If a stranger had chanced to enter the Lafayette Banquet Hall in Lod on Tuesday, he would have come away thinking that Israel was in the midst of an election campaign. Or, perhaps, that the elections had just ended and a victory celebration was under way.
A week after his speech to Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Lod. Likud members from the area packed the hall and cheered him when he entered, accompanied by his confidant, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. Netanyahu spoke, Sa'ar spoke and the crowd leapt to its feet and applauded.
The Prime Minister's Bureau closed the event to the media. It was hardly an intimate meeting - there were some 500 people in the hall. At the end of his remarks, Netanyahu called to the activists: "I love you and I thank you! I know where your heart is and where your soul is!" A love-and-thanks fest, only not in public.
The meeting followed a visit by Netanyahu and Sa'ar to the city's educational institutions. They visited an Arab school and a Jewish school, where they met the "Torah core," a group of national-religious activists who had moved into the mixed Jewish-Arab city. The students surrounded Netanyahu and sang him a song from Deuteronomy: "And of Benjamin he said: The beloved of the Lord is he, he shall dwell in safety by him: he will shield him all day long, and between his shoulders will he dwell." Netanyahu loved it.
The day before the Lod visit, he appeared before two Knesset forums: the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and the Likud faction. Before the committee meeting, the prime minister's aides called Likud MKs and urged them not to abandon the chief to his rivals' barbs.
"You spoke a lot and didn't answer a single question," committee chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) snorted, after the PM's lengthy survey. Netanyahu retorted angrily, "Obviously you would say that, it would make no difference what I said," and then the premier reiterated, "We need unity, we have to unite, we have to work together, I suggest we arm ourselves responsibly, I suggest uniting around my principles. The principles I put forward in the Knesset and in Congress. They are the basis for the Jewish people's existence."
"Do you remember, Avi," he said, turning to MK Avi Dichter (Kadima ), "how we used to put up tents on stormy nights? First of all we drove the wedges into the earth, so the tent would not fly away in the wind. That is what I did in Washington. I drove wedges."
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni said, "It's not your principles, but whether your behavior strengthens them or erodes them. I say it's eroding them."
"Why is everything always so personal with you?" Netanyahu complained.
"I for one have greater regard for you these days," MK Amir Peretz (Labor ) said to Netanyahu. "Because you proved in Washington that you are saliently right wing with no intention of doing anything. I have high regard for people who go with their truth."
"Listen, Bibi," MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor ) growled, "I congratulate you on your hug from Congress, but it will not take us off the path to confrontation. Our situation in Europe is very bad. President Obama said everything we wanted him to say. Now you have to announce that Israel will vote for a Palestinian state in the UN this September ... As a former industry and trade minister, I tell you: The markets are closing. We will suffer a devastating economic blow."
I asked Ben-Eliezer how Netanyahu, who likes him, reacted to his tough talk. "He nodded his head," Ben-Eliezer said.
You're their man
By most estimates, general elections will not take place before the spring of 2012. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is keeping the Netanyahu government afloat with his party, keeps saying this government will be in power until autumn 2013, four years and nine months, which will quite likely make it Israel's longest serving government.
In the Likud faction meeting, Education Minister Sa'ar suggested forming an Israeli unity government as an appropriate Zionist response to the Palestinian unity government. Netanyahu nodded. He instructed his advisers to circulate messages in this spirit. But if he were serious, he would at least invite Livni and make her an offer ...
This week, on the eve of Jerusalem Day, Netanyahu visited the city's Merkaz Harav Yeshiva. It's a "Hardali" - Haredi national-religious - institution that was targeted in a terrorist attack several years ago, and most of its students will undoubtedly vote for parties to Likud's right when they are of age. Certainly they took in what the prime minister told the Knesset two weeks ago and Congress a week later: a territorial swap, and settlement blocs under Israeli sovereignty (meaning the 1967 lines plus ). That did not stop them from cheering him when he promised to keep building in Jerusalem.
Merkaz Harav is a true litmus test. The students, teachers and rabbis know that in his heart, Netanyahu is one of theirs and that nothing will come from his peace talk. Similarly, the Likud faction, which has a hard-line right-wing bloc, was easy on Netanyahu. MK Danny Danon told him at the meeting, "You gave an excellent speech in Congress. Maybe you should run for president on behalf of the Republicans? I hear they're looking for a candidate. You could be the man."
Netanyahu cut into Danon's remarks: "My visit to Washington was bipartisan. I made sure of that. When the members of the Republican Party's Jewish leadership wanted to visit me in Blair House, I asked them to come with the parallel forum from the Democratic Party - and I met with them both."
In early August, the Likud-Kadima agreement on dividing up the parliamentary committees is scheduled to be renegotiated. Last December, it was agreed that the Economic Affairs Committee would remain in Likud hands and that the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, whose chairman, Tzachi Hanegbi, had to resign, would go to fellow Kadima MK Shaul Mofaz. At that time it was also agreed that after eight months the matter would be renegotiated - in other words, that Kadima would again demand the chairmanship of the Economic Affairs Committee, which is now in the hands of Likud's Carmel Shama-Hacohen.
Now, two months before the scheduled negotiation, Kadima leader Livni is watching as her rival Mofaz gains political ground thanks to the high-prestige committee chairmanship. She knows she will be perceived as spiteful if she has Mofaz ousted from that body, which suits the former chief of staff's skills. At the moment, she is not planning to take a stand, her aides say; she will let the faction decide which of the two committees to demand.
Getting their due (s )
Next week, the eve of Shavuot, will mark the end of the Labor Party voter-registration drive. The party's leadership candidates have been trying to register voters for the past few months, three months ahead of the primaries. The cartons will be brought to party headquarters, the candidates will declare they registered tens of thousands of voters, the envelopes will be opened, the data entered, the forgeries removed and two weeks later the reality will look less rosy.
In some cases, the candidates' headquarters said, text messages were sent to tens of thousands of past Labor Party members who had not renewed their membership. Many of the people responded, and it turns out that thousands of them never knew that they were Labor Party members. They did not remember having registered, and they also swore that they never had paid party dues. Someone apparently did it for them.
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