Amos Biderman - November 2011
Photo by Amos Biderman
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Late Tuesday, MK Tzipi Livni entered Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem. This was a regular briefing session, one that Netanyahu is required by law to hold with the opposition leader. A third party was present for most of the meeting - Netanyahu's deputy military secretary, who left after 45 minutes. Livni exploited her 15 minutes of glory (if it can be called that ) with the premier to engage in a bitter argument about the Iranian issue. She believes that Israel would be foolish to launch an attack now, when heads of the security services oppose it. A few years ago, Livni declared that the Iranian threat was not an existential danger.

A day before their meeting, Livni addressed the prime minister in the Knesset: "Heed what Israel's top security officials have to say. Listen to what they say on every topic, including the Iranian threat." Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud ) interjected, reminding Livni that the heads of the security establishment supported the Shalit deal, whereas she opposed it, in retrospect.

Livni refuses to divulge anything else about her meeting Tuesday. "I'm not staging the discussion in public," she stated on Wednesday. "That statement [in the Knesset] was well considered. The conversation has to be held between myself and the prime minister. It is my responsibility to say nothing beyond this sentence."

Doesn't your responsibility as opposition leader require you to warn about what MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer described during the same Knesset session as the possible "destruction of the state," and what Labor chairperson MK Shelly Yachimovich, branded "a wanton, megalomaniacal adventure"?

Livni: "I said what I said. The prime minister grasped exactly what I meant. Transparency is required up to a certain point. Some discussions have to be held behind closed doors. There are limits to what can be discussed in public. I have my red lines."

Two weeks ago, Yachimovich stated in private discussions that statements attributed to Netanyahu characterizing the Shalit deal as "clearing the desk before an action in Iran," were "total rubbish." This week, she struck a different chord. "True, up to a few weeks ago, I related to this matter as though it were just spin," she said. "But I felt obligated to look into the matter carefully. A very troubling picture surfaced - one that needs to be addressed, even if only in veiled language. The prospect that radical scenarios will be adopted is too dangerous to be ignored, and it behooves us to state our view on this topic."

Yachimovich uses the phrase "our" view, even though her party has yet to discuss the Iranian issue. She says she has discussed the topic with seven Labor MKs, and that they hold a relatively unified position. She refuses to disclose when and with whom she did look into the matter, and on what basis she feels she can make her categorical declarations.

A political insider said this week that never before have so many journalists written and talked so much about a topic that so little is known about. Another source dismissed reports that Netanyahu and Barak sit with cigars and whiskey and plan an attack on Iran.

"There are countless discussions, and many people take part in them," this source said. "There are thousands of pages of minutes and recordings of these meetings. All heads of the security establishment are involved in them, as are members of the inner cabinet. Everything is documented. Everyone has an eye on a [future] investigative committee."

Some sources, none connected to each another, indicate that during the past two or three weeks there were developments in the political-security arena suggesting that preparations for an attack have gone up a notch. These sources agree about the nature of this change, but disagree about when it happened: One claims it occurred two or three days after the government vote on Shalit (but not as a result of it ); another says the change transpired two or three days earlier.

The paper that has flooded the country with coverage on the Iranian issue is Yedioth Ahronoth, publishing a sensational headline last Friday and splashing its editions this week with additional coverage. On Wednesday, as the story lost traction, ministers Benny Begin (Army Radio ), Dan Meridor (Maariv ) and Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Radio ) launched attacks against media reports on the issue. These denunciations were joined, in typically belated fashion, by inner cabinet member Minister Yuval Steinitz; the condemnations had the effect of keeping the topic of Iran in the media for another day or two.

Then came the war between the generals: Inner cabinet member Minister Moshe Ya'alon was quoted as stating that responsibility for the media stampede belongs to Ehud Barak, and his obsessive engagement with the Iranian threat. Ya'alon will never forgive Barak for having joined the government at the last minute, and stealing the defense portfolio from him. Persons close to Barak vociferously rebuffed this contention. Ya'alon then denied having made the accusation against Barak. Yet again, Israel appeared as a caricature of a state.

Netanyahu, for his part, did not keep mum during the Knesset discussions early this week. Rather, he declared that a nuclear Iran would constitute "a direct, grave threat" to the world at large, and to Israel. On Tuesday, Barak appeared before the Knesset's finance committee, for what was called a discussion of the defense budget. Loath to relinquish his fundamental right to pour oil onto the fire, Barak stated that, "situations can take shape in which Israel is forced, on its own, to defend its interests, without relying on regional or other forces." "Once again you are fear mongering," complained MK Zahava Galon "Once again you are fear mongeri," complained MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz ).

A successful strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, overseen by Barak, would restore the public's trust in the defense minister. "Barak," a top political official observes, "believes that only a man of his own security stature would be capable of leading one of the most fateful actions in the history of the State of Israel, perhaps the most fateful since the 1948 Independence War."

That Barak is not utilizing military censorship more on this issue is a mystery to some. Charges, leveled by Meridor, Begin, et al, that the media are blowing this story out of proportion, invite incredulity. When it comes to showing a lack of restraint, government ministers would be advised to look in the mirror.

'He works for us'

The Knesset resumed work this week after its summer recess, and Likud MKs gathered to discuss the fate of several dozen structures left on illegal settlement outposts, in particular Emunah and Migron, which are slated for evacuation and dismantling. For two hours, the politicians searched for ways to prevent the "expulsion," notwithstanding the fact that the courts have ruled on the issue, and the attorney general believes that settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land should have been evacuated some time ago.

Primaries are on the horizon. Settlers who are Likud members represent an organized, influential presence in the party. They vote en masse in primaries. Likud heads from local councils on the West Bank were present at the Likud meeting this week, so as to keep an eye on the MKs.

Understandably, Ministers Edelstein, Peled, Livnat, Ya'alon and Erdan vied over the title of most right-wing politician. This competition was more blatant among MKs from the party's right-wing bloc, including Yariv Levin and Danny Danon. All of these politicians proposed ways to avoiding dismantling the outposts, and of bypassing the attorney general.

"He works for us, we don't work for him," these politicians told Netanyahu. "If his position differs from ours, a private attorney must be found to represent us," proposed Minister Erdan. Netanyahu mumbled, "Really? I don't know, we'll look into this," and added a few more evasive words. He asked Minister Benny Begin, a member of the government committee that deals with the status of the outposts, to explain the attorney general's position to the Likud faithful.

Begin's position was unequivocal: There is no getting around the evacuation of the outposts. The law has to be upheld. Settlements located on Palestinian land have to be uprooted.

"This discussion does not relate to Emunah and Migron," declared Begin, "it is much more comprehensive. The discussion is about ways of holding Jewish settlements in three blocs: Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley. We have a million dunams of state land upon which we are building. Transferring a few dozen huts from place to place does not represent an expulsion; it is neither a tragedy nor a calamity."

Begin's remarks were interrupted several times by Levin and others. "I don't want to compete with anyone here regarding love for this country," responded Begin. "I am expressing my opinion."

Toward the end of the meeting, the head of the Samaria regional council, Gershon Masika, rasped at Begin: "Your father built Elon Moreh."

One Likud minister recalled Menachem Begin and a stormy meeting held by his Herut party in November 1978, exactly 33 years ago, to approve the peace accord with Egypt. Settlers from Gush Emunim insulted Begin, and hurled eggs at the stage. Begin (as Nahum Barnea later described ) went to journalists and told them that "nobody ever incited against me that way, not in the days of the Etzel. Nobody should dare preach to me about love for this land; they are almost ready to stone me."

"They are almost ready to stone me," Moses complained to God when the Israelites were thirsty in the desert.

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: איראן, מי יודע