Netanyahu and Rohani face off
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AFP
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the J Street Conference this week. "I decided that a middle voice was needed." Photo by AFP

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes home today after leaving behind scorched earth in the American media arena. In the past two days, he executed a public diplomacy campaign best likened to carpet bombing. His dozens of interviews, briefings and meetings with public-opinion molders were all in the service of one goal: to tear the mask off the smiling face of Iranian President Hassan Rohani and to broadcast to the American people − and through them to its elected leaders − the message that this man is far more dangerous than he looks.

One can argue that Netanyahu, in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, projected unnecessary aggression, and that his nonstop round of media interviews can be seen as reflecting mild panic in the face of the revised approach of the international community, and especially the United States, to the new Iran. But one cannot take away from him the sense of mission and the deep conviction he feels that, as prime minister of Israel at this time, he must do what he is doing because there is no other way.

And one cannot take away from him the last four and a half years, during which he placed the Iranian issue at the top of the international agenda. Were it not for the combination of the diplomatic offensive waged by Netanyahu in world capitals and Israel’s military preparations for an attack, it’s hard to believe that the sanctions against Iran would have had the same impact.

Early next week, the premier is scheduled to speak at Bar-Ilan University, and the week after that he will open the winter session of the Knesset with a policy statement. Last week, I mentioned the fact that an absolute majority of Likud MKs and ministers do not currently support an agreement with the Palestinians. If Netanyahu should decide to split from his party in the wake of a breakthrough in the talks, he will not have the backing of one-third of the faction, as Ariel Sharon did in November 2005, but two or three MKs at most. On a good day.

On the eve of his departure for the United States this week, Netanyahu ordered the ministers not to give interviews so they would not steal the spotlight from him. After his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and his speech at the United Nations, a small voice emerged out of the Prime Minister’s Bureau: Guys, go ahead and give interviews freely, and tell the nation that sits in Zion what a great prime minister we have.

Discreetly forward

Recently, a few discreet meetings were held between MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of Yisrael Beiteinu and chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Relations and Defense Committee, and Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of Habayit Hayehudi. This week, the MKs of the latter party received the following email message from the chairwoman of the party’s Knesset faction, MK Ayelet Shaked: “Following meetings with Yisrael Beiteinu, we have agreed on parliamentary cooperation in the current session [of the Knesset].”

In the message, Shaked asks her colleagues to coordinate legislation, letters and petitions with the head of the Yisrael Beiteinu faction, MK Robert Ilatov. Among the subjects for cooperation that Shaked lists are: the Greater Israel lobby, the army-draft law, the nationality law, the governance law, the not-for-profit associations law and activity in the Finance Committee. She notes that on issues of religion and state, Yisrael Beiteinu is closer to Yesh Atid but expresses the hope that “the new closeness” between the parties on the subjects mentioned will help draw them closer on that issue as well. The email concludes: “Please do not forward this email.”

A few comments:

1. Bennett and Lieberman have so far been perceived as political adversaries. The prevailing view was that one would try to become the leader of the entire right-wing bloc in the post-Netanyahu era. At least for now, they are putting aside their natural rivalry.

2. It’s been reported that Bennett is quietly supporting Nir Barkat for reelection as mayor of Jerusalem ‏(in the face of the less-quiet support of his partner in the party leadership, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, from the National Union, for Lieberman’s candidate in the mayoralty race, Moshe Leon‏). How will Bennett’s backing of Barkat be affected in light of his newfound cooperation with Lieberman? People close to Bennett said this week that he never issued a public statement of support for Barkat in his voice.

3. The surprising romance between Bennett and Lieberman is still far from Bennett’s “fraternal” alliance with Yair Lapid, though that alliance has seen better days. However, it does show that Bennett has learned that it’s best to put your eggs in more than one basket.

4. Immediately after a ruling in Lieberman’s trial is handed down, probably at the end of this month, he is expected to make a decision about the parliamentary union between Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud. The Bennett ploy makes it even less likely that those two parties will continue to cooperate in the Knesset and certainly destroys any possibility of a real, full-scale merger.

Unlikely visitor

Five MKs from Israel sat on the stage in a Washington hall: Meir Sheetrit ‏(Hatnuah‏), Ruth Calderon ‏(Yesh Atid‏), Yitzhak Vaknin ‏(Shas‏), Merav Michaeli ‏(Labor‏) and Tzachi Hanegbi ‏(Likud‏). The panel was part of the annual conference of the liberal, left-leaning, pro-Israel lobby J Street earlier this week.

Most attention was focused on Hanegbi. Not only is he a prominent representative of Likud, and not only is he the first Likud MK to appear in a J Street public event since the organization was founded in 2008 − but on top of all that, he is also very close to Netanyahu.

In comparison to its older, wealthier, right-wing and obedient sister, AIPAC, J Street is the black sheep of the family. It is critical and often sharply opposed to Israel government views. But it is also eager for attention and legitimization. Hanegbi, by his very presence, allowed the lobby’s leaders a taste of the coveted elixir. A speech delivered by Vice President Joe Biden, who arrived at the event immediately after the Obama-Netanyahu meeting at the White House, also helped upgrade the organization’s status.

Hanegbi’s moderation was a jaw-dropper for the audience. Even though they were not pleased with everything he said ‏(such as that Israel will never return to the 1967 borders‏), he drew occasional rounds of loud applause. For example, when he told them about his past meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and with the former prime minister, Salam Fayyad. He said his impression was that the two “are genuine partners [for Israel], they mean what they say, and they want peace.” When President Shimon Peres made a similar remark in a meeting with foreign ambassadors during the election campaign, Likud spokesmen threatened to burn him at the stake.

Hanegbi also surprised his listeners by his remarks about the essence of the agreement now being negotiated by Justice Minister Tzipi Livni ‏(who also spoke at the conference‏). The key issue is the refugees, Hanegbi said. If the Palestinians do not “disassociate” from their demand for the right of return, there will be no accord.

“If they will understand that they have to make a historic compromise like we did, agreeing to the idea that we will not be sovereign in the places where our people were born, in the places where Jewish kings and prophets used to live centuries ago,” Hanegbi explained, they will achieve “sovereignty eventually.” He added that compromises could be reached on issues such as borders, settlements and Jerusalem.

A compromise on Jerusalem? Hey, is this Likud?

“Yes,” he says, in a private conversation. “Compromise is possible on every issue, other than the refugees. I am against dividing Jerusalem, but that doesn’t mean we have to prevent 250,000 Arabs in East Jerusalem from being connected to the Palestinian entity that will be established. And I am also not against whatever name they may want to give that territory − ‘capital’ or any other term. At the moment, they are annexed to Israel, and that is a nonstarter for them. Just as the division of Jerusalem, and an infringement of our rights in the holy places, is a nonstarter for us.”

I don’t know anyone in Likud who talks about Abbas like you do.

“That’s true. I am one of the moderates in Likud today. The thing is that Likud people haven’t met him as I have. I sat with both of them quite a bit when I was in Kadima and didn’t need anyone’s authorization. I believe that they understand that the time has come to resolve the conflict. They see their task as being to reach a settlement. And they are against violence and against terrorism.”

Netanyahu is known to loathe J Street. Did you hear anything from before or during the trip?

“No, not a word. I suppose that if he had told me not to go, I might not have gone.”

Days of wine and cheese

Hanegbi was in the audience when Livni spoke. In light of J Street’s problematic record in terms of its attitude toward Israeli soldiers accused of mistreating Palestinian residents of the territories, she demanded that her listeners not lend a hand to the delegitimization of Israel or the Israel Defense Forces and should distinguish “between a terrorist who is targeting children in school and an Israeli soldier who may have violated the codes of conduct.”

At the conclusion of her remarks, Livni abandoned the prepared text and told the audience about her family background, as the daughter of parents from Menachem Begin’s Herut movement who had fought in the pre-state Etzel ‏(Irgun‏), and about the circumstances of her entry into politics, in 1995, with Likud. Israel was then divided into two camps, she said. One called itself the Greater Israel camp and the other called itself the peace camp. One spoke about love for Israel, while on the other side her friends in the left-wing camp dressed in new jeans and T-shirts, holding glasses of wine, waiting for the advent of Shimon Peres’ New Middle East.

Representatives in the hall from Israeli peace groups such as Peace Now, One Voice and Breaking the Silence exchanged incredulous glances. This is how Livni, the darling of the left, whose party, Hatnuah, and before that Kadima, took votes from Meretz and Labor, badmouths the left?

I asked Livni later whether the wine-and-cheese image was a type of metaphor, or whether she was referring to the progenitors of the Oslo Accords: Yossi Beilin, Yair Hirschfeld, Ron Pundak, et al? “No way,” she said, regarding the possibility that her intent was not literal. “They were there, in my backyard, my left-wing friends, with glasses of white wine, standing and talking about a new Middle East. I saw a dialogue of the deaf, I saw the enmity between the two camps and I decided that a middle voice was needed.”

The other Hebron

This week, the ultra-Orthodox members of the Knesset’s Finance Committee refused to support the finance minister’s request to transfer NIS 28 million to the settlement of Beit El. Their reason: the decision by Education Minister Shay Piron, from the finance minister’s party, to slash the support for foreign students attending yeshivas in Israel. If implemented, the decision will most affect Mir Yeshiva, in Jerusalem, the apple of the eye of United Torah Judaism.

After the formation of the government, the Ashkenazi Haredi rabbis instructed their representatives in the Knesset “not to harm the Land of Israel” − meaning the settlements in the territories. In recent weeks, the Ashkenazi Haredi media outlets have been systematically lambasting the settlements. “Hebron Yeshiva [in Jerusalem] is more important than Hebron [the city],” the Haredi newspapers wrote. They also complain about “the millions the state spends to secure isolated settlements.”

Tens of billions of dollars have been injected into the territories, but as long as the yeshivas got their pound of flesh they had no problem with the settlements. In the past six months, once the Haredim began to feel the cold blade of the budget ax, they developed powerful left-wing social-activist sentiments. Next thing you know, we’ll see them holding glasses of white wine in some fancy backyard in an upscale Tel Aviv neighborhood, maybe Ramat Hahayal.

The fight over the pointless waste of state funds in the ghost settlements on the rocky slopes of the West Bank will cease when divine providence guides the Haredim back into the coalition. At the moment, though, that scenario is not politically feasible.

Netanyahu would like to replace Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett with Yacimovich, Deri, Litzman & Gafni − or, at least to dump Bennett and his faction, hold onto Uri Ariel’s National Union faction and bring in United Torah Judaism.

The prime minister recently met, separately, with MK Aryeh Deri ‏(Shas‏) and with MK Moshe Gafni ‏(UTJ‏). The negotiations with the Palestinians are slated to conclude in April 2014, at the end of the Knesset’s winter session, and no one knows what the government’s fate will be.