Politicians are drawn like magnets to power and repelled by weakness. They have no choice. If they behave otherwise, they will have trouble surviving. When they smell blood or fear, they sink their teeth into their adversaries and tear them to shreds, leaving them for dead by the roadside.
That is what has happened over the past few days to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The invincible leader, the champion of political trickery, singer Sarit Hadad’s “cannon,” is bleeding Knesset seats in the opinion polls, and the people who were so recently his partners are pecking at his flesh.
First was Labor chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich, who had been eyeing a future coalition with Netanyahu – as long as the prime minister appeared strong. But when he showed weakness, Yacimovich announced that she would refuse to sit in his cabinet after the elections.
Now, his “natural partner” Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman has joined in with remarks about Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu going their separate ways after the election – a move that, if it does indeed take place, will leave Netanyahu heading a shrunken faction that will have trouble functioning as the ruling party.
The rivalry between Lieberman and Netanyahu for hegemony over the right wing is nothing new, but they knew how to cooperate in the outgoing government, and when they saw their parties were unpopular, they chose to unite as a joint slate to retain control of the government. Netanyahu’s being cast off by Lieberman now, after the latter publicly disparaged his number two, Yair Shamir, highlights the prime minister’s weakness better than anything else.
What happened to him? Is it possible that a successful campaigner like Netanyahu is having trouble – of all the campaigns – with this one, the one in which his victory was a forgone conclusion, the one in which he alone was vying for leadership of the state?
In retrospect it looks like the prime minister was right to put off elections for as long as possible. He apparently understood the mood of the public, which views him as the default choice and not as a desirable leader. Netanyahu, with all his experience, also realized that nothing is certain in an election campaign; they are known to encounter surprises and reversals.
But from the moment the elections were moved up, Netanyahu made mistake after mistake, as if, right before the exam, he forgot all the test material. He decided ahead of time to campaign only among the voters of “the bloc,” giving up the center. That is why he broke wildly to the right, and declared that construction plans for the E-1 area would be moved up as punishment for the Palestinians declaring nonmember observer state status in the United Nations.
That was a clear goading of the international community, and Netanyahu obviously thought that European or American censure would strengthen him in the eyes of voters seeking a “proper Zionist response.” To his surprise, he discovered that these voters did indeed hear him and still ran straight into the arms of the further-right Habayit Hayehudi’s Naftali Bennett.
Then Netanyahu made a critical error and launched a full-on attack on Bennett, whom he represented as a man who refused military orders and who segregated women. He thus branded Likud as a right-wing niche party competing with Habayit Hayehudi, rather than the central governing party. Bennett got stronger.
At the end of last week, Netanyahu offered as an excuse Hatnuah chairwoman Tzipi Livni’s initiative to create a bloc that could forestall a Likud-led government. The old devil Shimon Peres was trotted out of storage and onto the front page of the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom, which accused Peres of scheming for the left’s takeover of the country. Lucky the man once called an “indefatigable schemer” is still in the picture. Too bad the campaign against him smells so moldy.
Netanyahu is not offering Israelis any hope of a better future, just the same old thing. His Facebook page shows a picture of the Temple Mount with the words “Jerusalem of gold, Shabbat Shalom.” The scenery is beautiful, the golden dome glitters in the sun, but what does it have to do with country’s problems and their solutions?
If Netanyahu has nothing to say, he shouldn’t be surprised that voters are moving away from him – and, in their wake, his future coalition partners.
Still, the campaign is not lost. The last two weeks of any campaign are typically full of surprises, ups and downs. The old Netanyahu can still turn things around, as some of his predecessors have done in similar times of trouble. But if he keeps this up, even if he scrapes through victorious, the current difficulties will seem like a walk in the park compared to the political hell that awaits him after the elections.