Foiled by the court
The justices' surprise ruling that the Tal Law is illegal threw Netanyahu for a loop - now he'll have to handle that hot potato before elections.
Had the High Court not issued its surprise ruling regarding the Tal Law this Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have used inertia to get the law extended, says MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima).
Plesner heads a sub-committee of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, established two years ago to monitor the implementation of the Tal Law, which provides a legal basis for ultra-Orthodox draft evasion. The High Court used data compiled by his sub-committee as its evidentiary foundation when it ruled the law illegal, disproportionate and discriminatory. Outgoing Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch recommended that the "Plesner Report" and its conclusions serve as a reference for drafting a new law.
Plesner is convinced that had it not been for the court ruling, nothing would have happened on July 31, when the law is scheduled to expire.
"Two well-placed sources have told me that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu's intention was to drag his feet until the summer and then say, 'Time's up, the old law needs to be renewed for a year,' as Ehud Barak originally proposed," Plesner said. "That way, he could have pushed off the hot potato until after elections.
"The High Court decision torpedoed that option. The law can't be renewed now. What can be done? They could legislate a sequel to the Tal Law that would produce results similar to the first one."
Plesner has become one of the country's leading authorities on the political labyrinth surrounding Haredi army service (or draft dodging, as some might prefer to call it). I asked him whether the dramatic verdict reached by a majority of six justices means a new Tal Law could not be passed.
"It's not clear," he said. "That will be a question of interpretation."
Indirectly, the High Court eased Netanyahu's clash with his coalition somewhat. If before the ruling he was facing both public pressure and parliamentary pressure to change the Tal Law, now he has a new impetus: the legal system. Now he can tell his Haredi coalition partners: "There's no other option. The High Court has forced me to come up with a new law. Let's work together on this." Instead of quarrelling with the ultra-Orthodox, Netanyahu has effectively outsourced the dispute. The Haredim now have to argue with the High Court.
This presumes that Netanyahu will choose to uphold Likud's long-time partnership with the Haredi parties. But he does not have to. He is aware of public sentiment. Public discourse is full of antagonism toward the ultra-Orthodox. It started with the controversy about religious male soldiers attending events where women soldiers are singing, continued with ultra-Orthodox assaults on children in Beit Shemesh, and now includes the demands by secular Israelis that Tel Aviv offer a bus service on Shabbat and that Haredi men serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Netanyahu can explore new options. For instance, Kadima could split following its upcoming primaries, and 7 to 8 Kadima MKs could quit the party and join the government coalition. This could give Netanyahu the backing to work out a deal with Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman, Atzmaut leader Ehud Barak and the National Religious Party that would enable the conscription of Haredim. The proposal could receive Knesset approval even if the Haredi parties oppose it.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu could call national elections and be re-elected prime minister with a handsome majority. That's what Ariel Sharon did. This isn't the sole Sharon-like dilemma facing Netanyahu. With a Likud party convention on the horizon, some party members say Netanyahu is seriously considering breaking up the party, should convention delegates decide to cancel primaries and give power to pick the party's Knesset list back to the party's central committee.
In response to a question on that possibility, Netanyahu's office stated: "We know nothing about such an option. But the prime minister is serious when he says he will not allow the primaries to be canceled by returning the choice to the central committee. That would be a surefire formula for ruining the Likud."
Ariel Sharon pulled this sort of maneuver in 2005 and benefited. Yet to act like Sharon, one has to be built from Sharon-caliber material. Netanyahu has yet to prove that he is made out of such stuff.
Purging the ranks
In a week, around dawn next Friday, Netanyahu and his wife Sara will board a plane for Canada and the U.S. A month ago, they would have sat alongside bureau chief Nathan Eshel, national information chief Yoaz Hendel, cabinet secretary Zvi Hauser and military secretary Maj. Gen. Yohanan Locker. The woman known as R. would have been part of the entourage, too.
Neither Eshel nor R., his assistant, will be going. Nor will Hendel. As things stand right now, it appears that Locker and Hauser will be going, stuck for 12 hours in first class, trying hard to avoid the incriminating gaze of the prime minister's wife, whose best friend lost his job because of them.
The Eshel era officially ended this week, and the purging at the Prime Minister's Office has started. It turns out Eshel was correct when he was heard stating in synagogue on the Shabbat after the affair began, "we'll take care of them later."
Hendel is already preparing to clear his desk, and this week the country saw how Hauser has turned into Netanyahu's punching bag - the cameras caught the prime minister scolding the cabinet secretary about the meeting room's door being left unlocked.
Hauser does not intend to quit for now. He does not think he did anything wrong, certainly not anything that would warrant stepping down.
Hendel, in contrast, has put his head on the chopping block. He will be the fourth spokesman to leave Netanyahu in three years.
Locker is set to end his term soon. Thus the Prime Minister's Bureau, the most important office in the country, is shattering in the middle of a year fraught with political and security challenges.
Eshel is being replaced by Gil Shefer. Like Eshel, Shefer is a former National Religious Party operative who wears a skullcap, comports himself with discretion, lacks political ambitions and has Sara Netanyahu's confidence.
Hendel's successor as national information chief is Liran Dan, his deputy until last Wednesday. Netanyahu likes Dan, who for his part this week looked as happy as a child entering Toys 'R' Us for the first time.
The Netanyahus are acting as if they are coming off a long-term addiction to Eshel. He was their errand boy for every issue, and he was consummately loyal. He harbored no ambition other than a desire to please his boss.
Even now, after Eshel confessed to harassing R. and resigned, the Netanyahus believe he was mistreated. They think the complainants turned a harmless, albeit somewhat embarrassing, incident into a sex scandal. The prime minister has been careful not to say a single word criticizing Eshel. Rather, he has lavished praise upon his former bureau chief.
As the video with Hauser showed, Netanyahu is reserving his anger for the triumvirate who exposed the problem by approaching the attorney general to complain, and is showing the three aides the way out the door.
"You don't understand Bibi," says a Netanyahu associate. "Had these three told him, he would have done everything to ward off any damage to himself; he would have quickly passed the material to the attorney general. But that way he wouldn't have heard about the affair from the media."
The three musketeers apparently disagree. They acted based on legal counsel and the guidelines for public service, which are explicit about what to do in the case of sexual harassment suspicions. The guidelines do not say that complaints need to be directed directly to the employee's boss.
Moreover, the official responsible for the investigation, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, told the three not to talk. Nor did Weinstein believe he had an obligation to inform the prime minister.
Netanyahu is right about one thing: The moment the affair reached the media, the three should have told him they submitted a complaint against Eshel. For 36 hours, from the moment the matter was disclosed on Army Radio and up to the time the complainant's identity was clarified, Netanyahu really had no clue as to what was going on. He told his spokesman to release a statement to the media branding the matter "cheap gossip."
Flying political shtetl
The 1981 air raid that destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor is known as Operation Opera. Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved it. Israel Air Force planes did the work. It later emerged that Labor leader Shimon Peres, then opposition head, adamantly opposed the bombing. Shortly before the raid he sent a letter to Begin, imploring him not to go ahead with it.
After the raid turned out to be a success, Begin publicized the letter, turning Peres into a national loser. Likud leaders over the years waved the letter to ridicule Peres, who suffered one electoral debacle after another.
Now we're heading toward an opera with manifest differences and similarities. The circumstances, threats, risks and implications do not really resemble those facing Israel 31 years ago. Everything has changed. Only Peres remains. When he meets U.S. President Barack Obama in eight days, at the AIPAC conference in Washington, he will express his adamant opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Peres has no doubt: Israel's ceaseless posturing about Iran amounts to reckless bellicosity and "self-intimidation." He doesn't rule out an attack on Iran. He thinks all options should remain on the table. He simply doesn't think Israel needs to be the country attacking. He believes Israel should allow the U.S. to continue its sanctions policy, and that if an attack becomes necessary, it should be carried out by the U.S. and its European partners.
Well-placed sources in Jerusalem say Peres is well-informed about Iran. He speaks regularly with the heads of Israel's intelligence branches. The President's Residence has a secret system for receiving current intelligence. When Obama meets with Peres, he will not only like what Israel's president has to say, but will also be impressed that Peres knows what he's talking about.
Incidentally, in his opening address to the AIPAC conference, and in public statements before and after his meeting with Obama, Peres will praise and thank the U.S. president. This comes eight months before the U.S. election. Peres will describe America's steadfast, courageous friendship with Israel, about the unprecedented security cooperation, and the Obama White House's crucial assistance for Israel.
On Sunday March 4, Peres and his aides will quickly leave Blair House before the arrival of new guests, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu. Netanyahu will meet with Obama a day after Peres. Obama will likely pass on what Peres told him.
Are Obama and Netanyahu likely to feud over Iran? Not necessarily. Officials in Jerusalem and Washington say Netanyahu's stance is relatively close to that of Peres. Somebody called Peres "Netanyahu's bouncer to ward off Ehud Barak," the bad boy thirsting for a conflict with Iran.
Barak, for his part, will also be making a quick visit to Washington next week, where he will meet with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and other defense officials. Things in Washington will be interesting as Israel's flying political shtetl comes by for a visit.