1. The cabinet hears it on the radio
A few of the participants in the cabinet meeting two days ago remarked on something curious: They had been presented with the annual assessments of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service, which included the conclusion that as long as Yasser Arafat remains within the Palestinian Authority, the PA's behavior cannot be expected to change at all. The ministers felt that the emphasis put on this point differed somewhat from the opinion they were given two weeks before by army intelligence - namely, that the Oslo process had failed. Hence, this week the cabinet members were considering the intelligence picture in terms of the country's basic situation, and not dwelling on the nature and extent of the Israel Defense Forces operation in Nablus that began several hours before their meeting got under way.
The prime minister and the new defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, decided to launch Operation "Wheels of Momentum" in wake of the hair-raising murders at Kibbutz Metzer. The new foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, played only a passive part in the decision-making process, and was essentially informed of the decision after it was made. The rest of the cabinet members were even less involved: They heard about it on the radio.
Netanyahu did not appear perturbed by this. His position is well known: He favors a tough military policy against Palestinian terror and so did not have any misgivings about the extent or planned duration of the operation. Unlike his predecessor, Shimon Peres, he doesn't think that his role is to halt or rein in the military initiatives proposed by the defense establishment. And the other cabinet members long ago became accustomed to acting as powerless figureheads in these situations; they automatically cede any ability they might have to influence the type of military actions taken in the name of the State of Israel. Minister Natan Sharansky was the only one who had any qualms about the specifics of the operation, and he went no further than to express this quietly to one of Ariel Sharon's aides.
Full formal backing exists for this decision-making method: Over a year ago, the cabinet authorized the prime minister and defense minister to decide upon military actions inside the Palestinian Authority that are designed to combat terror. The justification for this decision was the need to enable the IDF to respond quickly to terror incidents without complicating things by first convening all the cabinet members for a meeting. This week, the IDF embarked on the operation in Nablus just two days after the attack in Metzer. This operation, which promises to be wide-ranging and of long duration, was quickly approved by the new, like-minded political echelon composed of Sharon and Shaul Mofaz. In such circumstances, activation of the previously approved decision-making procedure is obviously all it takes to send a large number of IDF forces into Nablus.
2. Coming out of the closet
A reminder of the need for effective oversight mechanisms for IDF operations in the territories, and of the price that Israeli politicians and military officials may pay for their responsibility for the army's actions, came early this week at a meeting convened by the prime minister. Sharon, Mofaz, Netanyahu, Meir Sheetrit, Dan Meridor and a group of officers and senior officials met to discuss how to contend with the growing international trend of charging Israelis with "war crimes." Until now, official Israel has avoided dealing with the problem; the tendency was to try to ignore it or, at most, to hold some quiet, unpublicized consultations in small forums - the presumption being that openly dealing with the issue would amount to a show of weakness and vulnerability. So this week's meeting was a veritable coming out of the closet: It was an acknowledgment that the most senior echelon in Israel is addressing the problem and seeking ways to deal with it.
This approach is necessary because openness and public discussion is the most efficient way to fend off unjustified legal attacks on Israelis, just as it is the most efficient means of preventing inappropriate behavior on the part of the IDF during confrontations with the Palestinians. The internationalization of the law is a result of the global village phenomenon: When the media is present everywhere and broadcasts information to every corner of the world, the idea of trying people for war crimes becomes much more practicable. The ubiquity of the media cannot be dealt with by hiding and running from reality.
At the meeting with the prime minister, two potential approaches emerged: one was to adopt a strong stance and act unfazed by the nuisance of interference by international tribunals. Advocates of taking this attitude (Benjamin Netanyahu was among the most prominent) say that Israel should emulate the American administration, which handles the issue more or less this way: The United States defines its own national interests, determines the rules of the game by which it exercises its right to self-defense and is committed to preserving human rights. Therefore, it does not have to answer to anyone for its assassination of six al Qaeda operatives in Yemen.
Others, especially the experts from the legal establishment and Minister Meridor, argued that Israel should take a different approach: It should encourage international discussion about the legitimacy of the concept of internationalizing the law, highlight the problems this could entail (possible acts of vengeance by rival nations or individuals), and underscore the disruption this causes to international life (when even serving political leaders are exposed to such lawsuits). Accordingly, they advised the IDF to take the inevitable media presence into account when preparing for military operations, i.e. - to choose its tools of operation wisely (to avoid using bulldozers that also crush the homes of Palestinians who aren't involved in terror, for example), and to carefully define its objectives (for instance, by showing caution when carrying out "targeted assassinations"). Adherents of this view say that Israel cannot adopt the American response as a model because it does not have the same international standing and because it must genuinely strive for "purity of arms."
3. A sweet trap
Here is how some at Benjamin Netanyahu's campaign headquarters describe Tuesday night's Likud convention, which was widely interpreted as a clear victory for Sharon: "It was a closing of the sweet trap that we set for Sharon. Over two months ago, we came to talk to him about the holding of the Likud convention and the manner in which it would be run. We sought to obtain legitimacy for Bibi's decision to run against him; to remove the stigma that Sharon and his people tried to stick us with - as if any challenge to his leadership was deserving of reproach. Our success was complete: Not only did he call on Bibi to join the government as foreign minister, but he also agreed to the stipulation that the loser in the primaries would get the No. 2 spot on the Knesset list.
"The central committee members saw just the picture we were aiming to get across: a united party striding confidently toward victory at the polls, which is having a legitimate competition for its leadership. From here on in, the two candidates will wage a serious competition over the content of the policies that they're proposing and about their respective talents."
Netanyahyu's people say that his decision to return to political life is for the long-term, that he'll remain in politics even if he loses out to Sharon. Meanwhile, Ruby Rivlin had this take on the scene at the convention: When he saw Netanyahu grasp Sharon's hand and hold it aloft, he said that Netanyahu wanted a show of unity, but he was really like the referee in a boxing ring, holding up the winner's hand.
4. Meridor's inclination
Dan Meridor's options are steadily shrinking: He has to decide between returning to the Likud and retiring from public life. All the other possibilities that presented themselves when the prime minister decided to move up the elections have now fallen by the wayside. Meridor's electoral power has never been seriously measured; but his individual standing has stood the test of time for over 20 years. His political appeal to the general public was almost tested in the previous elections when he announced that he would run for prime minister as head of the newly created Center Party, but he never reached the moment of truth: He sacrificed his aspirations of leading the party, and the country, to the ambitions and determination of Amnon Lipkin-Shahak and Yitzhak Mordechai.
In the end, he was placed third on the Center Party's list and then had to watch in dismay as the dream of founding a strong, new political force shrank to a puny little party of just six MKs and then evaporated. And after imploring the voters to choose a prime ministerial candidate who speaks the truth (unlike, say, Benjamin Netanyahu), Meridor saw this honor go to a man who was subsequently forced to withdraw from public life after being convicted of sexual harassment. On the other hand, ever since his days as Menachem Begin's cabinet secretary, Meridor has steadily acquired a reputation as a decent, intelligent, far-sighted politician with much insight and experience, and has even earned international stature. These virtues made him an influential adviser to Begin and prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, and an important minister in all the governments in which he has served.
The announcement of early elections caught Meridor at a dangerous curve in his political career. As on more than one past occasion, this time Meridor is also paying a heavy price for his main weakness - the perception that he has an overly gentle sensibility, a lack of firmness that some might even call feebleness or faintheartedness. He's not a coarse, cynical politician who crosses lines without batting an eyelash just to ensure his own survival. He's an ethical, contemplative politician who, though he may also have personal scores to settle, only does so when genuinely pushed into a corner and even then, only in a timid and indirect way. In general, he is put off by such confrontations and by the price politicians pay when they fight for status. When he became fed up with Benjamin Netanyahu's leadership and resigned from the government (and then from the Likud, in order to establish the Center Party), he felt that this was a step more daring than any he had ever taken before. But his bold move did not pay off at all as he had hoped.
In recent weeks, Meridor has been wooed with a number of offers for political mergers: Shimon Peres urged him (and others) to join a new political bloc with the Labor Party at its center. Meridor, a real son of the Revisionist movement, isn't about to be affiliated with the current incarnation of Mapai. For him, such a move would be akin to converting to Christianity. Tommy Lapid tried to entice him by agreeing to give Shinui the appearance of a new political bloc, one component of which would supposedly be a movement led by Meridor, but Meridor could not bring himself to join a party whose main, if not sole, message is hatred of the ultra-Orthodox.
Other ideas that were brought to him, or that he came up with himself, have also been disregarded, leaving him where he is now: assessing his chances of being elected in a respectable spot on the Likud's Knesset list. He still has cachet among Likud old-timers, but the big unknown is what kind of standing he has in the eyes of the central committee's new members.
The same thing that holds true for all politicians holds true for Meridor as well. What it really comes down to is personal judgment: Should he retire from public life because he got himself stuck in a corner where he lacks sufficient political power, or should he compromise with his conscience and try his luck again in the Likud, despite the fact that his current political viewpoint is a lot closer to that of Shimon Peres than of Uzi Landau? Meridor could account for this contradiction by saying that the Likud has always contained a range of outlooks: Alongside Haim Landau, there was Josef Shofman, and alongside Menachem Begin's political philosophy, there was Menachem Begin's liberal-humanist philosophy, and Tzipi Livni doesn't speak in the same voice as Limor Livnat.
Meridor's concern for the country's moral face, for respect for the rule of law and for propriety in politics is just as keen as his interest in finding ways to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For the sake of being involved in ensuring the country's future and realizing the Zionist vision, he is inclined to return to the Likud - as long as he feels he stands a reasonable chance of being elected in a good spot in the middle of the list.
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