home Middle East, Politics Bibi's Back: Netanyahu and Likud in the lead

Bibi's Back: Netanyahu and Likud in the lead

The one thing we really know about Barack Obama and his abilities is that the President-Elect is a great campaigner. The energy, the electrifying speeches, the limited missteps, and the ability to appeal to lefties and the center alike all appeared as strengths in Obama’s campaign and political character.

That said, as historic and capable a candidate as he was, Obama also benefited greatly from the malaise in the country that George W. Bush fostered. The political conditions made it much easier for any democrat to win, and while Obama did everything he needed to do to carry a strong and resonant victory, it’s not hard to argue that any of the top Democrat candidates would have done the same thing. The play is sometimes bigger than the actors in it.

So is the case in Israel, where Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu and the Likud party lead the polls two months before the general elections for the Prime Minister and the Knesset. This remains the case despite the fact that Netanyahu is anything but a great campaigner. Even beyond the political differences, Netanyahu is something of an anti-Obama. And yet Israel plunges on towards the inevitable; a return of Bibi to the prime minister’s seat.

Netanyahu was the first elected post-Yitzhak Rabin prime minister, and the first prime minister directly elected by the population of Israel. From 1996 to 1999 he led a right-center government that upheld a much stiffer relationship towards Palestinians, with platitudes about giving and getting, not just giving and giving. It was also a campaign dogged by scandal. The combination of politics and dirty politics led to Labor, the left-wing party, taking power, with Ehud Barak at the head.

But, as is the norm in Israel, Netanyahu recovered. Biding his time in the opposition and becoming the Finance Minister, he burnished a reputation as a strong economic leader while also surviving until Israelis forgot about that little scandal thing. Let controversy over the pull-out in the Gaza Strip drive the country a little right, let Olmert’s scandals discredit the center, let the Second Lebanon War go mismanaged, and all of a sudden, Netanyahu in the opposition looks pretty good.

Once Tzipi Livni failed to put a post-Olmert coalition together this October, Netanyahu made moves to confirm his rehabilitation. Initial polls showed about an even split between Likud and Kadima (Livni’s centrist party) in October.

In response, Netanyahu recruited a stream of “all-star” politicians from outside the party to bolster his roster. Dan Meridor, a former justice minister who leans center, and Benny Begin, son of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin and a zealous right winger, were two of the most prominent additions to the lineup, promoted as a “supermarket”, with a little something for everybody.

Control over the party list is still not quite iron-fisted for the chairman. In the run-up to the primary, the big issue Netanyahu had to deal with was the surge of a right-wing extremist upstart by the name of Moshe Feiglin. Feiglin crashed the Likud party, leading a faction of supporters and threatening to take a high spot on the Likud list.

Besides other charming beliefs Feiglin has espoused in his political career are exiting the UN, severing ties with, “Germany and other anti-Semitic nations,” and converting Israel’s official calendar from the solar calendar to the Jewish (lunar) calendar are prominent. This is not exactly the man needed for a party looking to drift towards the center.

Netanyahu’s approach was to draw up a list of “preferred” candidates for Likud primary voters. This is akin to a coach holding open tryouts for his team, and then playing favorites through the tryout process. Considering the list was decidedly anti-Feiglin, it risked alienating the Likud base, while Feiglin’s mere presence still loomed as a turn off for the center.

The primary itself was something of a disaster. Computer problems, which had already plagued Labor in their primary, hit Likud, leading the primaries to stay open until 1 am. Feiglin took the #20 spot on the list (34-36 seats are forecast for Likud in the election), and a few of his supporters trailed near behind him. Meanwhile, some of Netanyahu’s top picks did especially poorly: Meridor, for example, only took #17.

Providing a supermarket list is risky enough, with it easy to appear like pandering. Netanyahu’s response to the Feiglin snafu showed his concern for holding onto the center, however: through a Likud party court ruling, Netanyahu busted Feiglin down to 36 on the list, a marginal spot that might not make the Knesset. No justification was given for the move. “Likud democracy,” as a long-time Israeli citizen explained it to me.

Netanyahu can’t really brand his policies solidly either. Knowing the reputation Kadima and other rivals want to perpetuate of him as a no-peace, no-negotiating stick in the mud in the new Obama world, Netanyahu has promised to continue negotiations with the Palestinians and especially with Syria.

Nobody, least of all Netanyahu, anticipates these negotiations will lead anywhere, but Bibi does feel the need to promise them. In a similar way, he has supported a pension safety net plan for Israelis threatened by the economic crisis, a policy lambasted by many on the left as supporting the better off citizens and irresponsible governing.

Yet, no matter what slips Netanyahu makes or what dirt other parties throw at him, nothing sticks. In the aftermath of the primary, Likud’s poll numbers went up by one Knesset seat, and they are expected to win 7-8 more seats than the next closest party, Kadima.

It could be the economic crisis, which hasn’t affected Israel greatly but looms, playing to Bibi’s strength. It could be that Kadima hasn’t put any strong alternative plan together. It could be a response to Olmert’s funny business, or to Hamas’s belligerence, or to the threat of a nuclear Iran.

Whatever it is, the election continues to approach an inescapable conclusion. The situation dictates Bibi’s return. No matter how hard he tries to screw it up.