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The fate of 1,200 Israeli children, who happened to be born to foreign workers, was on the agenda of Sunday's cabinet meeting. A government that knows how to conduct placid meetings concerning billion-shekel state budgets almost lost its head over this issue: Ministers yelled, proposed revisions, and even referred to specific children by name. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was stunned.

"I didn't see such passion and excitement when we discussed issues fraught with much more significance for Israel's future," he said cynically. "Perhaps this has something to do with the media coverage of the children?"

The cabinet ministers voted, and Netanyahu's proposal to endorse a professional committee's recommendation to expel 400 children and keep 800 didn't pass. That never happens. There have been stormy discussions, but the principle of cabinet votes is fixed: The prime minister's proposal has to pass. Netanyahu's proposal fell due to the tumult; none of the members knew exactly what he or she was voting for.

After the vote, Netanyahu left the room for five minutes and consulted with a few people, and then returned. Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser announced that a roll-call vote would be conducted, so that he and Netanyahu could monitor how the votes were split. This time there was a majority for the proposal, after Netanyahu convinced Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman to support it. This was not the first time Lieberman spared Netanyahu embarrassment. One day, the prime minister will pay a stiff price for Lieberman's help.

When it was Benny Begin's turn to state his position, he noisily cleared his throat. That was Begin's way of complaining about how the government handled the issue - a matter that should have been resolved without drama took more than a year, sparking several cabinet discussions and two votes.

After his father, Menachem Begin, was elected prime minister in 1977, his government's first decision was to open Israel's doors to several dozen Vietnamese refugees whose ships had docked along the country's coast. These refugees had never lived in Israel; they were not born here, nor did they view Israel as their country. Nevertheless, the elder Begin made a courageous, humanitarian decision, after deliberating for just a few hours. In contrast, Benny Begin voted in favor of expelling 400 children, and never said anything about allowing the remainder to stay.

The zigzagger

"That was a trying, enervating meeting," stated Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, who refrained from voting. He had a logical explanation for his behavior: He opposed expelling the 400, and favored keeping the 800. When you both oppose and support a motion, you have to abstain, he said. His position has abstract logic, but lacks political muscle - abstaining from votes can be hard to explain, especially when you consider yourself a national leader, and the next leader of the Labor Party.

On Wednesday, Herzog held a press conference and expressed regret. "I should have voted in favor of the motion," he declared, adding insult to injury.

Bloggers instantly tagged him as the government's zigzagger. I asked Herzog, who has served in Israeli cabinets for 10 years, on and off, how he managed to get so clumsily entangled on this issue.

"It's hard to be pragmatic in our media-saturated world," Herzog explained. "I only grasped in retrospect that in this media world, one has to be more direct. In the end, the government reached a reasonable, if imperfect, decision. I didn't vote in favor of the proposal because I wanted the 5-year-olds to stay here as well. And I didn't vote against it because I saw that Eli Yishai wanted the motion to fail, so that he could expel all the children. When the proposal was defeated in the first round, he was delighted."

Minority Affairs Minister Avishay Braverman voted in favor of the proposal, via a note he sent the cabinet while on vacation abroad. He, Herzog and Limor Livnat (who also abstained ) spearheaded the opposition to the expulsion. Braverman said he supported the motion because if the proposal had failed, Yishai would have expelled all the children. That is nonsense: Netanyahu would have called for a third vote and a fourth, until he got exactly what he wanted.

Braverman was active in the public campaign against expulsion. At one stage, he even convened a meeting of the Labor Knesset faction and received a unanimous decision against any form of expulsion. When the cabinet votes were counted, including Braverman's note, his party colleague Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon commented: "I and Fuad [Benjamin Ben-Eliezer] voted against the motion because we remained loyal to the decision of our faction."

Wryly, Begin acted as though he wanted to spare Braverman embarrassment: "Let's not do this to Avishay," Begin said, sarcastically. "Once we are sure we have enough votes, it would be better not to count his vote."

I asked Herzog whether he feels that his leadership was damaged by the saga.

"Not every government vote is a leadership test," he stated. "I was the one who went off to see the children of these foreign workers ... and I said to them, 'We will do our utmost to keep most of you here. We won't be able to keep all of you.'"

The bad guy

The bad guy in this story, who comes across as obsessively seeking to expel as many children as possible, is Interior Minister Eli Yishai. In the beginning, Yishai declared that he would not vote to confirm the recommendation of the professional committee, which was headed by an official from his own ministry. Yishai then fought against any revision in the proposal, no matter how negligible, that would have enabled a few more children to remain in Israel. Now he is the man empowered to decide who will be among the 400 condemned children, and who will be spared.

Yishai and his party colleagues caused a ruckus at the cabinet meeting. Yaakov Margi, one of Shas' more anonymous functionaries, who also happens to be a minister, called organizations lobbying on behalf of the children "post-Zionist." That, coming from a party that hardly adheres to strict Zionist principles.

Netanyahu has a reputation for paying exorbitant prices for insubstantial things. In October, when the media is drenched in pictures of small children being pulled out of nursery schools and their beds, and whisked like juvenile delinquents to the airport, nobody will give the prime minister credit for making it possible for 800 children to remain here.

Inside sources said Netanyahu is "looking into ways" of loosening the criteria, so that more children can stay. On Wednesday, Ehud Barak asked him to keep all 1,200 children in Israel, on the grounds that expulsion is un-Jewish. If the defense minister and Labor Party leader were to invest in the foreign workers' children 10 percent of the energy he has devoted to his ministry's budget, all the kids would surely be staying.

"This is not the State of Israel that I knew," sighed Ben-Eliezer, industry and trade minister, after the vote. For some time, Labor Party members have been whispering that Ben-Eliezer wants to grab the party's reins. They say confidantes have been urging Ben-Eliezer to pull a "Shimon Peres," by which he would declare his intention to serve as "interim" party chairman, and then use the opportunity to rehabilitate the Labor Party.

I asked Ben-Eliezer, who is 74, whether there is any foundation to these rumors. "At my age, I have trouble hearing anything," rumors or otherwise, he said.

Kadima and the academics

In late August, the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center (IDC ) is planning to held a conference on the delegitimization of Israel. It will be another seven-hour conference, with lunch in the middle. The interesting aspect of the event is who its main organizers are: IDC President Uriel Reichman and opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima. In the normal course of events, academic conferences are planned by academics, and politicians turn up for the headlines. When an active politician organizes and hosts a conference that enjoys academic prestige, the question naturally arises: What's in it for the politician?

In this case, it's a win-win proposition. Reichman's institution will receive some attention. And its president, who has a strong connection with Livni, could receive a high spot on Kadima's Knesset list. Elected to the previous Knesset, Reichman had in pocket a promise by Ariel Sharon that he would be appointed education minister. It turned out that this was a promise that Sharon's successor, Ehud Olmert, could not, or did not want to, make good on. So Reichman quit the Knesset a few days after he was elected.

Livni, for her part, is wrapping herself in the cloth of patriotic responsibility and public commitment toward a subject that concerns at least 80 percent of Israelis. As a former foreign minister and prime ministerial candidate, Livni has something to say on the subject. Showing patriotic concern has never hurt Israel's opposition leaders. Take, for example, Netanyahu's example during the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.

Livni lacks Netanyahu's adroit public relations skills. The conference is the most she can manage, but it is worth something. Under her aegis, serious people will come to an academic institution to discuss ways of confronting Israel's damaged global reputation. At least one senior minister is likely to speak at the conference. It could be Lieberman, or perhaps Barak. That too won't hurt Livni: A minister will step up to the dais and open his remarks by acknowledging the opposition leader. Livni's spokesperson commented that Kadima forges links with various academic institutions, including IDC, in order to "promote topics of importance to the state."