Barak and Netanyahu.
Photo by Amos Biderman
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Foreign leaders who visited Israel in recent weeks came out of a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and told a senior Israeli figure what they thought. "What is he thinking? How the devil does he think we will take his side at the UN General Assembly when he is clinging to these settlements?"

On Saturday night, a day after five members of the Fogel family were murdered in the settlement of Itamar, Netanyahu urgently convened some of his ministers and decided on a Zionist riposte: construction of 500 new homes in the settlements. The vote was reported to have been "unanimous."

"What are they talking about, a 'vote' and 'unanimous'?" grumbled Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai (Atzma'ut ) the next day. "There was no vote. There were lots of militant sentiments, and if [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak and I had not been there, it would have ended with 4,000 homes."

On Monday, two meetings were held in the Knesset. The first, which had been planned weeks in advance, was between the settlers' Likud representatives, including Likud party heads of West Bank regional councils, and some of the party's ministers. The second was the weekly Likud Knesset faction meeting.

The head of the Beit Aryeh-Ofarim council in the West Bank, Avi Naim, was one of the most aggressive speakers at the first meeting. I asked him about Netanyahu's grassroots popularity.

"In the last elections, Likud got 54 percent of all votes in Beit Aryeh, the highest percentage in the country," Naim said. "If elections were held today, I am telling you that the voters in Beit Aryeh would either stay home or vote for other right-wing parties. Likud would be kicked out of power, for sure. The right wing would not vote for it because of the peace issue, and the weak would not vote for it because of the social situation."

Another settler, Natan Engelsman, a member of the Likud Central Committee's far right, was more blunt at the meeting, as well as when we spoke the following day.

"Netanyahu's kowtowing policy obliges us to start thinking about finding a replacement," he said. "I am not the only one who says so; I hear it from more and more of our people, not just in the settlements but in Tel Aviv, too. People see him as a trickster. In the Bar-Ilan speech and when he froze construction in the settlements, I was still with him. I supported him, because I understood he had to appease the Americans. Now I and others will start to look for someone else. We can't go to elections with Netanyahu, we won't be able to win."

Who do you mean - someone like Moshe Ya'alon?

"Of course."

Gershon Mesika, the head of Shomron Regional Council, said in a radio interview after the terrorist attack at Itamar that whoever gave the order to evacuate the buildings at the illegal outpost Havat Gilad - namely, Barak - signaled to the Palestinians that Jewish blood in Itamar was expendable.

Mesika was a guest of the Likud Knesset faction this week and was also given the floor. "Come to Itamar, embrace the settlers, or invite them to visit you," Mesika said to Netanyahu. Whereupon Netanyahu took from his pocket a notebook with an expensive-looking black cover and scribbled something in it.

MK Danny Danon, who is trying to promote legislation toughening the conditions of the thousands of terrorists jailed in Israel and depriving them of various benefits, assailed Netanyahu: "Why are you blocking the bill? You know, even if we catch the terrorists who perpetrated the attack, they will go to jail and enjoy the day-camp conditions, the TV, the newspapers."

Netanyahu seethed. "You are talking to me about the conditions of prisoners, while I am making tremendous efforts to keep them in prison," he scolded Danon. "After all, they are all supposed to be released in return for Gilad Shalit. And I, only I, alone, alone, alone am withstanding the pressure. I agreed to release more than [former Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert did, but I am not willing for them to return to Judea and Samaria. Let them go to Tunis. We know of prisoners planning attacks from behind bars, so you can imagine what they will do in their homes in Judea and Samaria."

Gilad Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, are closely acquainted with a young man who is also alone, alone, alone. Soon it will have been five years. The participants in the faction meeting ascertained that Netanyahu has no intention of capitulating on this issue. This monologue came one day before the "Five Minutes for Gilad" demonstration. If his remarks had been made public, there probably twice as many demonstrators would have shown up.

The next speaker was Michael Eitan, the minister for the improvement of government services, and once the head of the Likud lobby for the Land of Israel. It's reasonable to assume that Netanyahu agrees with Eitan, but he is not in a position to say what Eitan did.

"Our goal is not to build another few hundred housing units in the [settlement] blocs, but to build a few thousand more, with international agreement, and that will happen only after the borders are recognized," said Eitan. "That means we must relinquish territories that we will not be able to keep, in which we may have the right to build but not the capability. What good will it do us now to build another 30 units in Ariel? Our international status is deteriorating, we are on the brink of world isolation, on the eve of international recognition for a Palestinian state.

"You have to act," he said, turning to Netanyahu. "Your policy has to prevent the decisions that the Quartet and the United Nations may make."

Eitan was also the only speaker who suggested that Israel should respond fairly to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' remarks to Israel Radio. Abbas called the Itamar attack "contemptible," "inhuman" and "immoral," and he promised to fight the Palestinians who committed the murders. Netanyahu's response was to tell Abbas to do his homework and come back a better Zionist.

"Abbas said something far-reaching. He came out against the Palestinians' sacrosanct principle of armed jihad," Eitan said. "We have to remember that there has been almost no terrorism in the past two years, not least because of our security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. We in the Likud faction, who want to remain in power for another four years, need to help the prime minister avert the approaching political isolation. We are not the ones who have to take unpleasant phone calls from Angela Merkel ..."

Netanyahu: "There was no such call."

"But there was a very painful vote by the Germans in the Security Council," Eitan replied.

The next day, I asked Eitan what it's like to be alone, alone.

Eitan: "Bibi has to take into account not only state policy but also the political situation. If Likud abandons the center in favor of the right, we cannot win elections. The center, which is the majority, will vote for Kadima. With [Ariel] Sharon we had 40 seats, then we fell to 12, and we got 27 last time. Those who left us will leave us again if we take a right-wing stance. If Likud brings international isolation on Israel, the voters will punish it. The prime minister must become more flexible."

They may have opposite rationales, but members of the right and the left in Netanyahu's party are increasingly warning against losing power.

Wye not

The reports about the interception of the Victoria, which was carrying "balance-breaking" missiles, were drowned out in the sea of hysterical news from Japan and in the routine hysteria of the Shin Bet security service, which shooed dozens of foreign correspondents away from Ashdod port and the displays of lethal booty there.

Past experience shows that Likud gets stronger whenever the social and economic headlines give way to defense matters. Meanwhile, the left-wing opposition gets weaker.

This week we did not hear a word about "Bar-Ilan 2," the speech Netanyahu is planning to deliver - or not - in Washington this May. In October 1998, in the midst of his first term as prime minister, Netanyahu returned from a peace conference at Wye, Virginia, after signing an agreement with Arafat to continue implementation of the Oslo agreement - and the right toppled his government. "Bar-Ilan 2," some people are whispering to him, "is liable to become Wye 2."

With due thanks

It's not every day that you catch Kadima MK Roni Bar-On complimenting Benjamin Netanyahu, much less so from the Knesset podium.

This week, Bar-On, who is one of Netanyahu's most outspoken adversaries in parliament, went out of his way to express gratitude to the prime minister. The background: the final approval of a bill to establish a special authority to clear minefields on land and at sea.

It all began in February 2010, after a boy, Daniel Yuval, stepped on a mine during a family outing in the Golan Heights. Yuval lost a leg. The next day, the chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the time, former MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima ), launched a cross-party initiative to pass legislation that would enable the removal of hundreds of thousands of mines from former combat zones, mainly in the north. On Monday, following a year-long struggle by MKs against the Finance Ministry, which refused to budget the mine-clearing authority, and against the Defense Ministry, which declined to help while there was no budget, the bill passed unanimously.

It would not have passed if Netanyahu had not intervened three weeks ago and decided, over the treasury's objections, to provide the NIS 27 million needed to kick-start the process. True, it was just pennies, but without him it would not have happened. NGOs from around the world are now supposed to donate lots of additional funds to see the plan through.

Hanegbi, who was forced to resign from the Knesset in the wake of a conviction, handed the reins to Bar-On and to his successor as committee chairman, MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ).

"I want to thank you for your effective intervention at a difficult decision-making junction, for deciding in the presence of tough stances - even if they are justified - by the Defense Ministry and the Finance Ministry," Bar-On said to Netanyahu in the Knesset plenum. "You made a good decision ahead of the bill's first and second readings, despite the ministerial committee [for legislation, which did not make a decision], so thanks go first and foremost to you."

Netanyahu was visibly moved.