One day last November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was surprised to discover that his government was energetically building in Jerusalem's Gilo neighborhood, beyond the pre-1967 Green Line. This was right in the middle of a very delicate and tense period vis-a-vis the American administration. As it happened, a local planning and building committee had casually approved the construction in Gilo of 900 housing units. Netanyahu was subjected to a barrage of condemnations from around the world, the most resounding one from U.S. President Barack Obama.
The premier tried to spare himself any further surprises. He asked for a discreet red-telephone hotline to be set up between himself and Interior Minister Eli Yishai - like the line that connects Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat with the military secretary in the Prime Minister's Bureau. Naive as he is, Netanyahu hoped this would help.
But the prime minister just didn't know with whom he was dealing. Shas chairman Yishai is an extreme right-winger. He has always voted against diplomatic agreements related to peace with the Arabs; he opposes any compromise on Jerusalem. Moreover, he is the rival of the No. 2 man in his own faction: Housing and Construction Minister Ariel Atias, who helps build a lot of apartments for the ultra-Orthodox. Meanwhile, in the background, the specter of Aryeh Deri's return to the party hovers over all.
Officials in the Interior Ministry know Yishai's positions. Were someone from another party sitting there, they would not have convened a meeting of the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee on the day the vice president of the United States was visiting the capital. Yishai said he didn't know, he hadn't been told about the meeting. Only a minister who doesn't want to know, wouldn't know. A minister who is aware he is sitting on a keg of dynamite would, presumably, from his first day in office, have his ears open, act carefully and see to it that the message filters down.
In his second term, Netanyahu was supposed to be an authoritative prime minister who would not tolerate such incidents. It emerges, however, that he has learned nothing. Up until Tuesday, he had one real friend at the top of the U.S. administration: Vice President Joe Biden. Unlike Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and a string of other top administration officials, all of whom have some account to settle with him - there had never been any bad blood between Netanyahu and Biden. Until Tuesday, that is.
"Beyond the embarrassment and the condemnation, which could fade with time, a problem has developed here in the relations between the countries, which were in any case shaky already," said one diplomatic observer, who is very familiar with what is happening in Washington.
"Netanyahu's behavior only further diminishes [the Americans'] desire, motivation and trust with respect to holding a real discussion with him about Iran. They see him as unreliable, someone who is not serious - as 'tricky Bibi.' Even if they believe him when he says he didn't know [about the housing units in Gilo] and was surprised - this still doesn't get him out of trouble. Now they are certain no one is in charge here, there is no one to work with. And even if they do reach satisfactory agreements with Netanyahu, someone from the coalition, or some official or bureaucrat, always comes along to torpedo things and pour oil on the fire."
Almost a year ago, on March 31, 2009, the Knesset held a marathon session, at the end of which, minutes before midnight, a majority of legislators voiced support for the establishment of the second Netanyahu government. On that solemn day, the prime minister's people invested tremendous efforts to prevent the vote from spilling over into the following day - April Fool's Day. But that didn't help in any case.
If we write off his bureau's blunders, the cold shoulder from Obama and the Sara affairs, it could be said that the prime minister made it through his first year without any major upheavals. The coalition has evinced impressive stability, the economy is in fairly good shape and so is the security situation. But all this is about to end now, in Netanyahu's second year.
When the premier spoke in the Knesset plenum Tuesday afternoon, at the session commemorating the pre-state right-wing heroes of the resistance to the British who had been hanged, he seemed exhausted and worried - and this was before the housing fiasco erupted.
The Likud Party Central Committee will convene next week to discuss the building freeze in the settlements. MK Danny Danon will try to get a resolution passed, obligating Netanyahu to resume building the moment the 10-month freeze ends, at the end of September. Such a resolution, if adopted by the party, need not necessarily interest Netanyahu: He can continue to avoid building if the diplomatic situation makes this advisable. But that will cause problems for those ministers and Likud MKs who desire to continue to support him.
Another time bomb ticking at the premier's door is the issue of religion and state. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman needs to provide his voters from the Russian sector with a pound of flesh. In the meantime, he isn't interested in dismantling the coalition - but if he becomes convinced that his voters are turning their backs on him, he will not hesitate to use the doomsday weapon.
Lieberman is working exactly according to the coalition agreement, which set clear deadlines and timetables for addressing matters of religion and state. He also reached an agreement with Shas on the reform of conversion legislation, but at the last minute party chairman Yishai changed his mind, under pressure from the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
Ministers from the Labor Party also woke up one morning to find that the conversion issue, which was central to them in the coalition agreement, had become the private domain of Yisrael Beiteinu and the ultra-Orthodox. And if that were not enough, the incident surrounding the announcement of new construction in the ultra-Orthodox community of Ramat Shlomo and the Biden debacle also hit the fan this week. The Labor ministers, once Netanyahu's faithful partners on the left, are considering setting a deadline on their continued participation in his government. This was expressed by Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon on Army Radio yesterday, and Netanyahu's good friend, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, also said something in the same vein this week. On Monday, at the Labor Knesset faction meeting, Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog declared that six months from now, in September at the latest, Labor will decide if it is staying on or not. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was sitting next to Herzog, didn't say a word.
The father, the son and the threat
The 100th birthday celebration for Prof. Benzion Netanyahu at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem this week was an extraordinary event. The most moving speech of the evening was delivered by the prime minister, who spoke with a kind of admiration, love and respect that not many sons feel for their fathers. "This was one of the few times I believed every word he said," one person in attendance commented.
In 1937, related Netanyahu, in an article about Theodor Herzl, his father predicted the Holocaust that would befall the Jewish people in Europe. "This same prescience," said the prime minister, "led my father to say decades ago that the threat to world peace would come from those parts of the Muslim world where oil, terror and nuclear energy mix. It also led him to say to me, in the early 1990s, that Muslim extremists would try to bring down the twin towers in New York - a prediction I included in one of my books."
After the tributes, the evening's honoree stepped up to the podium. In contrast to others blessed with longevity who tend to sink into nostalgia at events of this sort, Prof. Netanyahu did not say a single word about the past or about himself. He spoke for only a few minutes, from a prepared text, and about only one topic: the existential danger facing the Jewish people.
Here are a few excerpts from his speech: "I want to make a number of observations concerning the continued existence of the Jewish people in light of the threats of its imminent, declared destruction by its enemies ... The increasing threats are obvious, threats of the destruction of the Jewish people. From the Iranian side, the promise is heard that within a short time an end will be put to the Zionist movement and there will be no more Zionists in the world ... Very significant things are liable to happen in the encounter between Iran and nuclear weapons. The Jewish people is showing the world today how a nation should behave when it is facing an existential danger: Look the danger straight in the eye, calmly weigh what should be done, and be prepared to enter the fray the moment the chances of success seem reasonable."
The following day, a person who had attended the event remarked: "Knowing the relationship between Bibi and his father, knowing the influence the father has on the son, and after having heard the prime minister's emotional words about his father's ability to foresee the future - I felt as though I was listening to an operational order from Benzion. As though the die had already been cast, at least within the Netanyahu family."
Livni and Lily
This month, 10 years will have elapsed since the death of Lily Sharon, the woman who did not live to see the fulfillment of the great dream she shared with her husband: She died a year before Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister, and eventually became one of the most beloved of those who have held that position.
Every year, toward winter's end, the annual memorial service is held for her, on the hill of anemones where she is buried opposite the Sharons' Sycamore Ranch.
In addition to the core group of personal friends who knew Lily well, from time to time politicians are also invited. The politicians invited change frequently, according to the kind of relationship they had with Ariel Sharon during the years he lived there - or the ties they have had with sons Omri and Gilad, after he was no longer around.
The annual event was held last Friday, and for the first time Kadima MK Tzipi Livni attended. Apart from her, only one other politician was present: MK Shai Hermesh of Kadima, a family friend and neighbor. Unlike Lily Sharon's relationship with Hermesh, there had hardly been any acquaintanceship between Livni and Lily; Livni entered the Knesset only a year before Lily's death. At that time she was actually part of the Netanyahu camp, who in his first term as prime minister appointed her head of the government-owned Companies Authority. In the 1999 primaries for the Likud chairmanship, Livni had supported Ehud Olmert, who ran against Sharon.
Not long ago, there was mention of the possibility that Gilad Sharon would run on the Kadima list for the next Knesset. He has published articles criticizing Netanyahu, and acquaintances have noted his increasing desire to enter public life. All of this supports the feeling among certain political circles that Sharon may make the move, even though no final decision seems to have been made yet.
Sources close to Gilad Sharon have, as usual, denied any connection between those rumors and the fact that Livni was at the memorial event. And she could not explain why she had never been invited before, and why she had been this time. "It's true," she said, "that I have a good relationship with Gilad."
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