The telephone rings. "Soon there will be elections between Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni," the booming voice announces in a pre-recorded message, belittling in its omission of Ehud Barak. "If you are leaning toward backing Netanyahu and the Likud, press one."
No other options are given. Silence. The seconds pass. The pre-recorded voice breaks first. "The system is standing by for your response." Silence. More seconds tick by. "The system is standing by for your response." So let it stand by. Another pause. "The system is standing by for your response."
Do I detect a hint of impatience in the plea? That's not realistic, since this is the same recording. Silence. More seconds. Netanyahu's patience is wearing thin. The message repeats a fourth time. Finally, the line disconnects.
The central issue of the upcoming elections will be the credibility of parties' leaders. Livni, who said and did, or refused to do the opposite of what she said, has a distinct advantage over Barak and Netanyahu. The former irreversibly damaged his credibility when he broke his pledge to quit Ehud Olmert's government by the Winograd report release date. His promises are meaningless. He decides whether and when to keep them. Barak is correct in stating that polls can change and be proven false, but this is accurate in both directions. The Labor Party might attain less, not more, than the predictions reflect.
Basking in the glory of the Labor Party all-stars is a joke. Its present leadership has no qualitative edge over Tzachi Hanegbi and Roni Bar-On of Kadima, or Silvan Shalom and Gideon Sa'ar of Likud. None of Labor's ministers have convinced us we should renew their contracts. The best members of the Labor faction are outside the government, and Barak wants to keep them there, as prescribed in his stillborn agreement with Livni.
If Barak's presence at the head of the Labor slate is not reason enough to vote for it, then Netanyahu's seat at the top of the Likud list is reason to be wary of it. By the time the next government is formed, 13 years will have passed since Netanyahu reached the premiership, and a decade will have gone by since he lost it. Netanyahu has matured, and he claims he has learned from his mistakes, which he attributes to inexperience, but the issues of his personal and political credibility remain. Countries that are either bold or desperate are prepared to give such a person yet another opportunity to mislead them.
Netanyahu does not wait for an opportunity: He is already misleading. When he attacks the person he claims "will divide Jerusalem," as opposed to him, he does not reveal the entire truth. It is interesting to know if, by Netanyahu's logic, Silvio Berlusconi is "dividing Rome" by reconciling himself with the Vatican's sovereign presence in the Italian capital. If Netanyahu tries to form a government, he will be faced with a simple choice: agree to the division of Jerusalem, or dictate government guidelines that preclude Livni and Barak from joining him, leaving him with Avigdor Lieberman and company, a diplomatic stalemate, a military confrontation and then, after the war, Israel being dragged into a settlement that calls for the division of Jerusalem.
The settlement, with or without a war, will by necessity be regional. General Avraham Tamir formulated the outlines 30 years ago. Now Syria is announcing that it intends to move from Turkish-mediated indirect talks to direct talks, with the United States acting as a go-between. Washington's next administration will eagerly sign on, hoping Syria will offer a quid pro quo on the Iranian, Iraqi and Lebanese fronts. The Syrians will not let the Palestinians veto a separate peace with Israel, but they also will not be willing to accept being portrayed as abandoning the Palestinians to the mercy of Israeli rejectionism. Without Jerusalem, there will be no progress on the Palestinian track.
The key state backing Syria and a regional peace settlement is Saudi Arabia, Israel's hidden neighbor, just a few kilometers from Eilat. Colonel (res.) Yitzhak Segev, whose diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have assisted more than one prime minister, has tried to promote a diplomatic outline that, with the blessing of Israel, Egypt and the United States, would give the Saudis a pivotal role at the fore of moderate states that can pressure Hamas, grant an Arab-Muslim stamp of legitimacy to Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, and work to weaken Iran's influence.
On the issue of Jerusalem, the Segev plan calls for maintaining the status quo, "whose framework was and will remain leaving sovereignty over the holy basin in the hands of God." The Muslim representatives of God will be Saudi Arabia (in exchange for renouncing the "right of return" for refugees), Jordan and Palestine. Saudi Arabia will fund a billion-dollar-per-year development plan for the Jerusalem area, "in order to create within 10 years the necessary infrastructure for widening the scope of tourism in Jerusalem and for hosting 25 million tourists per year, instead of the 3 million today."
Ideas along the lines of the Segev plan will provide food for thought for the next American administration, whose attitude toward Israel is expected to be even more uncompromising than that of the Clinton administration, which forced Netanyahu to fold up the tents in Hebron at the Wye Plantation conference. Netanyahu, like Livni and Barak, will not be able to rebuff creative proposals for the division of Jerusalem. He certainly knows this. Perhaps he is mistaken in thinking that the Israeli public is too stupid to understand it.
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