Friday, February 03, 2012

Did Netanyahu Lose?

By Tuvia Brodie

The January 31 Likud primary that pitted Benjamin Netanyahu against Moshe Feiglin appeared at first to have ended with a whimper, not a bang: Netanyahu won 76% of the vote; Feiglin got the remainder. Within three days, however, reports circulated that votes for Feiglin might have disappeared between voting place and election center. As one online post said (to comment on a news story in the Jerusalem Post), “I was an observer in Beit Shemesh, and I watched with my own eyes as every envelope [ballot] was opened and counted. The score was 274-60 [in favour of Feiglin]…Even Bibi's rep in Beit Shemesh signed on those figures. Then the results got transmitted to the election center, and magically got transformed to 126-77. This was not a counting error or ballot-stuffing at Beit Shemesh; this was a fraud [in the poster’s opinion] perpetrated at the election center itself.” Other reports suggested similar ‘problems’ at other polling stations.

We’ll come back to this issue later.

The day after the primary, Feiglin acknowledged that he lost the election—but suggested that he had also achieved a victory. While some might argue that a 24% showing surely meant that he had been soundly trounced, it appears that he might be right because this election was not simply about who got the most votes. It was about power. Specifically, it was about how much power this vote could put into Netanyahu’s hands. Power is crucial for Netanyahu because Likud is a Right-leaning political party with a very strong pro-Israel Platform. Netanyahu’s plan to defend Israel, however, (based on his recent actions) appears to be to dismiss that Platform in order to gamble with the family jewels—in this case, Judea and Samaria. But if he attempts that gamble with a Likud base that is strongly anti-gamble, he goes to battle with one arm tied behind his back. He cannot do that. He needs freedom to work without being pressured by Likud ideals or Party opposition. He needs a pro-gamble mandate from his anti-gamble Likud.

How could he do that? He needed a vote of confidence—a vote that said, ‘do what you want’. Of course, securing a pro-gamble vote of confidence from an anti-gamble membership would not be easy. To enhance his chance to get that mandate, he declared the primary early--and so abruptly-- that he immediately emasculated most of his opposition. Most could not mount a run on such short notice. If no one ran against Netanyahu—or, if only a weak, unprepared few contested him—he might not only win; he could win with a landslide big enough to secure his mandate. Once Feiglin became his sole opponent, we learned what the threshold was for that landslide because Netanyahu had been quoted in the press exhorting his campaign organizers to make sure he got 81% of the vote (he actually said that Feiglin shouldn’t get 20%). This may not be the landslide he really wanted, but he knew that crushing Feiglin was not going to happen. The magic number became 81%.

Now, the primary finished, Netanyahu has a problem: he did not get 81% of the vote. This is where Feiglin’s ‘win’ comes into play. Even if Netanyahu declares ‘landslide’, Feiglin ‘wins’ because he knows that Netanyahu has missed his magic number--and as they say in America, knowledge is power. That means that Feiglin has now identified and cornered some of the power that Netanyahu had wanted. Score one for Feiglin.

But the game isn’t over yet. If the final vote tally shows Feiglin’s initial 24% share of votes dropping to a 22% share (or less), Netanyahu’s margin would creep closer to his magic number. More important for Netanyahu, if Feiglin’s Likud share drops below the 23.4% he had garnered in 2007, Netanyahu can claim that Feiglin has now become irrelevant because his power diminishes, not strengthens. He may not have gotten his landslide. But he would get the next best thing: a shrinking adversary.

It’s all about power: who captures it, who loses it; who grows, who recedes. By late Thursday, two days after the vote, Feiglin’s share was reported at 23.2% of Likud votes— below his 2007 result. It is a small drop, but in this world of power politics, it could be enough to alter the arc of Feiglin’s political influence.

So it is interesting that, just as Feiglin’s vote share starts to shrink, reports circulate that his votes have been disappearing between voting place (where the votes were witnessed) and the official election center. Could part of Netanyahu’s primary success come from voter fraud? Is this what we are we looking at here? So, did Netanyahu win--or did he lose?

More important, if his people did commit fraud, what’s next?

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