The establishment Thursday night of “Likud Beiteinu” is designed to polarize the electorate and to frame the election campaign as a pitched battle between left and right. The maneuver is meant to move the campaign away from social-economic issues and instead focus on diplomatic, defense and democracy issues. It is meant to undercut any notion of “center” in Israel. It sets Israel up for a truly nasty and divisive period.
I think that it is a risky and problematic gambit.
Polls show the salience in the public mind of two key issues: the high cost of living and the draft of the Ultra-Orthodox. The need to reform the electoral system also scores high on the scale of concern for most Israelis. Netanyahu feared that the plethora of leftist parties now mushrooming in this campaign and marketing themselves as “centrist” options (Labor, Yesh Atid, and probably Kadima revitalized by Olmert) would run on these issues and capture the imagination of the public. Netanyahu particularly understood that he was most crippled in public opinion by his four-year long alliance with the Haredi factions.
Netanyahu’s solution: Break from the Ultra-Orthodox, combine forces with Avigdor Lieberman, promise electoral reform (as he did last night) and Haredi draft legislation (this is coming next), and warn that Labor-Kadima-Yesh Atid are a bunch of hard-core lefty parties that would drag Israel back to the dangerous concessions of the Oslo era and fail to protect Israel from Iran and from the ravages of regional Arab upheavals.
In doing so, Netanyahu neutralizes the opposition’s ability to play the Haredi card against him, puts himself on the right side of the electoral reform issue, de-emphasizes economic issues, and purposefully polarizes the national security debate. There is no “center” in Israel, Netanyahu is going to argue. Either you’re for a strong national defense in these turbulent times (which means confronting Ahmadinejad, Abbas, Morsi and perhaps Obama too), or you’re prepared to sell-out and enfeeble Israel.
Remember the successful Arthur Finkelstein-inspired campaign that Netanyahu ran against Shimon Peres in 1996? “Peres will divide Jerusalem!” roared that campaign. Well, Finkelstein is back. He did the polling that led Netanyahu and Lieberman into their merger. Likud Beitenu’s campaign is now going to warn that Olmert/Yachimovich/Lapid/Livni are going to divide Jerusalem and capitulate to Obama and Abbas.
Netanyahu will bring back his party’s catchy old rhyme: “Likud Ehad Gadol Mul Kol HaSmol”: One Big Likud against the Whole Left (Wing).”
Finkelstein’s polls reportedly also showed that the public likes political mergers and coalitions. Israelis are tired of there being so many small factions in Knesset. That’s why we’re seeing so many factions claiming to be unifiers this time. Shas brought Arye Deri back into the fold and is professing “unity.” The various NRP factions (Bayit Yehudi, Ichud Leumi, Tekuma, etc.) are “unifying” to run together as well. Ehud Olmert outrageously thinks that he can unite the left (and win 20 seats by calling his coalition centrist). So the Right is unifying too.
Apparently, Netanyahu doesn’t seem to mind all the collateral damage that his merger maneuver will yield: To loyal Likud MKs who will be pushed down the party slate in order to make room for Lieberman’s MKs; and to the Likud MKs whose careers will be ended. The Likud Beiteinu block could actually win fewer seats in the Knesset than the two parties would have won as separate parties, although still enough to clearly crown Netanyahu over Olmert or Yachimovich as prime minister.
Netanyahu also seems prepared to absorb damage to the reputation that Likud has previously sought for itself as a moderate party; to Netanyahu’s own reputation as the statesmanlike, mainstream centrist leader in Israel; and to Israel’s global standing (given that Lieberman is viewed around the world, rightly or wrongly, as an anti-democratic thug).
Netanyahu is also willing to suffer the loss of some Sephardic votes to Shas. (Sephardim do not like the “pork-eating,” Ashkenazi Russians that Lieberman represents); and to countenance the slippage of some Dan Meridor-type “rule-of-law” Likudiks to Lapid.
The bottom line is that Netanyahu (unfortunately) thinks that a dichotomous, anti-podal, fierce campaign posture will bring him more gains than losses.
Netanyahu is likely to tack back to the center after winning this election, and craft policies that most Israelis and Jews around the world can rally behind – as he has done over the past four years. But in the meantime, for the duration of this election campaign, expect to hear a strident, hawkish and polemical Netanyahu. It’s what will win him re-election, supposedly.