Netanyahu Yitzhak Ahronovitch
Prime Minister Netanyahu with Minister Yitzhak Ahronovitch in the Knesset this week. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Over the weekend, at the entrance to the quiet street where Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin lives, someone hung a large sign: "Benny Begin, the soul of the Likud." On another street, a huge sign blared: "Zion Pinian - Land of Israel fighter."

Pinian is a Tiberias politico, an obscure Knesset member from the Likud backbenches who bowed to the pressure from the Yesha Council of Settlements and signed its petition opposing a second building moratorium in the territories.

This is what the Yesha council is doing for the 14 Likud MKs and cabinet ministers who signed its petition: The posters are intended to shackle the signatories to their public commitment, in the guise of "gratitude." Were this an election period, the placards could be considered illegal, for constituting contributions to primary campaigns.

"We aren't going to confine ourselves to a one-time 'thank you' and we aren't going to express our support only before the Likud primaries," said a source in the Yesha Council. "We will create a coalition to reward and strengthen the good guys and those who are faithful to the path. We will watch MKs who support us. We will accompany them, we will help them."

The Yesha Council is not steamrolling only the ruling party - it also knows how to reward "anyone who acts according to his values and doesn't fold," as executive director Naftali Bennet said.

In recent days it appeared that the fight over the moratorium had abated. But this is nothing more than a truce. The previous freeze in November 2009 caught the settlers unprepared and disorganized. Netanyahu passed it through the septet and the cabinet, the following day. Now, even though the second freeze is supposed to be short, and final, the council has called up all its reserves and spent vast amounts of money on a preemptive strike.

This time Prime Minister's Bureau was caught unprepared. Two week ago, 24 hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from New York, his bureau published the list of ostensible "benefits" Israel would get in return for the deal. Then began the delays, discussions and consultations - which have not yet ended.

In the interim, the council has been setting the agenda. Netanyahu has lost control. For a moment there were concerns that even Ofir Akunis, the MK closest to Netanyahu, would sign the petition. Netanyahu girded his loins and as of yesterday Akunis hadn't signed.

Referendum Law

Likud faction and coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin and Knesset House Committee chairman MK Yariv Levin got the Referendum Law on the Golan Heights and Jerusalem passed, and were rewarded with huge signs, including one at the entrance to Jerusalem: "Yariv Levin and Zeev Elkin: You have made history."

"The signs exaggerate a bit," says Elkin, who lives in the Etzion bloc, which is subject to the freeze.

The Referendum Law was born 10 years ago when Ehud Barak (now defense minister ) was prime minister. Not much happened until a few years ago, when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, and then-Kadima MK Avigdor Itzhaki tried to flesh it out. Most of the Kadima MKs supported it, as did quite a few Labor MKs.

This week, most of the Kadima MKs voted against it, as did most of Labor. Most of the Labor cabinet ministers, who could not oppose it, chose to be absent, including Barak. The following day, he said the law would not advance peace, and would play into the hands of our enemies. What prevented him from saying that in the Knesset plenum?

The excuse his associates are giving for his absence from the vote but also from the discussion is that the defense minister had to participate in the farewell event for outgoing Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin. But Barak could have gone to the event, wished Yadlin well, shaken hands and still gotten to the Knesset in time to speak.

For his part, Netanyahu was not comfortable with this law. "What do I need this for?" he said privately. "It's only going to make problems for me with the world, as though I didn't have enough problems."

However, several weeks ago he found out Elkin and Yariv were promoting the law independently. On the day before the vote he even called a minister or two and asked them to come to the plenum. To one, he said: "It looks like I'm going to be dragged into this, but this law does in fact pave the way to peace." Netanyahu probably meant that because of the law, the right may moderate its opposition to the peace process because it will end with "asking the people."

Let's see him sell this narrative abroad. The Palestinians and the Arab League have condemned it. The Syrians have depicted the legislation as proof Israel does not want peace. Most likely Americans and Europeans do not consider it a path to peace, either.

If he does get another moratorium passed, the Yesha Council isn't going to treat him with kid gloves only because he voted for the referendum. If there isn't another freeze, the international community will use the referendum to depict him as someone who rejects peace.

"The Yesha Council will yet regret this aggressive campaign against Netanyahu," said a close associate of the premier this week. "This campaign is hurting him, eroding him and weakening his support on the right. The settlers must give him some maneuvering room. They have no alternative, apart from him. There are two possible results of their campaign: Either he will get fed up with them and establish a government with (opposition leader Kadima MK Tzipi ) Livni and Labor, or he will be so weakened that by the next elections the right will not vote for him and Livni, and the center-left bloc will become stronger at his expense. Both scenarios are disastrous, most of all for the settlers."

Public satisfaction with the prime minister has declined slightly, but right-wing voters are significantly less satisfied with him, according to public opinion polls conducted by Likud, Kadima and media organizations this week. The polls found that the proportion of right-wing voters unsatisfied with Netanyahu's performance increased 20 percent since earlier surveys. He is losing support in the center, too, never mind the left.

Netanyahu's only bit of luck is that he has no real alternative on the right. "This is our biggest problem with him," said a top Yesha Council official this week, "that he doesn't have an alternative."

Creeping elections

There were contradictory rumors this week: One was that Netanyahu is playing with the idea of calling early elections, catching Kadima unprepared and taking a hard line with the Palestinians. The other is that he has been holding intensive talks with Livni about partnering during the planned three-month freeze, during which there may be negotiations on Israel's permanent borders.

What will happen afterward, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan asked Netanyahu at the meeting of the Likud cabinet ministers. "We'll build, but not madly," replied the prime minister.

The talk of bringing in Kadima is as old as the current government. The other rumors are newer. Most people in the know are expecting elections within a year, more or less.

One Likud cabinet ministers recently spoke with with the prime minister about possible political scenarios. "This coming year is going to be critical," Netanyahu told him. "If I make it through 2011, I will be able to complete my term."