Text size

The guest seats in the Knesset plenum are taken by relatives of the outgoing and incoming prime ministers, families of captive and missing soldiers and a few Jewish-American millionaires - including Ron Lauder, Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Morton Zuckerman and a representative of Rupert Murdoch - here to celebrate with Netanyahu on his return to power. No one bothered to provide the latter with English translations of the speeches. The atmosphere is far from festive, the plenum half-empty. There's no sense of history in the making, democracy in action, but rather of a long and weary journey coming to an end.

First to ascend the dais is Ehud Olmert. He delivers a defensive speech, summing up his tenure as prime minister as well as his political career. "Even if it happened sooner than I had hoped, and under a cloud of circumstances that are well-known, I don't carry even a trace of bitterness, anger, or complaint," the outgoing prime minister promises, for starters. No complaining? Is that the Olmert that we knew, or did they bring a double? This suspicion clears fairly soon, however, as Olmert confronts the press in his usual manner, albeit perhaps in subtler tones. "The multitude of slanderers by mouth and pen" apparently gave "a free propaganda trophy to the Hezbollah." Those who criticized the Gaza war are mere "pen pushers." To Olmert, everyone else is always wrong.

Olmert the lawyer fiercely defends his government: The Second Lebanese War was an epic success, which pushed Hezbollah away from the border and restored South Lebanon. Operation Cast Lead created the conditions for quiet on the southern front. Other, covert operations were of "dramatic strategic value," he says, dropping a fat hint about the strikes on the Syrian reactor and on the convoys in Sudan, attributed to Israel by the foreign media. The peace policy he conducted with foreign minister Tzipi Livni, based on "two states for two peoples," gave Israel the support for its military actions in Lebanon and Gaza. Peace with the Palestinians is yet to come, but the gaps can be bridged and the Syrian track must be maintained. "I hope and believe that history will present this government's contribution in the positive balance it earned," Olmert concludes.

Livni, still seated at the cabinet table, sits up when she hears Olmert implicitly supporting her decision not to join the new government, wishing her to be a "responsible opposition." Then he changes a subject and she sinks back into her chair.

The plenum gradually fills up, and the Knesset members in attendance honor the departing prime minister with silence, saving the interruptions for his successor's speech.

"I do not stand here with the glee of victory," Netanyahu begins, "but with a sense of grave responsibility in testing times." His face is duly serious, unenthusiastic; this is no election rally speech. He wants to appear statesmanlike, grave. Netanyahu focuses on the country's two main problems, security and the economy. They were caused not by his predecessors, but rather came about as a result of "enormous international developments." He does not refer to any past Israeli leader or to Winston Churchill, choosing instead to quote the Psalms, Israel's Declaration of Independence and the letters of his late, legendary brother, Yoni Netanyahyu. Their father, Benzion Netanyahu, leans forward attentively as he speaks. The incoming prime minister praises Olmert mostly for those secret military operations, while taking care to highlight his own participation.

His messages are outlined thickly enough to afford him considerable room to maneuver. Israel will defend itself from Iran and radical Islam, seeks peace with the entire Arab and Muslim world and is committed to a triple process with the Palestinians - economic, military and political. Ambassadors will report to their superiors that Netanyahu promised to conduct negotiations toward a final agreement but did not mention a Palestinian state, or, for that matter, Syria. When Netanyahu speaks about his government he is heckled by Kadima MKs, lampooning him for creating the largest cabinet in Israeli history. The Likud MKs reply in kind.

But the heckles are just the warmup act to Livni's first speech as leader of the opposition. The former foreign minister who exhausted listeners with long foreign policy sermons turned out Tuesday to be a true lioness. She lit into Netanyahu with a scathing attack, chastising him for betraying the economic principles that he himself preached by bloating the government with "ministers of nothing and deputy ministers of naught." She refers to coalition agreements "cooked up in dark corners even before the election," hinting at political cooperation between Netanyahu and Shas, which denied her the premiership after Olmert stepped down.

Livni attacked Shas as a sectarian party encouraging unemployment and corruption, and criticized the handing of law enforcement portfolios to a party whose chairman is under criminal investigation (Avigdor Lieberman).

But the real insults were saved for Ehud Barak, "the man who built his political wealth through fundraising for nonprofits and his personal wealth through his political connections." In a neat piece of timing, Barak happens to leave the hall just before this part in her speech, returning just as it ends, even shaking her hand with no apparent after she left the podium.

Livni is trying to position herself as a fighting opposition, stalwart of principle and law against the opportunists. She wants to ride the crest of public discontent with Netanyahu's bloated government, to challenge its legitimacy and shorten its days. The new role suits her, and she has the energy and motivation for a fight. But if she maintains such verbal volleys, she will have few political friends and partners, even if Netanyahu comes tumbling down.