Israeli Politicians in a State of Denial

Peres is not angry that Netanyahu took his place at the UN, Netanyahu believes Lieberman won't dismantle the coalition over the Palestinian issue, Lieberman doesn't see Kadima as a threat; at least that's what they all say.

President Shimon Peres is frustrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is paralyzed by his fear of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his concern that his government might fall. Peres is also frustrated by his Palestinian friends, whose stubbornness led them to a pointless encounter within the marble walls at the United Nations - and by American President Barack Obama, who is gripped by fear of the Republicans.

The president has devoted himself indefatigably to shaping a "Peres blueprint" for relaunching negotiations. In addition to speaking by phone with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his staff, Peres has recently met with Quartet envoy Tony Blair and with the good 'ole, if worn-out, fellas from Washington: Dennis Ross and David Hale. All agreed there is an excellent platform for resuming negotiations. Okay, so they agreed.

The so-called blueprint is not intended to torpedo the Palestinians' intention to achieve recognition as a state: The plan was for Abbas and Netanyahu, under Obama's auspices, to announce the renewal of the talks immediately after Abbas submitted the Palestinians' statehood request to the United Nations secretary general. The request would be referred to a committee and buried there - whereas the political negotiations would be launched based on whatever parameters Peres formulated.

Up until a week ago, Peres himself had been planning to head to New York, until Netanyahu decided at the last minute to sally forth onto the battlefield otherwise known as the United Nations. It's unlikely that Peres was impressed by Netanyahu's heroism. It was clear from the outset that the Palestinians' move was doomed to failure, just as it was clear that Obama would not rake Netanyahu over the coals. Peres thinks he was part of a spin, say people who spoke with him over the past week. A spokesperson for Peres denied it, explaining that the president is not angry, does not feel he was manipulated and knew Netanyahu would make a last-minute decision.

Another denial worth mentioning: On Wednesday morning, a denial was issued in New York that Lieberman would dismantle the coalition if Netanyahu did not severely punish the Palestinians for their UN move, as Yedioth Ahronoth had reported. Punishments could have included annulling the Oslo Accords, annexing the settlement blocs and refusing to give the PA taxes that Israel has collected for it.

The morning the story appeared, Army Radio asked Lieberman's deputy, Danny Ayalon, to confirm the report. He did so willingly. However, he was not aware of the full scope of Lieberman's plan - to publish and deny - and received a public tongue-lashing from the minister.

In his denial, Lieberman said he had not made the remarks reported by Yedioth's veteran political correspondent Shimon Shiffer. He doesn't threaten; he acts, he said. He did not say that he has no intention of resigning, as he usually does, but noted that he is not glued to his seat and also has his "red lines."

A week ago, I quoted political sources who heard tacit threats from Lieberman about dismantling the coalition during the Knesset's winter sitting. Lieberman's bureau issued a denial.

Despite all the denials, Lieberman has gone through some sort of change. At one point it seemed like he wanted to remain foreign minister until the attorney general decides whether to indict him on charges of fraud (in March-April 2012 ) and would try to strike a plea bargain. However, now people believe Lieberman wants new elections, preferably on security issues, which serve the right wing - even before a final decision is made about whether to indict him. Accordingly, he intends to leave the government in the winter session and push up elections to next spring. Once elections are called, all legal decisions involving politicians are suspended. Lieberman will not run as an accused person, but as a victim.

However, he fears that if he bolts the government on a policy issue, Kadima will enter in his place. Then, he'll be left outside, facing not elections but an indictment. He tried to sound out senior Kadima members about the prospects of such a scenario. He did not get an unequivocal answer. This story, too, was denied by the foreign minister's bureau.

Changing the rules

Shelly Yachimovich, a journalist who entered politics six years ago, defeated two former party leaders and a veteran minister in the two rounds of the Labor Party leadership primary. She ran a brilliant campaign, without crates of membership applications from new party members and nearly without paid political operatives. She obtained a tremendous tailwind from the social protest movement, whose timing was perfect for her. She recruited her supporters online, in the street and via minimal donations. She changed the rules. She created a new arena, unfamiliar to the party veterans and functionaries, one in which only she could win. The young people she gathered around her were idealists in the old sense.

As with her predecessors in the past decade, Yachimovich will face her true test after she is formally ensconced as party leader. Labor's passion for collective suicide, factionalism and internal backstabbing are all still very much in place. Like those before her, she will discover that getting elected was the easy part.

In the past decade, only one of the Labor Party's seven leaders experienced glory and political resurrection: Shimon Peres. And that happened only after he left the party, after being defeated by his protege, Amir Peretz.

In her six successful and productive years in the Knesset, Yachimovich has sponsored 36 laws on social matters. On the way she did not manage to get along with anyone from her faction: They all hate her to varying degrees. She had only one friend in Labor's Knesset faction, Shalom Simhon, who left the party along with Ehud Barak at the beginning of the year. Her main stumbling block will be her inability to trust her colleagues with similar views. So far, she's preferred to forge alliances with right-wing MKs.

At age 51, can she change? Probably not, though she may surprise herself. She will also have to come to terms with the fact that she is not above criticism and does not know everything. She is the first woman to lead the Labor Party in four decades, since Golda Meir.

The party veterans who recoiled from her and supported Peretz no longer consider Labor their political home. During this time of social protest and mass demonstrations, new DNA is needed. Yachimovich can offer this, more than anyone else. But she will need cooperation, above all from Isaac Herzog's camp. Herzog was not above complementing her despite her vitriolic - and effective - campaign against him in the first round of elections. Herzog could be the unifying force, as well as the party's diplomatic policy voice. And she will also need Peretz's camp, of course. He garnered a significant 45 percent of votes in the second round. He managed to recreate himself after being ousted as defense minister and ostracized in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. Now he lost to his protege, whom he carried in on his coattails in the 2006 elections.

Peretz promised to stay in the party if he lost. Promises like that tend to have a short shelf life. He could take his three supporters - MKs Eitan Cabel, Raleb Majadele and Daniel Ben Simon - and join Kadima, as he had planned to do after Barak and his group bolted.

Peretz is a two-time loser - this week and in 2007. At the start of his long leadership campaign, which ended this week, Cabel told him, "You know that if you lose you have nowhere to go. That's it. It's over." On Wednesday, Cabel summarized Peretz's race: "The hardest thing I faced in the campaign was not the fact that people did not support Amir, the deep loathing for him which I encountered in places like kibbutzim. I have never seen anything like it."

Strategic threat

In a recent reception Netanyahu held for a visiting dignitary a week ago, between the two rounds of the Labor elections, Defense Minister Ehud Barak ran into Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud ), a close friend of Shelly Yachimovich. Barak did not hide his satisfaction at the achievements of his former ally.

"I considered backing Amir, in order to hurt him," Barak told Sa'ar, "but I remembered that I still have a few people there who might take me seriously."

Barak, like Netanyahu, is most likely very pleased Yachimovich won. They believe she could inflict major damage on Kadima and its leader, MK Tzipi Livni. Kadima failed to turn the social protest movement into an electoral asset, and that was before Yachimovich won the Labor leadership. Her election might also hamper plans now being hatched in backrooms to establish a protest party.

The following months will show whether the protest has indeed found a party and a leader. The polls forecasting more than 20 Knesset seats for Labor under Yachimovich are the result of media buzz. Kadima's strength began declining long before Yachimovich was elected. With the right policy, she will be a haven for Kadima deserters.

Yachimovich knows her constituency also wants to hear her views on foreign and defense policy, and she made them known in her victory speech yesterday morning. It was the first time in her political career that Yachimovich invoked the terms "Palestinian state" and "peace negotiations." She is not yet Abba Eban, but it's a start.

The Labor Party chose the leader who will lead it in the next elections, which will likely be held in 2012. Livni will soon have to run against MK Shaul Mofaz for Kadima's leadership. In private conversation, she sounds certain she can defeat him. Yachimovich's Labor victory helps Mofaz indirectly, because Livni is no longer the only woman heading a centrist party.

Yachimovich also considers herself the head of a centrist party. She also wants to be a rallying point for women. And if MK Zahava Gal-On is elected leader of Meretz in the next few months, as seems likely, she too will join the list.

The polls that will be published in the next few months may tip the balance in Kadima. If the party continues to lose seats and Labor continues to gain strength, Livni will have much lower chances of defeating Mofaz again. In fact, for the first time since its founding in November 2005, Kadima is facing a strategic threat to its existence.