While the Foreign Ministry was busy with its Turkish drama this week, the prime minister was practically invisible. Meanwhile, the Labor Party is falling apart at the seams.
Last Friday Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met with his strategic adviser in the last elections, Arthur Finkelstein, who had popped over for a very short visit to Israel. It's said that Finkelstein warned Lieberman that his party, Yisrael Beiteinu, is losing altitude and advised him to sharpen his messages to remind the Jewish people who is foreign minister and where his party's election promises went.
Lieberman says his conversation with Finkelstein was about other matters. But a few days later the foreign minister fomented two crises. Defense Minister Ehud Barak had refused to grant official university status to the Ariel University Center of Samaria, and Lieberman told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that until he does, Yisrael Beiteinu MKs will vote against every Labor proposal.
The second crisis was the armchair theater that was broadcast live Monday evening from Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's cramped office at the Knesset, directed by and starring Mr. Ayalon himself. This farce ended with Israel kneeling down before the Turks. It too has been "credited" to Lieberman, but it is not at all certain that he was involved in the details. The moment it happened, however, the minister gave his backing to his deputy.
Netanyahu completely disappeared during the three-day crisis. For the first 24 hours he was silent. Then he released a statement expressing concern about the rapprochement between Turkey and Iran. After that he noted his satisfaction with Ayalon's first apology (which Ayalon claimed was "not an apology at all"). Then he read in the newspapers yesterday that it was President Shimon Peres who saved the day by calling Ayalon and ordering him to apologize. Of course it's a good thing we have Peres around, but as inconceivable as it sounds, he won't be here forever.
The Israeli government is arguably the most badly managed government in the world, to let such a delicate and crucial matter as Israeli-Turkish relations spin so badly out of control. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer was in Turkey about two weeks ago, and declared his support for renewing Turkish mediation between Israel and Syria. Lieberman is on the attack and Barak is set to go to Turkey on Sunday to calm things down. Clearly there is a fair measure of domestic politics here. Netanyahu is so worried about the stability of his coalition that he has forgotten one of Likud's election slogans from a year ago: "There is also a country to run."
On Tuesday Barak and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon went to Kibbutz Evron, in the Galilee, for a Labor meeting. The dust from the resignation of MK Ophir Pines-Paz had barely settled.
"How could you let him leave?" the local kibbutz and moshav members complained. "Why didn't you keep him?"
"What do you want?" replied Simhon, Barak's No. 1 crony. "Ophir intended to leave politics even before the last election, and Barak and I prevented him from leaving."
In November and December 2008, Labor was on the skids, with public opinion polls giving the party just eight or nine MKs. New Movement-Meretz arose on its left, while author Amos Oz declared that Labor had finished its historical role. Barak heard that Ami Ayalon, Ophir Pines-Paz and Rabbi Michael Melchior, of Meimad, were intent on slipping through his fingers.
Simhon brought Ayalon to Barak's apartment in Tel Aviv's luxury Akirov Towers. "For 60 years no one has courted me," someone who was present quoted Ayalon as saying. "Now there's a party courting me and I am enjoying it very much."
Forty-eight hours later Pines-Paz was summoned to Barak's home late at night. He came with a letter of resignation from political life in his pocket. Barak and Simhon appealed to him: "If you go, it's the end of the party. We will be wiped out in the election. You cannot be responsible for such a thing."
"Would you join a government after the election without me?" Pines-Paz asked Barak. He meant a government headed by Kadima chairwoman MK Tzipi Livni.
"No," Barak reportedly replied. "There's no government I would join without you." Barak, too, was referring to a government headed by Livni.
"Unless it's a government you won't want to join," interrupted Simhon, who was referring to a Netanyahu government.
Pines-Paz had demanded that Barak promise not to join a Netanyahu-Lieberman government, should one be formed; Barak refused. Eventually Pines-Paz realized that Barak and Bibi were working in tandem, but he did not resign then.
After the election, in February, Labor agreed to join the coalition and Pines-Paz found himself with the party "rebels," together with MKs Amir Peretz, Eitan Cabel and Yuli Tamir. He saw himself as the leader of the group. So did Peretz. Not long before resigning Pines-Paz met with Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon to ask about his intentions, but soon realized there was no point in speaking to Ben Simon and left.
This week it was reported that Ben Simon was at the threshold of the party door when Pines-Paz pulled the rug out from under the group's feet, for unknown reasons.
"What kind of people are they?" Pines-Paz complained to someone when he heard this. "What kind of people did I spend so much time with?"
"Can you see yourself founding a party?" Ilana Dayan of Channel 2 asked, on her weekly program "Fact." The interviewee looked down and sank into a tortured silence. After what seemed like an eternity, he emitted a heartbreaking sigh. "I very, very much hope that no one will have to go into politics because the situation will be so good and it will be unnecessary," answered Yair Lapid, also of Channel 2. Then he fell silent again.
And then he looked straight into Dayan's eyes and informed her: "The situation is not good." She then asked whether he was considering jumping into politics in the near future, and he said: "I will have to decide one minute before the election," he replied.
At a panel on education held by the Globes business daily about two weeks ago, Lapid said high-school students should be given matriculation exams in only three subjects: mathematics, English and reading comprehension. A senior figure in the school system related this week that at a private function he attended last week, a guest swooped down on him and pressed her mobile phone to his ear. On the other end was her 16-year-old daughter, who in no uncertain terms demanded that he "Do what Yair says!"
Until "one minute before the election," Lapid will likely continue to write the column at the front of the weekend supplement of the largest circulation paper in the country, and to present the most-watched, Friday night current-events program on Israel's most-watched television channel. He expects us to believe that he has no political agenda, that he treats all the politicians he hosts on his show, "Ulpan Shishi," in an equal and unbiased manner. That he is not conducting, and will not conduct in the future, secret negotiations with any of them or establish his own party.
When Lapid says he will decide at the very last minute, he is in fact saying: "I am seriously considering going into politics and running for the Knesset in the next election. Until then I intend to promote myself from my TV presenter's chair. Only when the election laws allow it will I jump from the studio into the political arena, with no cooling-off period, and you will thank me for coming to save you from your tribulations."
Arcadi Gaydamak was once considered a rising star in Israeli politics, with polls giving his party four or five Knesset seats. At the height of his popularity, one of the Channel 2 broadcasting franchises announced it intended to give him his own prime-time program, on which he would advise failing small business owners.
There was an uproar over this in the last Knesset. What chutzpah, cried the politicians, to give someone who does not hide his political aspirations a weekly show starring him as the savior of hard-hit working people, at a time when MKs who every week pass laws on behalf of this same disadvantage population must work miracles to get just a few seconds of air time. The MKs threatened to pass a law, and the program never happened. But in Lapid's case not a single politician would dare to protest.