Six years ago, someone in Likud decided to examine the political inclinations of expatriate Israelis. His conclusion: If a quarter of a million of them were given the right to vote, approximately two seats would move from the Knesset's left-wing bloc to the right-wing bloc. In Israeli politics, two seats can be the difference between forming a coalition and sitting in the opposition.
Eventually, the study landed on Benjamin Netanyahu's desk. This past Monday, at a Likud faction meeting, he delivered a short speech for the cameras solemnly declaring his intent to give Israelis living in the Diaspora absentee voting rights. "This bill will greatly contribute to the ties between the state and its citizens, its identity and its strength," the prime minister promised. Not that this bill was of any political interest to him, of course.
At that very moment, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was at a meeting of the Yisrael Beiteinu Knesset faction. Somewhat unusually, the media ("the enemies of the people," in his words) had been invited. Lieberman gave a brief review to mark a year since the 2009 election, and announced that on April 2 - the government's first anniversary - he would submit a bill that would legalize absentee voting.
What happened, confidants of the prime minister explained, was that shortly before the start of the Likud meeting, they learned that the faction chairman, MK Zeev Elkin, had decided that the meeting would focus on the "governance laws" currently being considered by a committee headed by Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman. Netanyahu's advisers discovered the Neeman's package includes some 10 bills, and they whipped out one on voting abroad and suggested the prime minister say a few words on the subject. He leaped at the chance.
Within hours, the leaders of Labor, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Habayit Hayehudi - all members of Netanyahu's coalition - declared they were against the sweeping format of the proposal. Labor leader Ehud Barak went so far as to say that he is vehemently opposed to it. At that moment, the legislation was effectively buried, and with it Netanyahu's great expectations.
The coalition agreement between Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu states explicitly (Par. 34): "The government shall formulate a bill allowing Israelis who are abroad on election day to vote, under conditions and criteria to be agreed upon by all the factions in the coalition."
The person who drew up that clause knew what he was doing. He succeeded both in bringing all the parties into the coalition in March 2009 and in preventing a coalition crisis afterward. It's a safe bet that Lieberman knows this clause better than Netanyahu does. It's not by chance that Lieberman stated at his faction meeting: "I promise a 100-percent effort, not 100-percent results." Lieberman also took the occasion to announce that within the next few months, he will submit a series of explosive bills, on matters including citizenship, civil unions and conversion.
A little more than a year ago, after Lieberman's major election success, the Yisrael Beiteinu leader drove Netanyahu crazy before recommending him to the president as the person to form the government. This week, he reminded Netanyahu of that experience. Rumor has it that Lieberman's pal Aryeh Deri is urging him to foment quarrels with Shas chairman Eli Yishai. It's hard to believe that this is what's driving Lieberman, though. After all, the strength and identity of the state are important to him.
It's not hard to guess what will happen in the end: either the entire bill will be buried, or some parsimonious formulation will be approved that gives absentee voting rights to a few tens of thousands of Israelis abroad. Of these, about 20,000 actually will vote, according to Knesset officials' estimates. Their vote will be divided among the parties and will have negligible influence on the Knesset composition.
Netanyahu marked the first anniversary of the election that returned him to power with the farce of giving emigrants the vote, which joins previous farces such as the drought tax and the value-added tax on fruits and vegetables. Again, without first checking, he led a move that was doomed to failure.
It's on nonsense like this that Netanyahu is wasting whatever public credit he still has. The United States allows its expats to vote, so he wants that, too. Fortunately for him, he has a parliamentary opposition led by Kadima, and with a bumbling opposition like that he will be in power forever.
On Wednesday, Kadima proved once more that even if it's formally one faction, in practice it is deeply divided. The proof came in the vote on a bill legislating tax breaks for residents of the Golan Heights, submitted by half-out half-in Kadima MK Eli Aflalo. Netanyahu gave Aflalo the go-ahead to push through hefty legislation that in a normal country would have to originate with the government. The Knesset passed the bill by a large majority, which included most Kadima MKs. A few opposed it, including Kadima leader Tzipi Livni and faction chairwoman Dalia Itzik. As in previous critical votes on state-religion issues and on Jerusalem, Kadima simply is unable to figure out what it is and who it is.
The new Livnat
In a Likud faction meeting a week ago, Netanyahu asked the MKs for their opinion on how Israel should respond to the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead in Gaza: to establish a commission of inquiry or not. About half the ministers were against establishing a commission. It will damage the Israel Defense Forces and embarrass the officer corps, putting them in an impossible situation, the opponents argued.
Then came the turn of Dan Meridor, the group leftist. As expected, he was in favor of establishing a commission. He was followed by Limor Livnat. Everyone got ready for a zinging nationalistic speech about the need to protect our soldiers and officers in the face of investigations. "Under the circumstances," Livnat said, "there is no choice but to establish a governmental investigative committee. We are obliged to meet the international community's demand; otherwise the world will not leave us alone. We undisputedly agree that the Goldstone report is distorted and full of falsehoods, but we will not be able to emerge from the international siege without a governmental committee with full powers. Without it, we will deteriorate, as will our international status."
Livnat went on: "We have to ask a simple question: If we do not establish a committee, will we be able to get along with the international community? The answer is no. And if we establish a committee, will the world get off our back? Yes. So we must set up a committee," she said. "That is not an admission of anything. We can feel that we are in the right and stamp our feet, but that won't get us very far. If we establish a team with partial powers to examine the issue, that will not help matters. We have to remove Israel from the pariah state category, and unfortunately that is the only way to do it."
I pointed out to Livnat that this approach does not jibe with her public image. She didn't understand why not, but refused to elaborate beyond what she said in the closed forum.
Trauma and choice
Presuming Gabi Ashkenazi's term as chief of staff will not be extended to a fifth year, Netanyahu and Barak will have to choose from four candidates: Deputy Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot, GOC Southern Command Yoav Gallant and Maj.-Gen. (res.) Moshe Kaplinsky, now a businessman. Gallant and Kaplinsky served as military secretaries to Ariel Sharon during his five years as prime minister. At that time, both were highly regarded and trusted. Kaplinsky was even described as an informal member of the "ranch forum" and a friend of Sharon's sons, Gilad and Omri.
More than any other senior political figure, Netanyahu carries unsettled accounts, and there is no one he regards with more suspicion and considers more dangerous than Sharon's former associates. No politician abused Netanyahu like Sharon did. For Netanyahu, anyone who ever worked with Sharon is part of that trauma. Will this play a part when the time comes to choose Ashkenazi's successor? Only Netanyahu knows, though the wicked will add: So does Sara.
Gilad Sharon, Ariel's son, is currently a columnist for the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. Previously, he was a project manager for contractor David Appel. He is developing a passion for public life. This is taking two forms: his articles in the newspaper, which are highly critical of Netanyahu, and his vigorous activity to prevent the split constantly looming over Kadima. He reportedly told Kadima MKs who were thinking of bolting the party: "Arik would not want Kadima to fall apart. For my dad's sake, don't leave." Is he, like journalist Yair Lapid, warming up for the next elections?
"He has thought of it, the desire exists, he has ambitions, but the decision hasn't yet been made," says a person who knows the Sharon family well. MK Shai Hermesh (Kadima), a friend of the family and a neighbor who won a slot on the party's previous Knesset list thanks to his connection to Ariel Sharon, says: "I believe he is on his way into politics and into Kadima. If I add one and one and one, then there's no other answer. He hasn't told me - it's my impression."
Do you think that is why he tried to stop you and others from resigning from Kadima?
"Obviously. He fought it like a lion. Gilad is a smart fellow. It's not by chance that he's Lily's son."
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