For many long minutes on Wednesday, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stood at the podium at Tel Aviv's Institute for National Security Studies. He spoke lucidly about everything - Iran, the Palestinians, Syria, the budget, the Tal Law, party primaries. His main message related to the Iranian threat. "You can't sleep quietly at night with a sword hanging over your neck," he declared.
But what is disturbing the sleep of Likud politicians was conveyed in a semi-offhand remark made by Barak during that same lecture - with regard to the need to consider a unilateral political move in the West Bank, should it be concluded that there is no way to attain either a final or interim agreement via negotiations with the Palestinians. Given the extremely close relations Barak maintains with Netanyahu, Likud politicians could only wonder: Was this a trial balloon floated by Barak with the active or tacit consent of the prime minister?
As this column went to press, the Prime Minister's Bureau didn't react. Two government ministers bashed Barak: Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who would disagree with Barak were the defense minister simply to be talking about the time of day, and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who is not a chronic cabinet antagonist of Barak's. "Barak's position does not represent that of the government," stated Sa'ar. However, neither support for a Palestinian state nor a freeze on settlement construction were official "government positions" until Netanyahu decided that they were, in fact, his cabinet's stances.
I asked Sa'ar, one of the cabinet members who is close to Netanyahu, whether it could be that the prime minister and the defense minister, both veterans of the elite Matkal commando unit, are cooking up a surprise.
"I really don't think so," Sa'ar replied. "That sounds totally unrealistic. I am convinced that Netanyahu isn't thinking along these lines. During all the discussions I have had with him, both before and after he was elected premier, he has always categorically rejected the idea of unilateral withdrawal, and he is right to reject this option, I believe. And in general, in light of the failure of the pullout from the Gaza Strip, who today entertains this option? I don't even hear anyone speaking along these lines on the political left."
If this was not a one-off gaffe uttered extemporaneously by Barak, and should the defense minister reiterate the idea publicly - then it will be clear that the idea of unilateral withdrawal is indeed a policy contingency sitting on his desk and Netanyahu's. They coordinate all policy options.
Barak was the architect of the unilateral pullout from Lebanon, which took place 12 years ago. At the time, he was serving as prime minister and defense minister. Netanyahu's newest ally, Shaul Mofaz, served as defense minister at the time of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, in August 2005. So Netanyahu is now surrounded by veteran unilateral withdrawers, each with proven experience in this regard.
Currently, the political arena is rife with speculation about another political convulsion, one that could be wrought by a fusion of Likud, Kadima and Atzmaut on the eve of the next elections.
When Netanyahu formed the government in April 2009, his new partner, Ehud Barak, expressed his hope that the newly elected prime minister would choose to act not in the style of the dogmatic Yitzhak Shamir during his days as a Likud premier, but would instead follow the example of the trail-blazing Menachem Begin. Today it seems as though Barak has a new wish: Given a choice between Shamir and Sharon, the defense minister wants Netanyahu to go in the direction of the latter. If you ask the writer of these lines, it's a safer bet that Bibi will remain Bibi.
Snake in the grass
As is customary for coalition agreements, the Likud-Kadima pact, signed on May 8, stipulates (in clause 7) that the sides will take steps to ensure that the Knesset remains intact until the natural conclusion of its term, at the end of October 2013. This is probably a moot clause. During the past 20 years, no Knesset has survived until the end of its term. Israel's system of elections and government promotes political instability, coalition crises and early balloting. No political party that precipitated a government's collapse was ever sued in court for breach of contract.
Yet the pact between Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz has the potential of breaking this two-decade-long cycle of ever-collapsing governance. The unity coalition has a whopping 94 MKs. Under any possible scenario by which one coalition partner pulls out, the government is still left with sufficient parliamentary reserve. And thus Netanyahu seems poised to become Israel's first prime minister to serve a full, even-elongated term (as a result of the last round of early elections ): His tenure should be four years and nine months.
There could, however, be a snake lying in the grass to disrupt this political paradise. Elections for local governments are to be held five years after the last time ballots were cast for mayors and local council members. What this means is that local elections are scheduled to take place on the same day as balloting for the next Knesset.
At first blush, such double-header elections may seem like a blessing. They would save precious funds for the state coffers. Instead of a single ballot box being set up in schools and community centers and other precincts around the country, each precinct will be equipped with three ballot boxes (for the Knesset, for a candidate in a local mayoral race, and for council candidates ).
Such cost and logistical efficiency sounds too good to be true. And it probably is. Dual elections pose a grave electoral danger to Netanyahu.
The rub is the Arabs. Voter turnout in Arab communities for local elections is ordinarily much higher than in national Knesset elections. The Arab voter long ago lost hope that his representatives in the Knesset will have much of an effect on the quality or standard of his life. At the same time, Arab voters believe that the results of local elections do have just such an impact.
A study carried out in 2008 by economists Avi Ben-Bassat and Momi Dahan suggested that 90 percent of the candidates on party lists in local elections in the Arab sector are affiliated with extended families in their communities. This means that Arab voters in local elections have personal interests at stake: The election of their candidate in a mayoral or local council race may spell direct spoils for them, or at least for family members: job appointments, access to sought-after licenses and permits, and so on.
Should national and local elections be held on the same day, and should Arab citizens turn out en masse, the right-wing parties are likely to lose three or four Knesset seats, at a conservative estimate. Such a swing could be disastrous for Netanyahu, and the prime minister won't let it happen. Political insiders are already betting he will find some pretext to move up Knesset elections, to ensure that they are not held concurrently with local balloting.
That may not be so easy, however. Suppose, for example, there is a proposal to move national elections up to early October 2013; in this case, Netanyahu's detractors would point out that when he moved up a Likud party primary, the prime minister cited financial savings as a motivating factor, whereas such a separation of national and local elections would add expenses to the state budget.
To avoid an allegation of wastefulness, Netanyahu would have to advance the national election more than a month. September, however, is filled with Jewish holidays - and elections are never held in July-August, since the demographic balance during this period is tilted in favor of the Orthodox and Arabs, who travel overseas less frequently during the summer. That leaves June 2013.
In order to conduct elections in June, the Knesset would have to disband in March. This scenario would raise pointed questions about the instantly famous political maneuver perpetrated by Mofaz and Netanyahu in their Kadima-Likud pact. What, after all, was the fuss and celebration about? A six-month postponement of early elections?
A senior Likud politician admits that the considerations broached here about dual elections constitute a conundrum. The source explained that apart from the predilections of Arab voters, there are other reasons why the Likud would not agree to double-barreled elections, connected to the chronic infighting at local party branches.
"During all local elections," explained the senior Likudnik, "there are endless arguments among rank-and-file party members about who will be designated as candidates with the official Likud label, and who will have to run on independent lists. The last thing we would want would be such an ugly atmosphere of bad blood and skirmishing between our people at a time of national elections. This cannot happen. That means there won't be double elections."
So that means you will move national elections up to spring 2013, in order to separate them from local balloting?
"Possibly or we will defer the local elections until February 2014. We would pass a bill to this effect in the Knesset. Why not? Mayors will be pleased with the postponement, and we will be happy about it as well."
How will you justify the waste of money inherent in separating the two elections?
"Very simply. We will explain to the people that in economic terms, it's not right to load the funding of two election campaigns onto the 2013 budget. It's better to separate the elections."
An end to all things
Next week will mark 30 years since the outbreak of the first Lebanon War, a war described by Ariel Sharon, during his first race as a candidate for prime minister, in 2001, "one of the most justified wars in the history of the state."
Fifteen months after the start of the war, on September 15, 1983, a weary, dejected Menachem Begin, the prime minister, announced his resignation, to take effect immediately. His confidantes said that Begin was unable to deal with his responsibility for the tragedy in Lebanon. Others said the death of his wife, Aliza, about a year earlier, broke the premier's heart.
The journalist Uri Porat served as Begin's media adviser during the war. A few months before his death, in February 2007, Porat related in a radio interview his recollections of the day of Begin's resignation. Immediately after Begin gave notice to cabinet ministers, a stunned Porat went to his office. He sat there holding his head in his hands. "I felt that somebody was standing before me," Porat recalled. "I looked up, and there was Begin in the corner of the office. He asked, 'Uri, my friend, what's happened, why are you so downcast.'"
Porat replied: "Mr. Prime Minister, something happened today, this isn't an easy day for us."
Porat recalled: "Begin sighed. He said: 'Uri, my son, all good things have an end.' He turned around and left the office. I watched him walk away. I didn't have time to take in what he said. A few seconds later, he returned. 'Also bad things,' he said. 'Also bad things.'"
We have had seven prime ministers in the nearly three decades that have passed since Begin departed the scene. A few served for more than one term. All dealt with tragedies, terror attacks, war-like situations. All sent soldiers to die. It's hard to imagine any of them leaving the Prime Minister's Office voluntarily, and in doing so describing their term in power as a "bad thing."
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