Benjamin Netanyahu remembers well the hoots, the blows and the upside-down chairs at the November 1997 Likud Party convention. Indeed, he later admitted that it was a fatal mistake then to have given the party's central committee the power to select Knesset members. A year and a half later, he and Likud lost the government.
That scenario is likely to be repeated in about two months' time. The new Likud Party Central Committee must convene and make a series of regulatory decisions, and anything could happen: It could do away with the general primaries for MKs, or it could decide to allocate Knesset spots for specific people.
This week Netanyahu announced that he intends to run for president of the Likud convention, the institution that makes executive decisions within the party, in order to prevent the cancellation of the primaries. He pounded on the table at the Likud Knesset faction meeting, and warned that such a move would cost the Likud five parliamentary seats, which could spell the difference between governing and sitting in the opposition. Channel 10's Nadav Perry reported Wednesday that Netanyahu is threatening to do what Ariel Sharon did in 2005: split the Likud anew if the primaries are canceled.
Formally, Netanyahu is running against MK Danny Danon - who is promising central committee members that he will block any moves toward safeguarding a seat for Ehud Barak and his associates on the next Knesset list - and against Minister Michael Eitan, who is campaigning to "return the central committee's power."
In practice, however, Netanyahu is not running against Danon and Eitan, but rather against the interests of central committee members. They hunger for influence, money and jobs. Because that's how it works: First you appoint the MKs, then you use them to run the country.
Danon believes that what Netanyahu really wants is to get the convention to pass a sweeping resolution that would let the premier secure slots on the next party list for people of his choosing: perhaps Barak or a group of MKs who are expected to quit Kadima if Livni wins. For his part, Danon has been laying the groundwork for months. In a secret ballot, it is not certain that Netanyahu will beat him.
Eitan, who joined the race only this week, talks mainly about the primaries, which he calls the "hyphen that connects money and government." To explain the difficulties facing him as an ostensibly honest politician who doesn't want to raise money from the wealthy, he cites corruption stories from previous election campaigns.
"Primaries are not a matter only of money," an angry Netanyahu told him at the faction meeting. "They are also a matter of a good reputation. If you have a good reputation, you're fine." Eitan immediately spotted an opportunity for batting a home run, and retorted: "You competed not for the Likud leadership, not against 30 candidates - but rather against [Moshe] Feiglin. There is no doubt that you have a good reputation. Everyone knew you. That did not stop you from raising hundreds of thousands of shekels."
Netanyahu did not take this lying down: "NIS 400,000 [the maximum a candidate is allowed to raise] is not that much money," he barked at Eitan.
"Bibi is disconnected from reality," Eitan told me this week. "Raising NIS 400,000 for me is like raising NIS 4 million for him. He has ties to an awful lot of tycoons, after all."
At the faction meeting Eitan continued to lash out at Netanyahu: "Why do you have to run the convention yourself? No party chairman has ever done that, certainly not while serving as prime minister. Do you even have time for it, with all of the national issues on your desk? When Menachem Begin wanted to speak at conventions, he raised his hand and asked for the floor, as an ordinary delegate. And he had influence, as chairman of the movement. You can, too."
Netanyahu, say people who were at the faction meeting, was about to explode when Eitan lectured him. He will sit and vote and be granted the floor when hell freezes over. But first he has to become convention president. He doesn't have it in the bag.
For the sake of running
MK Meir Sheetrit, the Knesset's most veteran member, explained his decision not to run for the Kadima party leadership Wednesday: "I examined my standing among the general public and among Kadima activists. The results speak for themselves. I can't translate my popularity into votes," he told reporters.
Avi Dichter, for one, is running for the sake of running. "If you think you are worthy and you have a message - there is no reason not to run," he said this week. This man, who entered politics in December 2005 as a rising star after a high-profile term as Shin Bet chief, very quickly became a political footnote, following a controversial term as public security minister in the Olmert government, unsuccessful appointments and strange statements.
Dichter made his media hay this past year by repeatedly slamming Tzipi Livni in radio interviews. Now, when asked whether Livni or Netanyahu is more worthy of being prime minister, he replies categorically: "Tzipi does not deserve to be prime minister or party head. She does not have the qualities of a leader or a guide. She lacks a vision. She does not know how to run a party. Everything revolves around personal interests for her. She encourages criminality, maybe even worse. She does not understand that public money is not private money."
And what do you think of Netanyahu?
Dichter: "We meet a lot. Every time I have something to say or can help him, I meet with him. Bibi understands the region thoroughly. I don't understand why we haven't joined the government until now, or why Livni and Netanyahu don't discuss these matters."
Perhaps because it does not suit Netanyahu?
"In May 2011, after he delivered his six-principles speech in the Knesset [among them: preserving the settlement blocs, refugees in the Palestinian state, an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley - Y.V.], which could easily have been part of Kadima's platform, I met with him and with Livni and said this was the opportunity. Nothing happened."
Did it occur to you that Netanyahu simply doesn't want to?
Dichter ignores this. When he he intended to run this week, he declared that immediately after "the victory" he would approach Netanyahu and hold "expedited negotiations" about joining the government. While the rest of the political system is gearing up for national elections, the main opposition party is planning to knock on Netanyahu's door in an attempt to join the government.
Bat Yam's mayor, Shlomi Lahiani, announced this week that he, too, is considering running for the Kadima leadership. Whatever happens, his announcement sends a clear message to voters: Kadima has given up on the pretense of forming a government.
At 7:50 P.M. on Sunday, at the Shoresh junction below the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway, two official cars were parked. Two distinguished men surrounded by brawny young guards stood facing each other. One handed an envelope to the other, who quickly stuffed it into his jacket pocket. They exchanged a few words, and parted with a firm handshake. Then they got into their cars and went their separate ways.
Thus Minister Matan Vilnai (Atzmaut) handed his resignation letter to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin. Farewell rituals of this kind are generally held at the speaker's office, attended by a large crowd and cameras. That is certainly the case when the individual is a distinguished minister and veteran parliamentarian like Maj. Gen. (res.) Vilnai, who is leaving to represent Israel as ambassador to one of the most important and influential countries in the world: China.
That morning, the government had unanimously approved Vilnai's appointment as ambassador to Beijing. The law demands that an MK personally deliver his resignation to the Knesset speaker. Vilnai called Rivlin to arrange the handover. Rivlin suggested holding the ceremony at 11 A.M. the following day. Vilnai said he couldn't, and that it was very important that his replacement, Shakib Shanan be sworn in at once. (The law stipulates 48 hours between resignation and swearing-in. )
"No problem," Rivlin said, "come to me on Monday at 5:30 P.M. We'll swear in Shakib on Wednesday at 5:30." Vilnai said it had to be Sunday. Never mind what time.
"In any case Shakib will be sworn in on Wednesday, because on Tuesday the Knesset finishes its discussions before the 48 hours are up," Rivlin explained. Vilnai insisted. The two checked their schedules, and found that at 7:30 Rivlin would be leaving Jerusalem to attend a circumcision ceremony in Ashdod, and Vilnai would be making his way to the capital. They arranged to meet at the intersection. Shanan was sworn in before noon on Wednesday.
I asked Vilnai whether the urgency stemmed from the fact that Shanan, who was a member of the Labor Party, had agreed to let him represent breakaway faction Atzmaut only if Vilnai resigned immediately.
"I don't know about that," Vilnai said, "but after the government voted on the appointment, my friend Shalom Simhon came up to me and said, 'Do us a favor, resign from the Knesset as quickly as possible.'"
Vilnai has been offended by the articles and declarations in the media about how he, the minister responsible for protecting the home front, could take off for China a moment before "this thing with Iran" happens - as the satirical TV show "A Wonderful Country" put it.
At least there was a bit of humor there. No one would really suspect you of running away.
"My family did not take it humorously. My friends came to me and said: 'Look, they're writing that you're fleeing.' Come on, really. If anything should happen, heaven forbid, I'll come back to Israel immediately. I've been serving this country for 50 years, including decades on the battlefield. I always charged. Always, like an idiot, I ran ahead. I was also wounded. I spent time in the hospital. Now they say that I'm absconding? Me?"
You really did take it hard.
"Everything has a limit. Before me, no minister wanted to handle the home front. All of the domestic security ministers ran from it. I got in to it five years ago [the first four years as Barak's deputy defense minister, in the Olmert and Netanyahu governments, and for the past year as a minister - Y.V.]. For the first two years I just tried to put the mess to order. I started from scratch. You could say the home front is not ready. But it is more ready than it was five years ago. I am leaving behind accomplishments and an orderly work plan. If I hadn't done it, nobody would have complained."
We will see the fruits of his labors if and when that "thing" with Iran happens. For now, the question remains: Is it right to leave such a critical post on the eve of what the media is presenting as the ultimate test? Opinions on the matters are split. Vilnai has no doubts.
He has never been to China. He spent many years as a minister, a deputy minister and an MK, and never allowed himself a deluxe work trip to that country, unlike many of his colleagues.
"What can you do," Vilnai said this week, in a tone of bitterness mixed with gloating, "I'm a sucker."
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