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Will 'Bieberman' bring down Netanyahu sooner than he thinks?

The reappearance of some veteran politicians on the scene had Netanyahu worried enough to merge with Lieberman. But while Bibi may be ensured another term, he will ultimately pay for the toll of his economic and political policies on Israelis and Palestinians.

By Yacov Ben Efrat

Benjamin Netanyahu’s call for early elections initially evoked an instinctive response: Who needs this? The result of normal elections, scheduled for next fall, was predictable: Bibi could look forward to another four years as prime minister. He had split the Labor Party and pulverized his main rival, Kadima, dispersing its 29 mandates in all directions, with the result that no one on the political horizon could even come close to posing a threat. Nevertheless, elections are always a step into the unknown. Before Bibi’s announcement, his predecessor as prime minister, Ehud Olmert—who had been ousted because of corruption charges—won a court victory and was able to contemplate a return to political life. There was also action from Haim Ramon, who had been forced into early political retirement because of an illicit kiss. Ramon is working to return Tzipi Livni to the arena and unite forces with Olmert. Ramon’s close friend, Aryeh Deri of the Sephardic religious party Shas, is returning to politics after ten years, two of which he spent in prison for bribery. This pool of old-time sharks was enough to scare Netanyahu.

The Likud has also suffered a shock with the retirement of the popular Moshe Kahlon, the communications minister who engineered a drastic reduction in Israeli phone bills. Kahlon has said that “the Likud might lose the government” and that “if Olmert returns to the political arena, this could prove a problem for Netanyahu” (Yedioth Ahronoth on October 23, 2012).

And then the big surprise. On Thursday, October 25, 2012, Bibi appeared at a joint press conference with Avigdor Lieberman (foreign minister and head of the Yisrael Beitenu party) to announce a new election list called “Likud Beitenu.” This combination, he thought, would ensure his grasp on power.

As an old political salt, Netanyahu is no less salty than all his rivals put together. In the elections of 2009 he rose from the ashes, propelling the Likud from 12 to 27 mandates. He also knows how to reap the results in advance. In 2009, for instance, although the Likud fell one mandate short of Livni’s Kadima, he knew that Shas would not enter a coalition with her, for he had already closed a deal with it (and a Livni-Lieberman duet was out of the question). This time, though, his gut feeling told him that such a deal wouldn’t work. Olmert is capable of closing the deal of deals, a combo of past and potential jailbirds: Olmert, Lieberman, and Deri together could bring him down.

If Lieberman read Kahlon’s statements in Yedioth, he understood that the public again wants to punish Bibi. He understood that the protest movement of summer 2011 is having, after all, a political effect. This catalyzed his contacts with Netanyahu. On the surface it might seem that Bibi could have cut a deal with Lieberman just as well without uniting their forces in a single list, just as he did in 2009 with Shas. Apparently Lieberman refused, raising his price. From his viewpoint, unity with the Likud is advantageous: it is a stepping stone toward taking command of the Likud, his first political home. On the other hand, it is also clear that the merger is by no means a natural one. Until now 80 percent of Likud voters were Mizrahis [Jews of Middle Eastern and North African origins], many of them religious; their share in the party is likely to contract, yielding ground to Lieberman’s pork-eating “Russians.”

The merger expresses the coinciding interests of two leaders who share a lust for power and a hatred for Arabs. It does not express, however, homogeneity among the targeted constituents in the two parties. Quite possibly, it may not go down well with those who previously voted Likud or Yisrael Beitenu. The number of mandates may fail to increase, and the whole move may turn out to be less than the sum of its parts. Political surprises of this sort sometimes create strange bedfellows, as in the case of Kadima, placing such opposed interests within a single party that it soon bursts into pieces. At the end of the day, this merger may dismember the right wing rather than strengthen it.

Netanyahu’s step demonstrates how far the sands of Israel’s politics can shift. Until now the political map could be divided into (1) special-interest parties (which today hold 49 of the 120 Knesset seats), and (2) three principal parties: the Likud, Kadima, and Labor. Since the ideological differences among the three big parties are small, each of the special-interest parties (except the Arab groups) could choose which one to join in order to establish a ruling coalition. Because of the big parties’ similar agendas, during the past three decades all governments have pursued the same neoliberal economic policies.

As for the peace front, fearing problems from the coalition partners and the settlers, recent governments have all have set conditions that the Palestinians could not accept. The public either splits its vote among the major parties or disperses it among the special interests, because it sees no serious alternative to the regime. All three big parties speak in favor of “settlement blocs,” a united Jerusalem, and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; they argue about taxation policy — whose burden to lighten and whose to increase — while accepting the eternal sanctity of the huge defense budget.

On this basis we can see why Bibi hastened to close the deal with Lieberman. He headed off a potential coalition between Lieberman, Olmert, Deri and Shelly Yachimovich [head of the Labor Party], the aim of which would be to reconstitute the “successful” term of Olmert as prime minister.

The protest movement of summer 2011 attempted to fill the political void that had developed in the Knesset. It made sure that no politician would dare  set foot in its demonstrations. It proclaimed that politics had been kidnapped by the tycoons while the working public was forgotten and marginalized. However, the protest movement, like Shelly Yachimovich today, neglected the issue of the Occupation. They neglected the question of peace, which is today the existential issue par excellence. They are in no position, therefore, to form an alternative to the right wing. It is no accident that important leaders of the protest movement have joined Yachimovich in Labor, burying the hope for real political change. Making eyes at voters on the right, Labor has remade itself as Likud B. Today, after the fusion of Bibi and Lieberman, it becomes less relevant than ever, and it will have to choose between sterile opposition and a place within the “Bieberman” coalition. Knowing Labor’s other leaders — Avishai Braverman, Buji Herzog, and Ofer Eini — we can already congratulate Yachimovich on her appointment as the next Minister of Welfare.

Anyone who wants to build an alternative to the weird right-wing tragedy that is taking shape must adopt a social-economic platform that will turn the current system on its head: instead of favoring the tycoons, encourage working people; instead of selling factories and “exits,” create jobs; instead of migrant workers and workers on contract without benefits, provide job stability to local workers; instead of racist legislation, promote employment and development among the Arab population; instead of settlement blocs, make peace with the Palestinians on the basis of two states; instead of a defense budget, create a budget of peace and welfare.

On the basis of this platform, we can again go into the street to protest the cost of living and the fabrication of pointless wars. That is what is at issue today. There is no reason to strengthen Netanyahu by voting for parties that are likely to join his coalition, such as Lapid’s or Yachimovich’s. On the other hand, there are many reasons to vote for a party such as Da’am, which views the protest movement as an act of direct democracy that can change the situation toward favoring the workers instead of the rich. We need a spring of our own in the spirit of the Arab Spring. The protest can succeed where the politicians have failed. It can convey a message from our hearts to those of the revolutionary youth in the Arab world who seek progress and democracy.

The fusion of Bibi and Lieberman may promise Netanyahu another term, but it does not solve the problems that afflict Israeli society. It is not the “governance system” and the citizenship law that trouble the citizens, it is rather issues of bread, education, housing, and employment. To these issues Bibi’s only answer is more cuts. But the biggest problem, which the politicians do not see, is the fate of the five million Palestinians who live in poverty, scarcity, and oppression. This is the trap that awaits Israel. Bibi and colleagues are playing with fire. Politics is not the art of keeping one’s chair, but a means for advancing the welfare of the citizens. Bibi and colleagues cannot provide this, and they will pay the price sooner than they think.

Yacov Ben Efrat is secretary-general of Da’am – Workers Party. The piece was originally published in Challenge, a magazine covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Mitchell Cohen

      Why Netanyahu would be “scared” of Olmert is beyond me. He was never elected PM and one of the few things left and right would agree on is that Olmert was a total disaster as PM.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        If anything Bibi should be praying for Olmert to run against him.

        Reply to Comment
    2. thank you very match

      Reply to Comment
    3. The Trespasser

      I’ve seen two elections posters today.
      One for Avoda. It depicted man under the burden of mortgages and something else which I did not quite get because both pictures are in primitivist so to say style with only readable text saying Yachimovich something.

      I’ve called this poster “By Idiots for Idiots”

      Another depicted Baraq with that smart stare of his, saying something like “We are secure. Barak”
      Laughable really.

      The only thing which might prove dangerous to Biberman is similarity with Bieber, Justin.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kolumn9

        You are wrong. The Bibi Lieberman coalition frees up at least 8 seats that are now up for grabs in the center right. That includes many Russians, Mizrahim and liberal Likud voters (think Meridor and Eitan).

        Bibi is an idiot in making this deal. He heard about deals on the left and panicked. He is in danger of losing.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Should Naftali Bennet win the chairmanship of the “Bayit HaYehudi” (I hate that name!) which is really the National Religious Party and should they run a joint list with the National Union, which is in the works, they will pick up one or two seats from the Likud, but this means they will stay firmly in the Right-wing camp. The latest flurry is the Kahlon fraud. He suddenly discovered that the Left is correct at least in social-economic policy. The polls claim that he would get 20. This is a replay of the Itzik Mordechai story…he was Defense Minister under Netanyahu in 1999, the Leftist powers-that-be convinced him to run for Prime Minister (there were separate votes for this then) and to join the late, unlamented Center Party with Rabin’s daughter and Dan Meridor. Poll showed them getting 20 seats. In the end, Mordechai, who could have become the leader of the Likud after Netanyahu lost in 1999, instead saw his Center Party get only 6 seats, he was demoted to Transport Minister. Finally the Left decided to get rid of him, had the police and prosecutors pull the old “get something on him!”, found a girl who supposed claimed he raped her (sound familiar?) even though she tried to withdraw the charges, Itzik was forced out of politics in disgrace and I believe he was demoted in Reserve Rank in the IDF to private.
          Kahlon will find the same thing happen to him should he be foolish enough to play this game with the Left, no matter what they offered him.

          Reply to Comment
          • Kolumn9

            The Jewish Home is a stupid name for a party. I would guess that Bennett will come up with a better name if he wins (NRP doesn’t quite fit what he is selling).

            Even if the Likud loses 2 to the NRP, a center-right party with decent Mizrahi representation can take 2-3 from Shas and 2-3 from Likud Beyteinu. In addition there are 3-4 seats up for grabs from former YB voters. These are likely to split between NU (the far-right) and center/center-left parties (the Russians). It is likely that Bibi would still form the next government but the inevitability of this would be removed which does wonders for ambivalent voters who like to vote for winners. The current political map is all risk for Bibi with no positive news on the horizon.

            As it stands the Bibi+Lieberman alliance was a stupid move. I think absorbing Kadima back might have been a wiser direction to push.

            Reply to Comment
    4. Piotr Berman

      From the other side of the ocean, it is a bit strange to have separate parties of Likud and Israel Beitenu where the only differences are those that they do not seem to care about. For example, IB is ostensibly more secular, and of course did nothing about it when it was possible, when there was a grand coalition with Kadima. IB also wanted to adorn trees (lamposts?) with hanging carcasses of NGOs, somehow this idea died out. I think Lieberman run out of ideas. Plan A was to insists on some undoable rightist planks, fail and attack Likud as unreliable bearer of national honor or some such (because failure to punish NGOs etc. was due to underhand machinations by Bibi).

      But Bibi was too smart to fall into that trap. He insisted on assuring national honor and security in one fell swoop in a manner so bold, so magnificent and so risky that nobody would be sorry of he actually did not do it: attack on Iran. (Actually waging wars was something done by Olmert, and the lack of electoral profits of this strategy was duly noted by both Likud and IB.)

      One could attack such plans as idiotic. Lieberman had some trial balloons of behaving like “elder statesman”, attacking right wingers as extremists, and he was reported as a secret opponent of the attack on Iran. As Foreign Minister he had to listen to heads of Canada, Australia, UK, Germany, Russia and China all opposing that, and the latter two could even do something about it that Israel would deeply regret.

      It seemed to me that IB lost clear lines of attack that would preserve the Right brand and chip away some amount of voters from Likud. Instead, the remaining ways that Likud and IB could attack each other would undermine the Right brand and it would have effect of driving voters to the Center. In the same time, under new leadership of Lapid, the Center would be more credible.

      Reply to Comment

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