Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's selection as Man of 5773 - that is, of the Year to Come - is so painfully obvious that maybe it even begs to be set aside. Netanyahu is indeed the man of the year in which Iran, according to the minimalist forecast, is expected to become a member of the nuclear club - or at least to reach the threshold of the club. Unless the United States does the dirty work for him, the premier is the man who, in the next few months, will make the most critical decision in these parts since David Ben-Gurion decided to declare Israel's statehood.
To attack or not to attack, that is the question: to try and obstruct or at least delay the Iranian nuclear program by military means, or to lower one's head and come to terms with a nuclear Iran?
When Netanyahu was asked this week if the Iranian threat would be removed in the year to come, he answered, "If only." There isn't a single concerned citizen in Israel who would phrase it any differently.
One senior political figure said that Netanyahu is acting as if he were one of the biblical judges. And indeed, the prime minister often tells people around him, "I am motivated by the mission of ensuring the existence of the State of Israel."
"I see things in a logical manner. I am the last of the dinosaurs," he adds, cynically, "who did not err in seeing the progress and the brotherhood of the Arab Spring galloping full speed at us. It is the nature of human beings to repress, repress, repress. Most people fold under criticism. I am not among them."
In his opinion, the criticism that is being leveled at him for his scathing reactions to President Barack Obama, and his demand to set red lines on Iran, is no more than political criticism. He radiates the feeling that he is apathetic to such criticism. Even his supporters are hard pressed to understand a strategy that has led to a deterioration in relations with the United States. No red line is going to be set. The Americans have very publicly made that clear. Obama now seems to have an immeasurably better chance of being reelected for a second term than Romney has of unseating him. So why is he knocking his head against a brick wall?
"I am saying what needs to be said," he responds to these nudniks. "I said the same things 15 years ago. In 2005, I was the only one talking about applying pressure on the Iranian economy. There were no sanctions then. I will continue to say these things."
This November, Netanyahu will surpass Yitzhak Shamir to become the second-longest-serving prime minister of Israel, with an aggregate total of six years and eight months: between 1996 and 1999, and since April 2009. The elections will be held in 5773. "All of the partners expressed a desire to approve a budget and to keep on moving ahead," Netanyahu said this week, at the end of a round of discussions with his coalition partners. "Unless they make excessive demands, we will approve a responsible budget and will keep on serving until the last day [late October 2013, which is the start of 5774]."
If the budget is submitted to the Knesset in another month and a half, there is no doubt that it would be the big surprise of October. The treasury is no longer talking about a budget. The Knesset is no longer talking about a budget. And the various ministries cannot see even the faintest shadow of a budget being formulated for the year to come. Either Netanyahu knows something that the others don't, or he simply wants to get through the holidays, stride into the Knesset at the opening of the winter session on October 15 and joyfully announce early elections.
It is difficult to forecast how an election 13 months from now will turn out. It is easier to forecast what will happen in another four months - the earliest date on which elections could be held. In this scenario, Netanyahu would evidently be elected to another term, for three reasons:
1. There is no serious candidate for prime minister running against him.
2. In the polls, the Likud is still the largest party.
3. In the current electoral system, the Likud-right-ultra Orthodox bloc is the largest political bloc in Israel. The demographics carry the day in favor of this bloc - every day, every week, every month. Even the immigrants now arriving from Russia and France have a right-wing political orientation.
So there will be elections in 5773, and Netanyahu will piece together a coalition. And then what? Nothing will change. He will continue to fall out with Obama (if the latter is reelected ); he will continue to put the brakes on the peace process with the Palestinians (true, that predicament is not only his fault ); he will be hyper-engaged in the Iranian affair; he will make deep and painful budget cuts, in the hope of the electorate forgetting them by the next election; and he will be compelled to legislate a bypass to the Tal Law that would regulate the draft of Haredim and Arabs.
Deviating from the norm
But wait a second: This was the story of his first term, too. Then he quarreled with President Clinton and looked forward to a victory for the Republican candidate. Then he went a good part of the way in negotiations with the Palestinians, but took a step back at the last minute. For Netanyahu, the son of a historian, history has a tendency to repeat itself.
Toward the end of his present term, the Palestinians are still on the agenda, but only in the sense of maintenance and prevention of the Palestinian Authority's collapse. Netanyahu assists them economically, but only so they don't abandon the arena to Hamas. If it depends on him, the same will hold true for the next term.
Obama will challenge the premier quite a bit in the Palestinian arena; if elected, Romney would leave him alone. The Republican candidate who doesn't miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity is heard saying - in the leaked cell phone video that documented him besmirching half of the American public at a donors' dinner - that the Palestinians are committed to Israel's destruction and that there is no chance of a solution.
Someone asked Netanyahu if Romney was speaking for him. "What do you mean, speaking for me? What rubbish!" Bibi said angrily. Really now, that would be truly unthinkable.
If Netanyahu is reelected in 5773 for a second term, that would be a deviation from the norm. Few of his predecessors managed to do it. In the past three decades, Ariel Sharon did it in 2001 and 2003, and Begin did it in 1977 and 1981.
But unlike Sharon, Netanyahu missed a rare opportunity to be a candidate who crossed party lines - he remained the candidate of his own camp. This sort of golden opportunity was in the offing following last year's release of Gilad Shalit, on October 18. Another opportunity could have presented itself if he would have made the historic decision to draft the ultra-Orthodox. He headed a mega-coalition of 94 MKs, most of them secular. But at the last minute he got cold feet and opted for his natural partners, the Haredim.
This is the coalition that raised him to power in 1996; this is the coalition that secured him the premiership in 2009; this is the coalition that did not abandon him in the face of the freeze with the Palestinians, the deterioration of relations with the United States, the social protest, or even the recurring farces in his own bureau.
In his third term, there is a fear (or a chance, depending on the beholder and the voter ) that Bibi will no longer surprise us. President Shimon Peres will no longer consult secretly with world leaders and tell them that Netanyahu is interested in entering history as a peacemaker. Ehud Barak will not provide an erudite and coolheaded assessment that, in the choice between Shamir's dogmatism and Begin's brazen and mountain-uprooting leadership, Bibi will take the latter's path.
At age 64, people don't change. And certainly not people who believe that the sun rises and sets on them. Netanyahu is conservative. He does not text. He doesn't have an email address. He doesn't believe in a settlement with the Palestinians.
During this term, in June 2009, he delivered a speech at Bar-Ilan University and announced his support for the two-state solution, freezing construction in the territories for 10 months. He did so, not because he was convinced of the two-state solution or the national need for suspending construction in the territories, but because he was dragged kicking and screaming into it by an American president at the beginning of his term.
It may be that Obama will also push him into a corner during the coming year as well. What would come of it? He is not Shari Arison, who declared that peace begins within her. He is proud of the fact that, in this term, he made the Palestinians fully understand that they will never again receive a proposal the likes of which they received from his predecessor, Ehud Olmert. Nor will they receive a proposal that comes even close to the ones they've rejected.
When he is asked what we can expect in 5773, he focuses on two key issues: continued activity on Iran, and continued maintenance of the economy. And what about the Palestinian problem? "If Iran is armed with nuclear weapons," he says, "that question is moot."
Voice of moderation
Last week, this column reported on a meeting held by Defense Minister Ehud Barak in his office. Fifteen or so people were in attendance - most of them writers, professors and cultural figures who were signatories to a petition stating that a "black flag of illegality" fluttered over an Israeli attack on Iran. The invitation list included two retired security mavens: former Mossad director Shabtai Shavit and former deputy defense minister and reserve brigadier general Ephraim Sneh.
In the wake of that story, Sneh asked that it be noted that he did not sign the petition. He says Shavit did not sign it, either. I asked him what he learned from the three-hour conversation with Barak. "When they telephoned me from his office," Sneh says, "I thought I was being invited to a strategic security consultation, of the sort that Barak sometimes likes to hold with veterans of the defense establishment. When I arrived, I looked around me and saw Prof. Yehuda Bauer, Prof. Joseph Agassi and [actress] Gila Almagor. Respectable people all, but I don't remember them scrambling up the hills with me back in my 669 days [the Israel Air Force's search and rescue unit - Y.V.]. Then I realized that I'd arrived at a parlor meeting for the Atzmaut [Independence] Party."
The common political wisdom holds that Barak needs the voices of the left and the center to get enough votes to surpass the minimum threshold to get in the Knesset. The meeting with a bunch of people who constitute the heart of the "deep left" was meant to send the message that Barak is not some messianic figure who can't see the reality, but an experienced security pro and a levelheaded statesman who is attentive and moderate.
This is also how other figures in the political arena feel. Barak is working on the next election, and is aiming at the center-left camp - where there is not a single experienced figure with his security pedigree. If Atzmaut - which is currently twitching about in that nether minimum-threshold zone - eventually stabilizes in the polls in the region of two or three Knesset seats, we will know where it all began.
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