With all due respect to the speeches delivered by Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman announcing the launch of the Likud-Beytenu’s election campaign, there was little doubt that singer Sarit Hadad was the one who stole the show. She serenaded the prime minister, who appeared somewhat embarrassed by the whole situation, with her hit song Ata totach (“You’re the king”). Hadad wasn’t the only one on stage. She was joined by a keyboardist and two backup singers. Judging by the revved-up crowd and the large television screens, one could’ve been forgiven for thinking that they were at a taping of the hit reality show “The Voice” instead of at a political event.
While the campaign was officially launched early this week, it will begin in earnest early next week. Likud-Beytenu officials say that the real shifts in public opinion are felt in the last week of campaigning, so it would be a shame to begin wasting money at this early stage. In the 2006 election, the Pensioners Party rallied in the last week to pick up six Knesset seats. In 2009, Tzipi Livni’s Kadima captured a substantial bloc of votes in the last week. Lieberman, on the other hand, ended up with just 15 seats in 2009 after polls showed him winning as many as 21 seats. At least that is what they say in Likud-Beytenu. Anyway, the strategy of lulling their opponents to sleep, which has not proved itself as particularly effective, continues. We’re better off having Sarit Hadad wake us up after January 22.
With all due respect to Sarit Hadad’s appearance, what we found slightly more intriguing is the political clash with Habayit Hayehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, who scored quite a few campaign points in his recent dustup with the Likud-Beytenu. Bennett’s willingness to face Netanyahu head-on has catapulted him to the big leagues while putting his party on the path to win the third-largest number of Knesset seats.
It is becoming apparent that the longer the campaign drags on, the greater the damage incurred by Likud-Beytenu due to its preoccupation with Bennett. The joint list appears to be losing steam. The elections are slated to be held in over three weeks. Starting next week, the parties will head into the critical stretch. Senior Likud officials, who are eager to see a dramatic change in the floundering campaign, are aiming their wrath at Arthur Finkelstein, the behind-the-scenes political guru and strategist who was once considered beyond reproach.
As for Bennett, the prime minister was no longer willing to countenance the repeated attacks leveled by the Habayit Hayehudi chair in recent months. Long before the Likud launched its line of attack against Bennett, he was quoted as saying: “What happened at [the evacuated outpost of] Migron is a reflection of the spirit as expressed by the commander, the spirit of the prime minister. The man who drove the bulldozer at night was Netanyahu himself. From my vantage point, he is no longer the leader of the nationalist camp.”
Bennett also assailed Netanyahu for his handling of economic and social issues. Over a year ago, the former expressed sympathy for the tent protesters who took to the streets. “We can’t have a situation where the housing minister [from Shas] deals solely with issues affecting his constituency,” he said. “I don’t blame the ultra-Orthodox. I blame the government and the prime minister because it is their responsibility to solve the problem posed by high housing costs.”
What really angered Netanyahu was not so much those remarks by Bennett but the overt embrace he received from well-heeled, well-funded oppositionist elements who wield a great deal of media influence and who openly support the rival political camp. Those same forces who have orchestrated the campaigns of Tzippi Livni and Yair Lapid, and who were previously eager to see the return of Ehud Olmert, have now adopted Bennett into their bosom as if he were their long-lost son. Now we will see to whom Bennett will be more obligated after the elections — the right wing that elected him, or those same figures who are urging him on solely because of the damage that he could cause to Netanyahu?
An easy term
Despite the polls showing a slippage in support for Likud-Beytenu, Netanyahu has no reason to worry. If the current numbers accurately reflect the election results, his next term in office is due to be much easier politically than the previous one. He will have a much larger ruling party at the helm, while the opposition will be even more fractured. Netanyahu will also have greater leeway and maneuvering room to form a government.
The man who is designated to serve as a counterweight to Habayit Hayehudi from within the Likud is Coalition Chairman MK Ze’ev Elkin. He has been tasked with a nearly impossible mission. Yet, even now, with just a month to go before Election Day, Elkin remains adamant that he can salvage the situation.
“Bennett has been attacking the Likud for over a month now,” Elkin said. “Actually, he’s been doing so from the outset. The only difference is that the Likud has been responding to him for the last week. Bennett is complaining and decrying the fact that Likud is attacking him and splitting the right. He sounds like a Cossack who was robbed.”
“Bennett’s attacks are a mistake because the religious Zionist camp has no interest in clashing with the Likud,” he said. “The Likud went a long way to try to satisfy the religious Zionists, some of whom burrowed their way into the Likud, the party’s central committee, and the party membership.”
“There are two representatives of the religious Zionist camp among the top 10 candidates on the Likud slate,” Elkin said. “During the last term in office, many of the budgetary problems plaguing the religious Zionists were solved thanks to the large religious Zionist contingent in the ruling party.”
In recent years, there appeared to be an alliance between the Likud and the National Religious Party (the forerunner to the Habayit Hayehudi). What happened this time around?
“The policy we opted for in the national-religious platform of our party is not one that favors war,” he said. “Our policy is based on two main elements: discussing what the Likud has done and what it intends to do; and mapping out a set of guiding principles.”
“The National Religious Party has in the past captured between nine and 12 Knesset seats,” Elkin said. “That is certainly a way to wield influence, but there is a glass ceiling in play here. Religious Zionism has set upon a path that is entirely different from that of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. The former believes in integration rather than separation. Obviously the best way to do this is to go through the party that is leading the nationalist camp.”
“Both Bennett and Ayelet Shaked believe that this is the way,” he said. “Bennett said similar things when he considered running in the Likud. Shaked was also a member of the Likud central committee before quitting to run for a spot with Habayit Hayehudi.”
“The religious Zionists are our partners,” Elkin said. “We can deal with problems related to education, like funding for advanced yeshivas and Mercaz Harav. They have fought to have their yeshivas be given priority over the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas because their students perform military service. Gideon Sa’ar made sure that this initiative would be advanced. There are substantial amounts of subsidies for the garin torani projects [in which groups of religious Zionist families move into underdeveloped communities for the purpose of effecting social and religious change] that are funneled through the ministries run by Silvan Shalom and Gila Gamliel. During the last term, the government increased the historical studies curriculum. The number of young visitors to the Western Wall increased fourfold. We also introduced school trips to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which was something that we didn’t have before.”
The main concern that has preoccupied this constituency is the fate of Jewish settlement.
“Look at the situation on the ground,” Elkin said. “The towns of Judea and Samaria were always the domain of the National Religious Party and the National Union. Today, most of these party members are in the Likud. Fifteen council heads from Judea and Samaria, which means all of them except two, are Likud members. In the joint list, there are more settlers who are slotted into realistic spots than in Habayit Hayehudi. There’s Yuli Edelstein, Avigdor Lieberman, Fania Kirshenbaum, David Rotem, Alex Miller, Moshe Feiglin, and myself. So the attacks against the Likud for supposedly being harmful to the settlement enterprise are ridiculous. Would the local council chiefs from Judea and Samaria be Likud members if the party was intent on harming the settlement enterprise?”
Still, the Likud is losing Knesset seats, while Habayit Hayehudi continues to gain.
“There is a fad at play here,” Elkin said. “The public loves whatever is new. Yair Lapid was a fad. Look at where he is now. At the end of the day, we need to get down to business. Being new is not enough. You need to produce results and take action.”
“There were some very key figures in the NRP and the National Union who understood this and made the jump to Likud,” he said. “Effi Eitam, Eli Gabbai, and Zvi Hendel, who today is in Yisrael Beytenu and is also acting chairman of the party’s national-religious faction. Everyone, including the heads of the local councils in Judea and Samaria, realized that in order to make a long-term impact, it had to be done through the Likud. They apparently know what they’re doing.”
The religious figures in the Likud could not thwart the disengagement plan.
“That is true, we didn’t stop it,” he said. “But neither did those in the NRP and the National Union who were coalition partners of Ariel Sharon. There were those who were fired, like the National Union ministers. Others, like Effi Eitam, resigned in protest. They were willing to give up their ministries, but that was pretty much the only thing they could’ve done. There were also those, like Zevulun Orlev and Nisan Slomiansky, who opted to stay in the coalition until the last minute and try to influence its moves. This, too, did not work. The only ones that were relevant were the Likud members and the ‘rebels.’ The rest could only watch from the sidelines.”
“Even during this term, when we had a dispute over a possible continuation of the freeze on construction in the settlements, the lawmakers in Habayit Hayehudi and the National Union were largely irrelevant,” Elkin said. “The argument was being waged entirely within the Likud, and it is the Likud which ultimately decided against an additional freeze. It’s ridiculous to hear the attacks today from Uri Orbach and Habayit Hayehudi over the Ulpana neighborhood and Migron, when they themselves were part of the same government and are thus equally responsible for those instances in which we did not attain maximum results.”
“Habayit Hayehudi was not even relevant when it came to establishing the university in Ariel,” the coalition chairman said. “That was entirely the work of Netanyahu, Lieberman, the education minister, and the finance minister.”
What are all of the votes that the religious figures attract to the party worth if Netanyahu ends up forming a government with Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid?
“Those are just conspiracy theories,” Elkin said. “When it comes to Netanyahu, you can’t say that the public has no idea what it’s getting. He has been prime minister now for two terms, and the direction he’s going in is very clear. Even those who aren’t very satisfied with him cannot deny basic facts. Benjamin Netanyahu is the only prime minister in the last 20 years that has not only refrained from evacuating a single settlement, but has also not even talked about doing so.”
“Netanyahu is the only leader in the last 20 years that has worked to minimize the damage caused by his predecessors and to prevent our descent onto a slippery slope in light of efforts by the left to bring us back to the ’67 border and to divide Jerusalem,” he said. “Do the people who are attacking Netanyahu today believe that Yitzhak Rabin’s Oslo Agreements or Ehud Barak’s moves at Camp David and Taba or Sharon’s disengagement or Olmert and Livni’s Annapolis positions were better for the nationalist camp and the settlement enterprise? Obviously such a notion is ridiculous.”
Officials in Tzipi Livni’s Hatnuah Party have noticed in recent weeks that Amram Mitzna, who holds the second spot on the party slate and who is viewed as one of its major stars, has suddenly disappeared from the political landscape. Naturally, Livni continues to keep a high media profile, as has her No. 3, Amir Peretz, who is the party’s campaign manager and who has been quite visible in press interviews and appearances. Amazingly enough, however, Mitzna’s voice has been silenced. Party officials attribute this to the former Labor chairman’s disappointment over Peretz’s consolidation of control over everything that happens in the movement.
While Livni and Peretz occupy senior positions along with Meir Sheetrit, who was named chairman of the party’s field operations, and Haim Ramon, who holds the position of strategic staff chairman, Mitzna was given the relatively minor and humiliating task of running the party’s Haifa operations. It seems that in the eyes of Livni and Peretz, the former general who once ran the Labor Party and who even undertook a monumental, socially conscientious task of running the town of Yeruham, would be best served if he remained confined to his offices in Haifa rather than hassling them with his presence in the Tel Aviv headquarters.
Mitzna’s banishment from the campaign is not just a symptom of Peretz asserting his dominance, according to party officials. Since his arrival from the Labor Party, the former Histadrut boss has named close associates like Shmulik Cohen, Freddy Cohen, Roi Shindler, and Moshe Peretz to key posts. Even MK Yoel Hasson, who heads Hatnuah’s media response team, has turned into one of Peretz’s underlings.
Reuven Adler, the noted ad guru, has recently departed Livni’s campaign, which instead opted to use the services of Yossi Aroeti’s GPS, a public relations firm. Adler is a minority shareholder of GPS, but he does not have operating control. Perhaps this is also a way for him to make money from the campaign without being totally identified with it.
The man who brought in the new ad firm is Shmulik Cohen, a Peretz associate. Majali Wahabe thought that he would be named the campaign chairman for the Arab and Druze sectors. He thought wrong. He was given responsibility for the Druze sector, but the Arab campaign is completely in the hands of Peretz.
Hatnuah officials reacted with scorn to suggestions regarding Peretz’s sway within the party. “Peretz and Livni are working in full cooperation,” said a senior party source. “Everything else is gossip. The party chairperson is Livni, and everyone is lining up behind her, including Peretz.”
As for Mitzna, the source said: “He’s the one who asked to head the Haifa campaign office, not the other way around.”
Last week, Labor Party chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich unveiled her faction’s economic plan. While she spelled out the details of her proposals, she assailed Netanyahu and his economic policies. Some of her attacks were aimed at what she claimed was Netanyahu’s plan to raise taxes. “I hereby pledge that [as part of my plan] the middle class will pay less taxes,” Yachimovich said.
Campaign promises are one thing, and reality another. Due to the financial hardships that Labor has encountered during this campaign, Yachimovich decided to raise the membership fees for registered Laborites by 50 percent. The move is intended to raise some 1.5 million shekels.
This week, the party that ostensibly represents the working and middle classes while championing the cause of the poorest Israelis became the most expensive party in the country to join (75 shekels). For purposes of comparison, it costs 64 shekels to register with the Likud. In Kadima, the cost is 50 shekels. A number of Labor activists appealed the decision to the relevant party institutions. If the decision remains unchanged, they are threatening to take the matter to court.
“The Labor central committee made a public, democratic decision to increase the membership fee and move up the payment deadline,” said Labor Secretary-General Hilik Bar. “The registration and membership guidelines that were approved by the committee are available for viewing on the party’s Internet site.”
“The Labor Party is not a party with significant financial backing,” she said. “Its financial means are quite limited. We have asked our supporters to enlist in the effort to rehabilitate the party’s monetary state. We are talking about a monthly payment of 6 shekels, which is a paltry sum. For those who are unable to meet this burden, there is also an option to purchase membership at a discount.”