Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's declaration of support for his foreign minister was relayed to the media about two-and-a-half hours after Avigdor Lieberman's possible indictment was made public, on Wednesday. The dry formulation sent by the premier's office conceals serious concerns about the future. Netanyahu doesn't have a clue about all of Lieberman's future political aspirations, but he does know one thing: The master plan of the Yisrael Beiteinu leader is to succeed Netanyahu as leader of the Israeli right.
A politician who is determined to be head of the country's right wing cannot rush to topple an incumbent right-wing government. It is bound to fall at some point, due to one pretext or another, in any case. In the past two years, Lieberman has accumulated enough reasons to unseat Netanyahu. He seeks to prove to Likud voters that Yisrael Beiteinu is the real Likud. For this reason, he added Uzi Landau, and also Orly Levy-Abekasis (daughter of veteran Likud politician David Levy ) to his Knesset list, on the eve of the last elections.
Until recently, the prevailing view was that Lieberman would use one of the bills relating to state and religion as a pretext for making his move - for example, the general conversion law or the army conversion law. But it seems that for the time being he has decided to forgo this option. This week he even put on a skullcap and received a blessing from the revered Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a Haredi posek (legal authority ) from Bnei Brak.
What is left, in terms of political maneuvering room, is the security-diplomatic realm. It was no coincidence that Lieberman focused on this sphere in his speech on Wednesday to party members. He has apparently developed a keen interest in the recent escalation of fighting on the southern border, and the relative calm that has followed. Ahead of his party's convention this week, he recalled a forgotten item in Yisrael Beiteinu's coalition agreement with Likud, which stipulates that the government will take steps to "destroy the Hamas regime in Gaza." The next time violence in the south escalates, Lieberman and his confederates will likely demand that Israel launch a war, right then and there. Meanwhile, as long as Netanyahu does not veer too far left on war and peace issues, Lieberman can present himself as a "security activist," as the patron of the south's residents. In so doing, he will maintain a presence in the media that deflects attention away from the criminal charges he now faces.
Persons close to Lieberman say that he will follow the example of Tzachi Hanegbi - who was relatively compliant in dealings with prosecutors and ended up with a comparatively light sentence for commiting perjury - rather than the examples of Moshe Katsav, Aryeh Deri or Ehud Olmert, who hunkered down relentlessly in the trenches, and actively challenged prosecutors. Katsav is on his way to prison; Deri has been in exile in the political wilderness for many long years; and Olmert is piling up criminal accusations at a dizzying pace.
Anyone who thought Lieberman would quit the government angrily after an indictment (still subject to a hearing ) was submitted against him was wrong. At some future point, if an indictment comes, he will have to decide what's more expedient: to work out a plea bargain soon, which will mitigate potential punishment and allow him to run in the next elections, or to run for the Knesset while still standing trial. Apparently, he will have no third option.
Meanwhile, relations between Netanyahu and Lieberman are extremely tense. For example, at Wednesday's Yisrael Beiteinu meeting, Lieberman announced at the beginning that someone suggested he invite Justin Bieber to the gathering. "What can you do - I prefer Arik Sinai," Lieberman said, sarcastically. (Apparently, the Netanyahus were supposed to have hosted the young Canadian superstar in their home. Or maybe they weren't supposed to. Or they cancelled the invitation at the last moment, or they didn't, because Bieber refused to meet Jewish teenagers from Sderot. Or not. )
Peretz on top?
Amir Peretz woke up at home on Wednesday, still exhausted, at 6:15 A.M. The day before, he had staged a press conference, at which he declared, for the third time in the last six years, that he will be vying for Labor's top position. Then that morning he got up, looked at Haaretz and was surprised to find his name highlighted on the front page, in big letters. Even he had not expected that the announcement of his candidacy would receive such prominent coverage.
Exactly at that moment, a hundred kilometers to the north, Isaac Herzog - who is also running for the top spot in Labor - opened the door to his home in Tzahala, Tel Aviv, en route to morning prayers at the neighborhood synagogue, on the yahrzeit (annual anniversary of the death ) for his late father, Chaim Herzog, Israel's sixth president. Herzog also found his name appearing prominently on the front page. For a second, he didn't know which Herzog was in the news. When he grasped the scope of the problem he was reading about, he tried to awaken his aides, who were apparently still sleeping. He was in the synagogue when his mobile phone started ringing nonstop, but he had to finish the prayers.
The story, based on Haaretz's "Israel File" of secret WikiLeaks documents, quoted comments Herzog is reported as making to a top U.S. diplomat five years ago, in a private discussion. Referring to Peretz's bid for the top Labor spot at the time, Herzog commented that he is perceived by the Israeli public as being "inexperienced, aggressive and Moroccan." Herzog is also quoted as saying that Labor's Knesset list at the time "includes Ashkenazi members [of European descent] to balance out Peretz's Sephardi [Middle Eastern] background" (apparently there is some confusion, however, over this part of the quotation, since it is attributed to Peretz in the document).
One may assume that Herzog was referring in these remarks to a question posed to him by the American diplomat, Dr. Robert Danin, regarding general perceptions of Peretz. Anyone who recalls public discourse concerning the latter at the time will agree that Herzog was expressing a primitive way of looking at the world, an outlook that should have disappeared decades ago but was nonetheless present in 2006. But it is outlandish to say that Herzog invented this discourse.
Moreover, five years ago, Peretz, in fact, searched for Ashkenazi politicians who would fill up Labor's Knesset candidates list, along with himself. That is one of the reasons why he courted Avishay Braverman, Ami Ayalon and Shelly Yachimovich. The three joined forces with Peretz, but that did not help him: Some seven Knesset seats, manned by veteran Labor voters, followed Shimon Peres, who quit Labor for Kadima at the time, and ended up in the hands of Kadima. Peretz did, however, bring Labor 19 Knesset mandates - a result that no Labor leader could dream of today.
Perhaps by chance, the WikiLeaks affair has struck Herzog about two weeks before Mimouna, the holiday celebrated by Jews of North African descent in Israel a day after the end of Passover. Herzog is not a racist, far from it. But he has the image of being a political "prince," as the son of a president and a member of the professional elite as a partner in one of the country's most prestigious law firms (at least until he entered politics ). And primarily, the image of being a quintessential Ashkenazi.
Peretz acted wisely on Wednesday. He kept mum in public. For his part, Herzog, who made stridently defensive media appearances, came off as someone who had seen a ghost. "People know that this is not me, that I don't think that way, that I don't speak that way," Herzog explained. By the evening, the decision to indict Lieberman pending a hearing was announced, and nudged him out of the headlines.
Some of Peretz's associates tried to defend Herzog, but Peretz would hear nothing of it: "In another country, a press conference would be held the same evening, and the person would announce the withdrawal of his candidacy," Peretz told his aides. "Had Herzog said that I am perceived as being aggressive and inexperienced, that would have been one thing. But to say that I am perceived as a Moroccan? Being Moroccan is a character trait?"
Peretz went on to describe Herzog as having a "lawyer's" character with a "poker face." As someone who tells people what they want to hear, he flatters, strokes egos - and then says the opposite a minute later. Yesterday, Peretz also told his associates that he has no problem with Ashkenazi Jews.
In the 1908s, when Chaim Herzog was president and Aura Herzog was the First Lady, the couple visited Sderot. Since the town had no hotel, Peretz, who was then the young head of the city council, recalled this week how he offered to host the couple in his house. Peretz and his wife moved to another room, and the Herzogs slept in the master bedroom. Also, Peretz added, he had no problem appointing the younger Herzog's brother Michael to serve as his ministry chief of staff when he was defense minister.
Three weeks ago, Peretz had a private conversation with Herzog, at the latter's request. "Amir, you're a worthy public official, and I have great esteem for you," Herzog said, "but I don't think that right now the public will agree to choose you as head of the Labor Party. You understand that there are some old scars that have yet to heal."
Last night, after this newspaper went to press, the two were supposed to meet in Peretz's Tel Aviv office. One can imagine Peretz saying to Herzog: "You are a worthy public official, and I have great esteem for you, but after what you have said, I don't think the public will agree to choose you as head of the Labor Party. You have to understand, the scars are still fresh."
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