Benjamin Netanyahu tends to share his thoughts about the Middle East with foreign leaders, journalists and intellectuals. In these conversations, he talks proudly about the only democracy in the region and patronizingly about neighboring countries, where heads of state are elected virtually for life, usually with a majority that averages 99 percent. But this week, Netanyahu was the only Western leader to come out on the side of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In the past, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested that Israel bomb the Aswan Dam. Three years ago, from the Knesset rostrum, he told Mubarak to go to hell. But now he's burning the phone line with calls to Israel's ambassadors around the world, instructing them to meet urgently with leaders in the host countries and deliver, as Haaretz reported earlier this week, a desperate message: "It is vital to preserve the stability of the Egyptian regime at all costs; the public criticism of President Mubarak must be toned down."
Marvelous irony. Too bad it's at our expense.
Paying the price
Many politicians believe that the regional radicalization - which erupted in Lebanon, spread to Tunisia and Egypt, and might spill over into Jordan and Syria - naturally serves the right wing. When extremist Islam surges and threatens to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the public in Israel will not go out of its way to return the Golan Heights. When Al Jazeera, on behalf of Hamas, makes mincemeat out of the government of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas by leaking a treasure trove of documents about the peace process, and when Egypt's traditional support for the Palestinian Authority and for a peace accord is no longer assured, the Israeli side (which anyway has not shown great generosity so far) will in the future become even stingier when it comes to possible concessions to the Palestinians. And the public will certainly back the government on this.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu responded in the Knesset to the 40 opposition MKs who summoned him to the parliamentary chamber, as they do every month. In his address, it was possible to discern the main points of the Likud platform in the next election.
"We are in a situation of instability," the prime minister said. "In this situation we have to look around us with open and realistic eyes. We remember what it was like here before there was peace. How we fought at the [Suez] Canal, on the banks of the canal. On the Jordan. We fought. All of us. Since peace broke out, we have benefited from not needing to defend those borders, with all that this implies. Peace changed our strategic situation and the whole world. Now we must understand that the basis for every future settlement is the fortification of Israel's might. Security arrangements on the ground, in the event that agreements are violated or there is governmental change on the other side. Every peace settlement that will be achieved must be durable in the face of the upheavals that characterize this region."
The leader of the opposition, MK Tzipi Livni, who spoke after Netanyahu, had no choice but to present the other side of the coin. But she, too, reinforced this thesis, which does not bode well for her politically. She said she had figured the prime minister would talk about "uncertainty and instability and fear, the fear that freezes every initiative, that will drive us to insularity and prompt the public to look for a strong leader."
"You cannot," she told Netanyahu, "continue to make use of the uncertainty and of the legitimate and genuine fears of this country's citizens as a means of fortification for your status, not [Israel's] security." But she knows he can and will do that. The battle over the consciousness of the Israeli voter passes in part through Tahrir Square in Cairo. Livni understands that the entire moderate camp in the region has been dealt a mortal blow. And the person likely to pay the price is the leader of Israel's moderate camp.
They say it ain't over till the fat lady sings. Here, it's not over until the thin lady, MK Dalia Itzik, says it's time for a unity government.
Venezuela and other sins
In television interviews he gave on Wednesday, after the cancellation of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant's appointment as chief of staff, and in private conversations as well, Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not find so much as one flaw in the whole saga. Apart, of course, from the decision by the attorney general, which infuriated him.
It was a stinging humiliation for Barak: Not only will the Galant appointment farce be forever credited to him, he also enabled Netanyahu to emerge from the debacle as the "responsible adult" - a phrase the premier's aides made much use of this week in briefings with reporters.
In the Knesset, Barak was attacked from the left and the right. His former Labor Party buddy, MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, described him in the Knesset as "a manipulative, obsessive person fighting a war to the bitter end against his chief of staff." MK Ilan Ghilon (Meretz ) described him as "a cat that, no matter how you drop him, always lands on his head."
People who spoke with Barak on Thursday morning wondered whether he would resign if the cabinet forces him on Sunday to extend the term of the current chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. Barak is certain that he and Netanyahu have a majority against that idea, and finds it inconceivable that cabinet ministers would vote contrary to his opinion.
At least three ministers I spoke to said they were undecided about how to vote, after telling me a day earlier they were certain they would side with Netanyahu and Barak. "This business has become nutty and insane," one of them said. "The country is losing its mind."
In private conversations, Barak says the tenure of Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as acting chief of staff, which the defense minister has suggested, will anyway not last more than a week. Three at most. Barak promises that when all the parameters of Ashkenazi's behavior - ethical, normative, even professional - become known, the public will understand his position. He was asked if he would provide details about his suspicions against Ashkenazi in next Sunday's cabinet meeting in order to persuade the ministers. As of yesterday, Barak did not plan to do so.
He drew his interlocutors' attention to a sensational report broadcast yesterday morning on Army Radio, according to which Ashkenazi tried to help his longtime friend Boaz Harpaz make a business trip to Venezuela, contrary to the recommendations of security and intelligence officials, who feared that Harpaz would fall into the hands of terrorists. Barak and his associates are convinced that Ashkenazi wanted to distance Harpaz from Israel so that he would not divulge embarrassing details in his trial about his relationship with the chief of staff over the document that began as the "Galant document" and then became the "Harpaz document." "That is only part of what I meant when I said what I did about Ashkenazi," Barak told confidants.
Sources in the Prime Minister's Office on Wednesday seemed to support Barak's approach. And he has no intention of folding; Ashkenazi's term will not be extended. The minister is deeply sorry about Galant. He remembers and knew officers who were not exactly pure as the driven snow - Ariel Sharon, Rafael Eitan, Moshe Dayan, to mention a few - but no one was abused the way Galant was abused. Moses and King David also sinned in their youth, but the People of Israel chose them as their saviors, despite their transgressions.
According to a joke popular in the Knesset, deputy ministers get media coverage twice: when they are appointed and when they leave. In the middle of the week, the deputy education minister, MK Meir Porush, left not only his post but also the Knesset, as a result of a rotation agreement in United Torah Judaism. Regrettably, no one noticed.
Yesterday,the Haredi paper Bakehila published an open letter from former MK Porush to his late father, Rabbi Menachem Porush. In it, Porush talks about the great suffering he endured while serving for two years under Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar from Likud.
"Dear father," the younger Porush wrote, "I have gone through two very difficult years as deputy minister of education. Today, now I am out of the ministry, I can testify to you that ultra-Orthodox Judaism never before had a minister of education who, under the cover of the allegation that a High Court of Justice ruling was in danger, undermined the achievements of Haredi Judaism one by one."
Sa'ar, Porush continues, "who was supposed to be in charge of the education of all the children of Israel, showed no interest in the hundreds of thousands of Haredi children. They were not on his radar screen ... You undoubtedly remember how a few days after we took up our post, I told you that I had suggested, in friendship, that he visit the homes of the Torah sages during Pesach ... He rejected the suggestion outright. Subsequently, that was his working model. His message was, 'I don't want to meet with rabbis.'"
Porush does not reveal to his father why he did not act like a martyr and resign, in protest against Sa'arism. He does not tell his late father about Sa'ar's protracted refusal to accede to his deputy's repeated requests to recognize the Pirhei Degel organization (which happens to be headed by Porush's brother ) as a youth movement, contrary to the criteria of the Education Ministry. He does not enlighten Menachem of blessed memory about the fact that after he took an independent stand, which conflicted with that of the minister, on the issue of the school for religious girls in Emmanuel, Sa'ar prohibited him from replying to parliamentary questions in the Knesset - one of the main tasks of a deputy minister. Well, in heaven they know everything.
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