Likud-rightist-religious bloc to the extent that it would lose its majority. Even under the scenario described in the Haaretz-Dialog poll published on Thursday - a new centrist party headed by Olmert, Livni and Yair Lapid - there was no possible combination that would lead to the rightist bloc losing its majority.

Therefore, immediately after the election, and perhaps even before the polling stations open, Netanyahu will seek to get his natural partners - Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and United Torah Judaism - firmly lined up behind him. He doesn't need 61 MKs to recommend him to the president as prime minister, because no leftist candidate is capable of getting even 59 MKs to recommend him. In fact, no leftist candidate could get anywhere near that number.

Only after his bloc partners are firmly in his pocket will Netanyahu turn to the leaders of other parties - Yair Lapid, Shelly Yacimovich, Livni, Shaul Mofaz or whoever might be out there - and invite them to join his government. His goal is to set up a broad coalition whose survival won't be dependent on any single party.

Lieberman the rock

Netanyahu defines the secret of the current coalition's stability in one word: Lieberman. And he's right. Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman is the rock of this government's existence. And insofar as it depends on Netanyahu, that will be true of the next government, too. Lieberman will be a senior minister, either returning to the Foreign Ministry or moving to the Finance Ministry, and Yisrael Beiteinu will receive an abundance of coalition goodies. And so will Shas. And UTJ. Just like they do today.

The only question is who will be Netanyahu's partner from the other bloc. Who will do the whitewashing.

In the coming days, Netanyahu will set up his campaign staff. It will comprise both politicians and professionals. In the front lines, he would like to put his three most popular ministers (according to the polls he has commissioned ): Gideon Sa'ar, Gilad Erdan and Moshe Kahlon - of whom the last isn't running for reelection.

In his next government, Netanyahu says, ministerial positions won't be determined by how high on the Likud's slate someone was, but on his qualifications and suitability for the job (and, presumably, his personal closeness and loyalty to the boss and his wife ). The message he is sending his ministers is as follows: "Guys, don't kill yourselves over the primaries. It's totally unimportant to me whether you're in the second slot [on the party list] or the eighth. I proved this in the current government and I'll prove it again in the next one."

Netanyahu isn't naive, of course. Nor is he righteous. But he knows the nature of his beast. He knows it's the nature of any politician to try to come in first. To beat out a rival. To move up the ladder.

He very much hopes Benny Begin, one of his current ministers, will run again. When Netanyahu speaks about Begin, you can almost see his tired eyes fill with tears: "I've learned to love that man. He's a marvelous person, a special person."

Someone asked Netanyahu this week if there is any ministerial portfolio over which he wouldn't be willing to hold coalition negotiations - any ministry that he is determined to retain for his Likud party.

'Absolutely,' Netanyahu said, pounding on his elegant desk in the Prime Minister's Office. 'This one.'

Illustration by Amos Biderman