Yossi Verter
December 21, 2012 - 1:00am


Members of Likud say mounting criticism from the international arena regarding what they call “building in Jerusalem” is good for the party. After authorization this week of construction in Ramat Shlomo, in the northern part of East Jerusalem, a senior Likud source called the condemnation “excellent − it is sheer profit for us.”

The announcement about construction in E-1,” he added, “was punishment for the Palestinian maneuver at the United Nations. The announcement about construction in Jerusalem benefits us in several ways: 1. It brings right-wing voters into our fold; 2. It brings public discussion into the diplomatic-nationalist arena, and in an election campaign the main question is the field you’re playing on; 3. It creates a line of division between left and right; 4. It creates dissension and argument in the rival camp. What more can you ask for?”

The decision to build 1,500 housing units in Ramat Shlomo loomed large in newspapers, where it was reported, among other things, that Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich opposes any reduction in budget allocations for settlements, including isolated ones not in the large blocs. “It’s wrong to relate to residents of settlements established via decisions reached by the government of Israel − mostly governments led by the Labor party − as criminals,” she stated. “The government is responsible for the children who live there.”

Yacimovich’s strategy is clear: She is planting herself on the right in security-diplomatic issues, and on the left in socioeconomic matters. That happens to be the place where a majority is located. One could say Yacimovich is embarrassing her predecessors in the party’s top spot − such as Yitzhak Rabin, who derided the “political” settlements − but she’s sticking to her message.

Her declaration caused a storm in the left-wing camp. Hatnuah leader Tzipi Livni said she supports making a clear distinction between settlements located in blocs, which will remain in Israeli territory under any agreement, and political settlements which will be evacuated. “We will not provide superfluous funds to settlements we know will not remain there,” she explained.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid launched the most ferocious attack on Yacimovich. “She supports allocating funds from the middle class to settlements which will not be in Israel under any future agreement,” he thundered. “That’s irresponsible. I don’t understand it.”

The problem is that Lapid himself said exactly the same thing as Yacimovich two months ago when he unveiled his party platform at the Ariel Academic Center. “We should take into account the natural [demographic] growth of existing settlements,” he declared then. “If babies are born at Eli or Ma’aleh Efraim, it’s wrong not to build nurseries and preschools [there]. Whoever relates to these residents as a problem or obstacle, or ‘messianic society,’ is trying to delegitimize them.”

The key to understanding Lapid’s shift can be found in the polls. Livni’s entry cost Lapid four or five valuable Knesset seats. A month before the election, he sees his most precious arsenal of voters in Livni’s camp. He’s prepared to lose some right-wing voters − there are citizens equivocating between Lapid and Likud − as long as he manages to regain control of what he lost to Livni.

A pleasureless term Netanyahu had a dream recently, ahead of his second consecutive term: He wanted to be Ariel Sharon. He dreamed of winning the same total of 38 Knesset seats that Likud won when it was headed by Sharon in 2003; in so doing, he would establish a government whose operation would not be contingent upon any single coalition partner and he would be unencumbered by blackmail or threats.

A few months ago, when Netanyahu noticed this dream was about to be shattered, he pacted with Avigdor Lieberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. However, the whole is not only currently equal to the sum of its parts (42 members in the outgoing Knesset) − it is actually much smaller (polls give the Likud-Beiteinu ticket 35-36 seats). Likud’s share is 22-23 seats, four or five less than in the outgoing Knesset. That’s too close to the 19 mandates won by Likud when Netanyahu headed the party in 1999, at the end of his failed first term as prime minister.

This time around, Netanyahu is guaranteed victory because of the size and power of the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket, the terminal illness of the center-left bloc and the lack of a viable alternative candidate for prime minister. He will have his third term as prime minister, but it is doubtful he will draw much pleasure from it should the electoral results adhere to poll projections.

For this reason, Likud’s election staff launched a new campaign this week: If you vote Likud, you’ll get a strong prime minister. If you have a strong prime minister, he can deliver the goods you’re hoping to get: change in the government system; a law for equality in army service; a strong economy; and security, prosperity and happiness.

Someone once described this philosophy as “I am the state.”

The Likud-Beiteinu list’s strength is eroded somewhat by Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi, Shas’ Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai, and all those small- to medium-sized parties on the right. They all are telling their voters that Bibi will be elected no matter what, so people should cast their vote for the party that truly represents them.

What troubles Netanyahu most is the increasingly tense rivalry with Bennett, who served as his chief of staff in 2006-2008. On Tuesday Netanyahu phoned MK Tzipi Hotovely, a member of the Likud-Beiteinu campaign staff dealing with religious issues. The prime minister spoke about reports that he is inclined to leave Bennett and his extremist right-wing party out of the next government. “I’m prepared to show restraint about the spin that Naftali is using, suggesting that his party has to win a certain number of mandates to force me to let it join the coalition,” Netanyahu angrily told Hotovely. “I am not ruling any person or any party out, so long as there is agreement about the government’s policy guidelines. That’s the only condition for joining the government. Agreement with the policy guidelines.

“You should tell everyone: ‘In the past you complained that I appointed Barak to serve as defense minister. If you want a defense minister from the right-wing camp, then it’s important that we be large and strong,’” he concluded.

Bennett’s campaign, Hotovely maintains, is not legitimate: “This is a party that claims a small niche, and in the next government it should receive the religious affairs ministry portfolio, or something like that.”

Not by accident, the Likud-Beiteinu camp has recently dropped hints about a coalition devoid of Haredi parties. “Netanyahu is right where he should be following a term at the head of a government of right-wing and Haredi parties,” a top Shas source said this week. “He’s on the defensive. He comes across as having been in our hands, as though we received all the money and appointments we wanted under his watch − even though this is far from the case. We received much more during Olmert’s term, but nobody quarreled with us at the time because Olmert conducted peace talks. During this last government we didn’t legislate a single religious bill.”

The source continued: “His strategy is to signal to the public that he can establish a government without us. But he’s forgotten one thing: Without us, he’s not prime minister. So long as Shas and United Torah Judaism have 19-20 mandates combined − and that isn’t impossible because Shas always wins more seats than the polls predict − Netanyahu doesn’t have a way to form a coalition [without us]. We could take our mandates and join forces with a left-wing candidate.”

I asked Shas minister Ariel Atias whether this analysis makes sense. “If people want us to care for the weak sectors of the population, then they have to give us power,” he replied.

You aren’t worried that Netanyahu will pull a trick from Ariel Sharon’s hat and form a government without Shas, by allying with Lapid and others?

Atias: “The theory holding sway in the political framework is that Netanyahu will be the next prime minister, because of the political ‘bloc.’ If that is the case, then Shas is part of this bloc. Without Shas, there is no bloc. So the whole argument right now boils down to the question of whether we’ll be strong enough to influence the budget, and forestall measures that damage the weak socioeconomic sectors.”

An electoral asset MK Yohanan Plesner is No. 3 on Kadima’s Knesset list, behind Shaul Mofaz and Israel Hasson. If the polls are correct, the night of January 22 will be a time of torment and lament for the young MK, who invited his own political death with eyes wide open. Kadima is currently floundering, with popularity levels beneath the threshold for Knesset representation. The difference between Kadima and other similarly afflicted parties is that it was the largest in the outgoing Knesset, with 28 seats.

Plesner, one of the most energetic parliamentarians in the outgoing Knesset, could have secured a safe spot for his future. Tzipi Livni offered him one of the top five places on her Hatnuah slate, even though relations have been tense between them. Nor did it matter that Plesner supported Livni’s rival, Mofaz, in the primary for Kadima’s top spot. “I’m the only one who supported Mofaz and received forgiveness,” he quips.

Livni offered him a top spot on her party list due to pragmatic electoral considerations: He is an electoral asset. For example, the Plesner report dealing with sharing the military burden represents the most systematic work done on the topic of drafting Haredim.

“Staying in Kadima was not an easy decision,” Plesner said this week. “I’d wanted there to be a union of forces there: Olmert, Livni, Mofaz, Lapid and others. I wanted to reestablish Kadima. Even when I grasped that this wouldn’t happen, I decided to stay.”

You don’t regret the decision?

“No. I belong to a good group of people. I didn’t want to jump from party to party. Kadima’s idea remains the right one. There must be a centrist alternative.”

Kadima is no longer an alternative. You could have saved your skin, in the same way that Meir Sheetrit stated that it doesn’t matter what party he belongs to.

“True, but I didn’t want to continue my career as an appendage that moves from here to there. I prefer to guard my credibility and remain consistent. I believe you can’t be a real, effective public leader without these qualities. If you insinuate yourself in a party just to get into the Knesset, you might protect your workplace, but you lose other things. You’re not a real leader. And besides, who says I won’t be in the next Knesset?”

It doesn’t look good.

“It’s all about your polls. Voters say that if they were convinced we’d pass the [Knesset] threshold level, we’d receive 7-8 seats.”

At least he hasn’t lost his sense of humor, even at a time of such stress.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017