This was the choice facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday: 1. To cave in to the extremists in the Knesset and support a fascist bill, to fuel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's "who's-the-real-leader-of-the-right" contest and expose Israel to international condemnation. 2. To show some common sense and dodge the bullet.
Miracle of miracles, Netanyahu chose the latter, at the last moment he ended the cycle of madness threatening to take over the 18th Knesset and nipped the McCarthyist committee in the bud. What prevented Netanyahu from reaching this rational, reasonable outcome a month ago, when the idea of investigating left-wing human rights organizations landed on the Likud faction's agenda? Fear. Fear of Lieberman.
For the past year, especially in the last few months, Netanyahu has been convinced that Lieberman is poised to resign, bring down his government and steal away his right-wing voters. The prime minister labors daily under that shadow.
That's why Netanyahu proposed that Likud take the lead in the investigation-committee initiative rather than following Lieberman. He later proposed that the panels investigate organizations on the right, too, but back-pedaled on that.
Now Netanyahu realized what the four feinschmeckers who were given leave to vote their conscience - cabinet ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Michael Eitan plus Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin - realized, that the bill was nothing less than a disaster for Israeli democracy and international standing.
It was Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar who pulled Netanyahu's chestnuts out of the fire, by invoking a forgotten condition of the coalition agreement allowing the prime minister to declare conscience voting for Likud MKs.
Either you have party discipline or you allow MKs to vote according to their conscience, Sa'ar said, and was joined by cabinet colleagues Limor Livnat and Yossi Peled, among others. Suddenly, everyone wanted to be a feinschmecker, overly fastidious. Sa'ar went on to remind his audience that, while "it might seem impossible, in the future we could find ourselves in the opposition."
Netanyahu grabbed the lifeline tossed to him by Sa'ar.
At the end of the meeting, after everyone had their say, Netanyahu pounded on the table and announced that Likud MKs would not be bound by party discipline in the vote on the investigative committees. The implication was clear: The bill doesn't have majority support. Within minutes Yisrael Beiteinu announced that the bill would not be put to a vote.
The Prime Minister's Office has switched into defensive mode, waiting to see how, and when, Lieberman will respond.
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