Benjamin Netanyahu doubtless recalls with horror his first term as prime minister, between 1996 and 1999, when the Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, the Shin Bet chief, Ami Ayalon, and the defense minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, joined forces to block what they described as his adventurousness, hastiness and irresponsibility. The grave doubts expressed by the "defense-establishment types," each in his own way and style, about the degree to which the prime minister was suited to his job, were a key brick in the anti-Bibi wall that arose back then - and helped to precipitate Netanyahu's electoral downfall in May '99. The defense establishment's campaign to delegitimize him was crowned a success with the election of his successor, Ehud Barak.
A dozen years later, in the middle of his second term in office, the nightmare has returned to haunt the premier. Lipkin-Shahak, Ayalon and Mordechai have been replaced by the former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, the former IDF chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and former Shin Bet chief, Yuval Diskin - plus there is also the former head of Military Intelligence, Amos Yadlin. The latter three are not taking an active role in the fierce assault Dagan is waging on Netanyahu, but commentators and defense officials, both current and past, ascribe to them similar worries with respect to both the premier and Barak.
Dagan told Yedioth Ahronoth a week ago: "Diskin, Ashkenazi and I could have blocked any potential adventure. Now I fear there is no one to stop Bibi and Barak."
On January 7, 1999, Amos Harel reported in Haaretz on a press conference called by the then-outgoing chief of staff. Lipkin-Shahak was asked whether he had encountered "adventurous proposals" for military moves, initiated by Netanyahu. His reply: "There were operations that were not carried out. There was the decision to open the tunnel [the Western Wall tunnel in the Old City, an action that led to Palestinian demonstrations in which 80 people were killed, including 15 Israeli soldiers], and it is fairly clear how it was reached. There were other ideas that I did not agree with because I thought they were wrong. I was not alone. The defense minister [Mordechai] expressed his opinion as well."
Harel went on to report that the decision to open the tunnel - to which Shin Bet chief Ayalon was opposed - was brought to Lipkin-Shahak's attention at the last minute. About the decision to assassinate the leading Hamas figure Khaled Meshal in the Jordanian capital, he was briefed only in part. Lipkin-Shahak objected to both moves. "His statements yesterday hint at additional ideas contemplated by Netanyahu that were blocked by the defense establishment," Harel wrote.
This week, a source close to Lipkin-Shahak said: "He heard from Netanyahu things that he'd never heard from previous prime ministers. In one conversation they held, he was astounded to hear from Bibi about his willingness to take certain measures in emergencies ... There was also an affair that related to a certain tension on the border with Syria. Netanyahu wanted to call up the reserves, something that would have almost certainly led to war. Shahak and Mordechai objected. In the end he accepted their opinion.
"Meir Dagan's positions on the disastrous consequences there might be as a result of certain situations we know well. And not from today. He's been saying this for two years already," the source added. "We are familiar not only with Dagan's concerns, but also with those of Ashkenazi and Diskin. We would do well to listen to them."
One former senior defense official, who also asked not to be named, said this week: "I view Dagan's words as true. He said these things many times in recent years, not publicly. He is genuinely worried. And he is not worried only about Netanyahu but also about the combination of Netanyahu and Barak. I think that Gabi and Yuval see Ehud and Bibi as a duo. And believe me, if Dagan is fearful, then you and I and people like us have good reason to be fearful."
A defense opposition
Lipkin-Shahak and Mordechai eventually founded the Center Party, whose main objective was to oust Netanyahu from power. Ayalon joined forces with leftist organizations and went on to run for the leadership of the Labor Party. The man who headed the Mossad for part of this same period, Danny Yatom, also found his way into Labor. There is some justification, therefore, for Netanyahu, with the help of his people, trying to attribute political ambitions to Dagan.
The regulations concerning cooling-off periods prevent Dagan, 66, from running for Knesset in the next three years. He will thus be over 70 the next time an election he is eligible to run in comes around. Ashkenazi, who is much younger, will also have to wait for the next round because of the same rules. Thus, neither Dagan, Ashkenazi or Diskin will play an active role in the political game that will unfold in advance of the next election, though no one will prevent them from expressing their opinions. In the absence of an effective parliamentary opposition, the heads of the defense establishment may constitute the real opposition to Netanyahu.
In 1999 all of those concerned coalesced in support of the alternative, Ehud Barak, for prime minister. Back then defense establishment folks from every corner stood behind the demobilized chief of staff. Today Barak's glory is behind him, and you'd have a hard time sticking a pin between him and Netanyahu.
Meanwhile, the nominal opposition leader, Kadima's Tzipi Livni, is not perceived as a figure of consequence when it comes to matters of national security. Her party rival, Shaul Mofaz, the former IDF chief of staff and chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, seeks to reprise what Barak did in the mid-1990s: to play the role of the battle-scarred general who isn't afraid to propose far-reaching political ideas, and who has killed enough Arabs for us to be able to put our trust in him and to put the red button in his hands. That is Mofaz's strategy, which incidentally has been devised by the American adviser Arthur Finkelstein. Three years ago Finkelstein led Mofaz to near-victory in the primary race with Livni. They are together again this time, too.
The election for the 19th Knesset is by law supposed to take place at the end of October 2013, less than two and a half years from now. The prevailing view in both coalition and opposition circles is that it will actually take place about a year earlier. The prevailing view is that beginning this winter the government will begin to wobble, in the spring or summer it will collapse, the election will take place in October-November 2012, and by the end of that year a new government will be in place.
If Benjamin Netanyahu finishes 2012 as a sitting prime minister, he will go down in history as the longest-serving Israeli prime minister after David Ben-Gurion, who occupied the Prime Minister's Bureau for a total of 13 years and four months, during his various terms.
To date, Netanyahu has already served a total five years and 85 days as premier, more than Golda Meir (five years and 19 days ), Ariel Sharon (four years and 10 months ), Ehud Olmert (three years and 90 days ), Shimon Peres (two years and 264 days, all together ), Moshe Sharett (one year and 281 days ), and Ehud Barak (one year and 245 days ). Another year and a half at the helm will catapult Netanyahu past Levi Eshkol (five years and 247 days ), Menachem Begin (six years and 113 days ), Yitzhak Rabin (six years and 132 days), and even past Yitzhak Shamir (six years and 242 days, in total ).
Some of these leaders, it should be pointed out, served during periods in which the political arena was much more stable than it has been in the past 20 years.
Among the prime ministers who have made history, one was assassinated, another collapsed, a third had to resign because of criminal charges, and a fourth sank into depression.
Ben-Gurion is the exception. In the early years of the state, it was impossible to imagine anyone but him in this post. And it is safe to assume that in the foreseeable future no prime minister will serve for 13 years in this country. Not even for half of that. Netanyahu is on his way to becoming Ben-Gurion's runner-up, if one is speaking solely about his time in office.
Mitzna loses steam
Until now we thought Amram Mitzna was a shoo-in for the Labor Party leadership. He thought so, too. At a meeting held by the party's Knesset faction about a week ago, with the six candidates, he addressed his fellow members like a leader. They scorned him behind his back.
Labor completed its membership drive on the eve of the Shavuot holiday this week. The 28,000 veteran members will, apparently, be joined by some 50,000 additional people. According to individuals in the know, Mitzna was able to enlist 4,000 members, without having an organized headquarters behind him and without a skilled campaign machine of the sort that his three main rivals - Amir Peretz, Isaac Herzog and Shelly Yachimovich - have been using in the past few months.
Mitzna's lead - which was reflected mainly in a single poll that forecast Labor under his leadership receiving between 17 and 19 Knesset seats, as compared to single-digit numbers for the others - now seems less certain. After Herzog announced that he would run, a poll was published that predicted 19 seats for him. A similar number was predicted for Yachimovich, in a survey conducted after she entered the race.
One conclusion is that the person who wins will be the one who succeeds in bringing the most people to vote in the primary for party chair on September 12, or in the second round on September 21. A second conclusion is that Labor has the potential to gain back quite a few lost seats, but the limit is potentially the same 19 seats that Mitzna won for it in 2003 and that Amir Peretz garnered in 2006.
A third conclusion: The party, headed by Yachimovich, Herzog or Mitzna, will keep its fingers crossed for Shaul Mofaz, and hope for Livni's defeat. If Mofaz is elected to head Kadima, quite a few voters of the so-called "white tribe" - who abandoned Labor under Peretz for Kadima in Shimon Peres' footsteps, and stayed with it thanks to Livni - will find their way back home.
But what happens if Peretz is elected to lead Labor and Mofaz is elected to lead Kadima?
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