Why Bibi will loose

Machlokes / Controversy

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Jewish World Review / Jan. 6, 1999 / 17 Teves 5759

Why Bibi will lose

By David Twersky

IF ONLY KEN STARR could get a hold of Israel’s embattled prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Attacked from the right for betraying the Greater Israel dream and from the middle and left for destroying the promise of even a slow transition to a more peaceful region, Netanyahu is also presiding over the apparent disintegration of his party, the Likud. No one really trusts the guy, even those who still back him.

"Bibi is a liar" has been an unofficial slogan of the opposition Labor campaign for several months; now, with Likud’s house in flames, the slogan could be changed to "Bibi liar, pants on fire."

Netanyahu might not deserve all the calumny being heaped on him from every direction. On the face of it, many of his policies make sense — especially reciprocity, his insistence on Palestinian compliance. Moreover, the problems on the right are the result of his moving forward with the peace process, too hesitantly for the center and left, but too far and too fast for the emerging hard right.

This is what happened to the late Menachem Begin after Camp David — many Likudniks voted against or abstained on ratification (including Moshe Arens and then Knesset speaker Yitzhak Shamir). And the modern hard right was born when a bunch of Likudniks left to form a really not-one-inch party, Techiya. For nearly two decades then, the right has been torn over how to define itself, and Likud has veered between the poles of centrism and pragmatism on the one side and its Greater Israel roots on the other.

But with Netanyahu’s credibility in such doubt among all segments of the political spectrum, it’s hard to say just whether Bibi is for a better deal, or for no deal at all.

The latest to abandon Likud is Benny (son of Menachem) Begin, who claims that Netanyahu’s policies "would most certainly lead to the establishment of a PLO- and-Hamas state, which will bring neither peace nor security."

It was, of course, Begin the father who led Likud after Ariel Sharon’s 1973 e pluribus unum, cobbling Likud together from a bunch of right and right-of- center parties. From that point of creation, it took four years until Likud took power in 1977. Since then, Likud has only been out of one government, the 1992 coalition formed by Yitzhak Rabin. So it’s been a good run.

But, like the American GOP, Likud is torn between hard nationalists and softer pragmatists, between social conservatives and libertarians and between free market uber alles capitalists and Huey Long populists.

Shortly after Netanyahu’s victory in May 1996, United States Republicans on Capitol Hill hailed Netanyahu’s rhetorical skills and ideological bent, even joking aloud about why they couldn’t have him as their presidential candidate. They were, no doubt, thinking of the approaching debacle that would result from having chosen to pit Bob Dole against Bill Clinton that coming November. Now, Republicans may not have any better leadership than Likud, but the Republicans do have what the Likud doesn’t: a two-party system.

In America, all those claiming to represent the bickering forces and factions of the right (or the left for that matter, which is, G-d knows, torn by its own divisions) must compete for leadership within their respective party.

True enough, America experiences periodic glimpses of a multi-party system trying to break free of the two-party hold — most notably for the Democrats in 1948, when the hard left broke away to back Henry Wallace’s Progressive campaign and the Dixiecrat South defected to Strom Thurmond, and in 1968, when George Wallace played the Thurmond card; Republicans went through something of this in 1992 when Ross Perot pulled enough Republican voters away to help Clinton win. But America (Minnesota’s gubernatorial election notwithstanding) remains largely a two-party system.

But Israel’s electoral system — even with direct election of the prime minister, a once highly touted reform — encourages splinter parties. That’s why so many second-tier Likud leaders were abandoning Netanyahu and Likud rather than challenging Bibi for the party’s nomination. (Only Uzi Landau, ideologically indistinguishable from Benny Begin, is challenging Netanyahu from within.) Many of these are, like Begin, Likud’s "princes," the sons and daughters of pre-war Irgun veterans who founded the Herut Party that by ’73 had metamorphosed into the core of Likud.

But anti-Netanyahu feelings go beyond leaders-in-waiting who feel he shunted them aside. Former prime minister Shamir says Netanyahu "betrayed the hopes of those who voted for him." Others are even less kind.

The last time around, Bibi won by a handful of votes because (his own aides say) the wave of terrorism that struck Israel in early ’96 undermined support for the Oslo accords. Whether he can repeat in ’99 is questionable. On the right, the thrill is gone. In his party, there is a sense of disintegration. In the center, there is the real potential for a coming together of new political forces. On the left, there is Labor’s Ehud Barak who will claim a significant share of the votes.

Still, counting Bibi out would be premature. He has formidable electioneering skills as well as incumbent advantage. As Clinton counts heads in the U.S. Senate, Bibi is looking at the bottom line in polls and getting advice from U.S. consultant Arthur Finkelstein. Finkelstein, who pioneered the sneering references to liberalism in U.S. races in the ’80s and ’90s, has Bibi calling everybody a "leftist." That works, except for Benny Begin who is, essentially, calling Bibi a "leftist." Also, Bill remains up in the polls even after being impeached, while Bibi is slipping, trailing at least two other major contenders.

That’s why, right now, Clinton’s odds of surviving as the Comeback Kid seem better than Bibi’s.

JWR contributor David Twersky is Editor in Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


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©1999, David Twersky