Netanyahu - AP - Nov. 14, 2010
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pauses as he speaks at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010 Photo by AP
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Michal Petel
Rivlin: “A feeling of deja vu.” Photo by Michal Petel

Benjamin Netanyahu has failed to learn two key lessons from Ariel Sharon's tenure as prime minister. The first is: Always adapt your coalition to the policy you are pursuing. The second is: There is no such animal as a "natural partner." Coalition partners are used and discarded according to immediate needs.

In the two governments Sharon led as prime minister over a period of five years, there wasn't a partner he didn't cast off as an unwanted object. He left the National Religious Party out of his first coalition in 2001. In 2002 he fired the Shas ministers for voting against the budget. In 2003 Sharon left Shas and United Torah Judaism out of the government in favor of Shinui. In 2004 he kicked Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon (then of the National Union ) out to create a majority in favor of the Gaza withdrawal. In 2005 he ejected Shinui and brought in Labor and UTJ, so as to consolidate a majority that would enable him to actually implement the pullout from Gaza. And at the end of that same year, Sharon also got rid of the Likud.

Netanyahu is now embarking on what will certainly be his most crucial political journey since he formed his government in April 2009. He is setting out on a pragmatic path with an extremist coalition that will not support him at the critical juncture following an additional 90 days of construction freeze in the settlements.

If yesterday Netanyahu had asked Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, to join the government in place of, say, Yisrael Beiteinu, she would have agreed. She would have had no alternative. A move like that by the premier would have been a salient indication that he intends to pursue an agreement with all his might. In the present coalition, however, his hands are tied. If he has to beg two Shas ministers, Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias, over a period of days to abstain in the upcoming cabinet vote on a three-month extension on the settlement freeze, he will reach his political judgment day humiliated and weakened. At that point, Livni won't join even if he says "pretty please."

As of press time yesterday, the security cabinet had not yet convened, the contacts with the Americans were continuing and the U.S.-Israeli memorandum of understanding had not yet been formulated.

It's clear to everyone that Netanyahu has embarked on a road from which there is no turning back.

Moral and practical

Earlier this week, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar paid a visit of a day and a half to Brussels, to attend the inauguration of the European Holocaust Research Infrastructure Project. When he returned, he discovered that his cell-phone text-message inbox was overflowing with items sent to him (and undoubtedly also to the other cabinet ministers who support the construction freeze ) by settlers: "If you don't oppose the freeze, we will do everything in our power to make you disappear from the political map," one writer threatened. "Stand up to the pressure and you will be remembered well for generations, but if you don't have the guts - go home," another declared.

In Sa'ar's case, the brutal campaign of pressure by the Yesha Council of settlements achieved the opposite of its intended goal: He dug in his heels. However, others - MKs and ministers - have yielded.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu closeted himself with his advisers in the Prime Minister's Bureau and watched as the MKs and ministers gave in, one after the other, to the settlers' threats. "All we can do is bemoan our bitter fate," one Netanyahu confidant said. "Never before have we seen such insane pressure. It's simply intolerable. This has become 'the land of the settlers.'"

"They think we're working for them," another senior Likud person added. "They are rude, bloated with a sense of ownership. They are using us. They are wielding terror against the government."

In what normal country would two vice premiers (Moshe Ya'alon and Silvan Shalom ) and another minister who belongs to the forum of seven (Benny Begin ) - all from the prime minister's party - sign a petition opposing the prime minister's policy? In what other government would a minister (Yuli Edelstein ), also a member of the prime minister's party, hook up with rebel MKs while continuing to serve in his post? What impression is created when a prime minister conducts what are known as "back-to-back" negotiations simultaneously with the White House and with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas party mentor, from his residence on Hakablan Street in Jerusalem?

"I have a feeling of deja vu," Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin sighed. On Sunday afternoon he got a lift in the prime minister's helicopter to the annual memorial ceremony for David Ben-Gurion at Sde Boker, in the Negev. Rivlin told Netanyahu that in the past he had made the trip south from Jerusalem with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and with Ehud Olmert. On the first occasion, Rivlin recalled, he heard Sharon voice his intention to implement unilateral moves in Gaza; the second time, he couldn't believe his ears when Olmert (filling in at the ceremony for Sharon, who was ill ) gave public expression for the first time to his new and very "non-nationalistic" worldview concerning the future of the territories.

"Don't worry," Netanyahu reassured Rivlin, "that won't happen with me."

The next day, Army Radio reported that Rivlin had tossed and turned all night in the wake of a long talk he had with the premier. I asked Rivlin what he had been told in the conversation, but he declined to elaborate.

"I understand the prime minister's distress," he said. "He has good and genuine intentions to preserve and to save as many as possible of the Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel, but I am afraid that his way and his solution will lead to the opposite result. There is no doubt that he is under heavy pressure."

Don't tell me what Netanyahu said to you - tell me what you said to him.

Rivlin: "I will not tell you what I said. But I will give you two examples from the past, one that has a moral dimension, the other with more practical aspects. When Menachem Begin concluded the peace agreement with Egypt, there were some around him who urged him to take advantage of the opportunity, and to ask the Americans to wipe out Israel's debt of many billions of dollars. Begin replied: Is it conceivable to you that a first peace agreement with an Arab state, a historic agreement, will be signed in return for money, in return for a quid pro quo?!

"That's the moral tale," Rivlin continued. "The practical one is about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. When he presented the road map to the cabinet for ratification and tried to convince me that our 14 reservations would be included in it - I told him, 'Arik, if you want to lie to yourself, go ahead and lie, but don't lie to me.' Afterward, it turned out that the reservations were not inserted. Dov Weissglas [Sharon's adviser] explained that the Americans would take them into consideration, even though they were not part of the official document. I told Sharon: 'That's a hallucination.'"

And is that what you told Netanyahu?

"I won't say."

'It cuts both ways'

Yuli Edelstein, too, has been reliving the period in 2004-2005 when he was part of a group of Likud rebels who embittered Sharon's life over the Gaza withdrawal: This week the minister gathered a number of Likud MKs - Zeev Elkin, Danny Danon, Tzipi Hotovely and Yariv Levin - in the Knesset to discuss ways to torpedo another possible construction freeze in the territories. In 2004-2005, Edelstein was merely an MK. Now he is minister of public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs, so how will he explain abroad a policy that he is trying to subvert? We spoke on Tuesday evening, when it looked as though the negotiations between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the White House were totally bogged down. Edelstein was pleased.

"I think we can take the credit," he said.

Once a rebel, always a rebel?

Edelstein: "I hope I will not always have to be one of the rebels. But in Sharon's time it was different. At that time we fought to topple him and his government. That is not our intention now."

Don't you see a problem with your posture as a minister who is openly acting against his prime minister?

"Possibly. But what choice do I have? I am not a member of the security cabinet. I cannot vote and exert influence and speak my mind. Maybe if I were a member of the security cabinet I would not be doing this. In my situation today, this is the only way I can reach the media and present my position."

Do you think Netanyahu will accept your behavior with understanding?

"He understands that there are differences of opinion. I have already seen prime ministers who 'wielded all their influence' in regard to issues that were important to them, including the present prime minister. That was not the case in the forum of ministers this week. Bibi did not really jump on everyone who spoke against [him]. He understands that it cuts both ways."

Finding the time

Sunday was one of the busiest days the Prime Minister's Bureau has seen. The ongoing discussions with the White House in order to complete the formulation of the memorandum of understanding reached pitch fever. Netanyahu took part in the meeting of Likud ministers, then in the cabinet meeting and then flew to Sde Boker. Amid all this hullabaloo he found time to hold a meeting on the licensing reform in commercial television.

The reform is intended to foment a revolution in this medium. There will no longer be state franchises. Everyone who meets the basic conditions - of which the most important is the economic ability to also create an independent news company - will be allowed to establish a TV channel. Who, for example? For example, a nice Jewish guy like Sheldon Adelson.

Not long ago, against the background of Netanyahu's struggle to block the appointment of Likud MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen as chairman of the Knesset's Economic Affairs Committee, this column reported on the prime minister's obsession with everything related to the media. As he sees it, the media are the be-all and end-all. For years he longed for a newspaper to support him, and now he has one. Why shouldn't he also have a TV channel?

Generally speaking, Netanyahu is not pleased with Channel 2, still less with Channel 10 - which will be more vulnerable if the reform is implemented. At midday on Sunday, Netanyahu held a meeting with Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon (Likud ) and outgoing chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, Ofir Akunis (Likud ). That committee is now intensively engaged in framing the television law for final passage by the Knesset. Netanyahu asked for a review of the situation. A spokesperson for Kahlon said that the meeting did not deal with the licensing reform, but with the construction freeze. For some reason, this contradicts what took place in the meeting.

How is it that when cardinal strategic issues are on the table, the prime minister finds time to deal with matters that leaders who are not as busy as he would leave to the relevant ministers?