Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Sharks Circling around Bibi

One of my favorite writers on Israeli politics Bradley Burston has a great piece on the sharks circling around Bibi.

With King Bibi's ship of state sinking in Pyrrhic victory, the sharks begin to circle


For a politician like Benjamin Netanyahu, there is only one thing more potentially lethal that the appearance of weakness: Proof of it.

In a matter of just three months, the high-riding, politically invulnerable "King Bibi" has managed to plummet to victory in a technical triumph that has every appearance of debacle.

In the space of a few hours, Netanyahu watched as the American people formally gave their president four more years, and the people of Israel gave their prime minister six more weeks. That is the prime minister's deadline for forming a new coalition based on a Knesset majority, and it is going to be one long row.

King Bibi's ship of state limped into port at 10 P.M. Israel time, leaking from stem to stern, its sails torn and slack, its crew restive and growing mutinous. Throughout the long election day, Likud officials fielded alarming reports from the front. When the voting was over, the exit pollsters took over:

Netanyahu's Likud-Beiteinu, 30-31 seats. Lapid's Yesh Atid, 18-19 seats. Shelly Yacimovich's Labor 17,  Naftali Bennett's Habayit Hayehudi, 12 seats, the leftist Meretz 6-7.

Analysts, among them a former senior aide to Netanyahu, agreed in recent days that a Likud-Beiteinu showing lower than 34 seats would signal dangerous vulnerability - in effect, a prime minister snatching defeat from the jaws of a paper victory.

At worst, it could portend a host of potential sinkholes in the near term, among them, the immediate, unavoidable battle to forge a stable coalition,  followed in blindingly short order by take-no-prisoners talks over a budget. Then there are the inevitable intangibles, a tug of war over settlements,pressure from Washington, pressure from the EU, pressure from the Security Council, pressure from Iran, pressure from Hamas, pressure from the Palestinian Authority.

As recently as May, the prime minister confidently controlled 94 of the Knesset's 120 seats. Although he was to lose Kadima's bloc of 28 seats, when he announced snap elections in mid-October, he firmly believed he was about to cement his lock on power for years and years – and even prime ministerial terms - to come.

What went wrong?

When Benjamin Netanyahu launched his campaign, he had one strategy: Keep your friends close, and Avigdor Lieberman closer.

The working assumption was simplicity itself. He assumed that the center was as dead as the left. He assumed that the Bayit Hayehudi, the fossil remnant of the "knitted kipot" national religious party of old, was toothless, bloodless, barely ambulatory, a candidate for assisted living, if not life support. He assumed that if there was any threat to a premiership-for-life, it was the fact that Lieberman's legal woes seemed to be behind him, and a run for the leadership of the right – and the premiership – was dead ahead.

He assumed wrong.

Lieberman, inconceivably, ran afoul of the law that had pursued him from the Jurassic on. The center, unimaginably, awoke from years of suspended animation.  Even the left showed signs of stirring.

But it was his final assumption that did him in. The trigger was a palace revolt in Habayit Hayehudi, which yielded the meteoric candidacy of Naftali Bennett. Week after campaign week, the bleed in Likud Beiteinu progressed seamlessly into hemorrhage.

In response, Netanyahu trapped himself in the same strategy that cost him his premiership in 1999. Instead of presenting himself as a leader for all Israelis, benevolent, sensitive and broad-minded as he was indispensable, he portrayed himself as the leader of the religious hard right, a bible thumping, settlements-or-die, schmaltz-hawking, Jew of Jews.

He pledged never to uproot settlers, no matter how illegal. He pledged that Tzipi Livni, even if she joined his coalition, would be banned completely from any part in the peace process, the core of her campaign.

By this time, however, his credit was still good only in his own household. The center saw him as a stooge for tycoons. The left saw him as a stooge for settlers. And settlers saw him as the weak waffler, who, if the settlers could wrap him around their little finger, imagine what a second-term Barack Obama could do to him, if he just put his mind, and his might, to it.

If, for a man like Netanyahu, the worst kind of weakness is perceived weakness, word is clearly getting out. In fact, well before the election results were announced Tuesday night, pundits abroad were picking up the same scent of blood that the sharks of the Israeli political sea were picking up at home.

"Why Netanyahu Will Be the Big Loser in Israel's Election," Michael J. Koplow headlined an article at The Atlantic, subtitled, "The current and future prime minister will be stuck with a coalition that's doomed to fail."

The sharks have already begun to circle. They will come at Netanyahu from every angle, right, left, and center - in the case of heaven-minded haredi parties, from directly overhead - and there is no safe harbor in sight.

Veteran Netanyahu-watchers know better than to count the prime minister out at this stage. But the man whom pundits once called "the magician" has lost much of the stage presence that was once the secret of his misdirections.

Over time, the magician has looked more and more a mechanic. And in voting as they did on Tuesday, a driving-savvy public has demonstrated its realization that the vehicles Netanyahu has worked on lately and tried to resell to the public, have driven, one after another, into a ditch.

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