Talks with the Americans over the end of the construction freeze and Palestinian threats to break off direct talks after barely one month continued over the holiday and over the weekend. The Americans can't understand how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the compromise prepared by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which would have had Israel extend the moratorium for 60 days in return for favors from Obama. Netanyahu can't understand why he has been pushed into a corner: He called a 10-month freeze, stuck to it, and granted the Palestinians some economic and security relief. Why don't they complain to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who wasted nine months of the freeze with evasive tricks?
In terms of results, the moratorium was a failure. It greatly delayed the Palestinians' agreement to negotiate. Now it's threatening to end negotiations completely.
"What I was afraid would happen, has happened," said Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud ). "We made an attempt to show goodwill, build relations, but I warned Netanyahu after the decision was made that it would end badly. He sat in my office and I said to him: Bibi, no one in the world, no one, will accept us stopping construction to draw the Palestinians into negotiations, and then starting again during negotiations. It is completely illogical. Who would accept this? I also said this to [army Chief of Staff Gabi] Ashkenazi, and to minister [without portfolio] Benny Begin, who supported the decision."
What did Begin say?
"His logic was that the moratorium decision was useful because it did not differentiate between settlement blocs and isolated settlements, as Olmert's government did, and when building was renewed, it would be renewed everywhere."
What did Netanyahu say?
"He said to me: Don't repeat this outside so you won't give people ideas."
Rivlin is concerned that by ending the freeze, which Rivlin himself supported, Netanyahu has trapped himself into having to compensate the Palestinians even more. The man who worked for this so hard with the Americans is Barak. He has two interests: advancing the peace process, and maintaining peace talks - because if the talks break down, he and his party will have trouble staying in the government. Barak has admitted this in private conversations.
If it were up to Barak, he would immediately renew the moratorium. He is not ignoring the troubles facing Netanyahu, whom he calls "trustworthy and brave." But when Barak says it is a great mistake to let the negotiations stall over an extra 60-day freeze, he is putting his weapon on the table. Barak believes there are several ways to renew the talks without officially renewing the freeze.
From the minute he entered the Foreign Ministry, Israel's glass house, Avigdor Lieberman has been busy throwing stones at the world. He seeks to become leader of the Israeli right. His bizarre speech at the UN General Assembly, in which he mocked Israel's diplomacy and negotiations, was part of his election campaign. The Yisrael Beiteinu leader read his party's platform and then went on to a series of Israeli television interviews, and the next day with the morning radio shows.
"Most of the public thinks like I do," he said calmly. He's right.
If the peace process advances, Lieberman is in the best position to inherit Netanyahu's place as the leader of the right, since this would put Netanyahu farther to the left. If it fails, he will say: I told you so!
A similar speech delivered a few weeks ago at a party affair aroused a lukewarm response. He needed more, and he got it. The international community doesn't pay attention to him in any case, and that's just fine, because he doesn't pay attention to them either. The criticism from the left gives him points with right-wing voters. He's got it all figured out. The fingerprint of Arthur Finkelstein, his political advisor, is much in evidence here.
The embarrassment he causes Netanyahu is just a bonus. They've had an account to settle ever since Netanyahu sent Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezar to meet the Turkish foreign minister without telling Lieberman. They have other accounts to settle as well, and can be expected to do so during the Knesset's winter term. Two months ago, Lieberman met a senior Likud figure and said, "It will be very interesting for you in the next Knesset session."
Lieberman knows Netanyahu doesn't have the courage to fire him and the 15 Yisrael Beiteinu MKs. He knows that he can spit in his face, embarrass him at the UN and damage Israel's image, and Netanyahu will mumble that it's just a misunderstanding, an "inappropriate" speech, a blessed rainfall.
Support from the outside
Twice last month Kadima leader Tzipi Livni called Netanyahu. The second time was Monday. Right after the phone call, Livni's communications advisor Gil Messing announced to the media that she had said: "I and Kadima support every decision that continues negotiations, and oppose any step that damages the future of these negotiations. If Netanyahu makes decisions that break up the talks, Kadima will view this severely and act accordingly."
The first time Livni called Netanyahu was not publicized. This was at the beginning of the month, right after the terror attack by Kiryat Arba, in which four Israelis were killed. Netanyahu was in Washington prior to a summit. "I want to strengthen him," she said.
The different treatment Livni awarded these two conversations is not an accident. Her silence, which she attributes to not wanting to damage the negotiations in these sensitive days, will soon come to an end.
But this week she still preferred silence. "I gave him my word that I would continue to stand on the sidelines without criticizing, and I intend to stand by my word," she said. "These are critical days. I am not part of the negotiations so I am not telling him what to do, and which decision to make, whether to continue the freeze. I've told him I will support whatever decision he makes, so long as this leads to continued negotiations. And I tell him that if the opposite occurs, we will attack him. Hard."
"I promised him support, the 28 Kadima MKs, for any process that supports negotiations," she said in private conversation. "He cannot choose a government of [what he calls] 'natural partners' and in the same breath blame this government for the freeze. If he really wants to move forward, he knows he has Kadima's support outside or in. As long as he advances, we won't bring him down. We will go along with him."
She tells every foreign leader she meets: Don't believe Netanyahu that he wants to but can't. He can because we are with him.
"What I want him to do," she said this week, in a meeting of her close associates, "is to say publicly what happened: that there is almost no building going in isolated settlements or in Jerusalem. He agreed to accept limitations, so he should make them public. But despite the temptation, I don't want to advise him to do this or that. Let's wait a few days. In the end it is also a question of management - and his management is shocking.
"Netanyahu refused to continue the negotiations from Annapolis," she says, "and we paid the price. Now his role is to create conditions that restore faith and continue the talks. Whatever he does, I will support him. If he is worried that I will bring him down because I want to be prime minister, then there is nothing to worry about. I got into politics to advance peace, and if it's the last thing I do, and not as prime minister, then it's enough."
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