Benjamin Netanyahu
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An Israeli journalist, a foreign journalist and a foreign Jewish guest met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu separately over the past 10 days. "He looked depressed," related one. "He is despondent and full of self-pity," related another. "Tell me, is he well?" asked the third with concern.

On Sunday morning, Likud cabinet ministers met with an "irritable and grumpy" Netanyahu at their weekly meeting. He urged them to talk about the government's achievements, which he said the hostile media are deliberately ignoring. "Netanyahu should not have said those things. It projects weakness," said one minister afterward.

In the corridor, while the cabinet meeting was in session, some ministers attributed his mood to the public opinion poll published two days earlier in Yedioth Ahronoth, in which Likud took a walloping relative to Kadima. On Monday at the end of the party's Knesset faction meeting, most of which was devoted to the Sheshinski report on taxing the country's gas resources, MK Yariv Levin mentioned construction in the West Bank settlements.

"I am prime minister," declared Netanyahu, pounding on the table. "I have responsibility for this country. We could bang our heads against the wall but I am not going to behave that way ... We are in a very difficult international arena. Even the American veto at the [UN ] Security Council was obtained with huge effort. We could ignore everything and say 'there is no problem,' but as prime minister I bear overall responsibility. I suggest we all be cautious. At the moment we are trying to maintain the current [level of] construction. That is what is on the agenda, not new construction."

It was all planned; Netanyahu knew Levin would attack. This is the first time the premier has actually acknowledged the de facto building moratorium in "the settlement blocs" in Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim, Efrat and even East Jerusalem. Currently, there is construction mainly in small or isolated settlements that everyone agrees will not be included in any future agreement.

"Now everyone knows: Ariel and Ma'aleh Adumim are frozen, for the first time since the Six-Day War," said a senior member of the Yesha Council of settlements. "We hear he intends to propose an interim agreement that includes transferring responsibility for territories to the Palestinians, without them doing anything to justify this. He should know he is divorcing himself from the nationalist camp. This will lead to a war in the Likud, maybe even a split. He has no reason to do this apart from international pressure from various Merkels," he said, referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's statement that she was disappointed in the prime minister.

Rumor has it that Netanyahu is slated to deliver a second Bar-Ilan speech during a visit to the United States this spring, in which he will propose an interim agreement or a Palestinian state within temporary borders that is conditional on various provisos. The Palestinians will reject it flat out, the right will protest, and the left will say it is too little, too late.

That is what happened after the original Bar-Ilan speech. Since then the right has refused to forgive him. The left accuses him of empty words. The credit the world granted him has long run out. Netanyahu's greatest fear is entering elections, whenever they may be, without support. No wonder he is irritable.

In addition to the political fears, the systemic changes due to the earthquake in the Middle East have been keeping him busy; he is not getting much sleep.

For some reason, the attorney general is having trouble deciding whether to indict Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, and this is also troubling the premier. Meanwhile, next week Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and opposition faction Kadima are planning a legislative proposal that would obligate the free newspaper Israel Hayom, regarded as a Netanyahu mouthpiece, to charge a cover price. This proposal is due to come up for a vote three weeks before the end of the Knesset winter session. These weeks leading up to the parliamentary recess are full of land mines. Every Wednesday, when private members' bills come up, there are unpleasant surprises lying in wait for the prime minister, who is now halfway through his term.

Peretz's last chance

There are currently two MKs competing to head the Labor Party: Isaac Herzog and Shelly Yachimovich, who threw her hat into the ring this week. He is connected to the biggest donors and the most elderly functionaries, a true Labor man, who professionals in the field thought was an excellent minister of social affairs. He is a likable, sensitive man, who avoids quarrels and seeks compromise.

She is an oppositionist, a relatively young MK. She has never been a cabinet minister. She has gone from an underdog to leading in the public opinion polls. She is considered arrogant, and her agenda during the past five years in the Knesset has been uncompromisingly social-democratic. It is hard to see her speaking out on defense and foreign policy issues, even though there is no mistaking her leftward bent. She is one of the Knesset's foremost social legislators.

What she and Herzog have in common is industriousness. Both put in full working days. Yachimovich symbolizes freshness, Herzog symbolizes old-guard Mapai, the precursor of today's Labor Party. His refusal to abandon his government chair until the day he had to quit hastily after Defense Minister Ehud Barak split the party will exact an electoral price from him. Had he only found the strength to quit six months ago and become a party rebel, nothing would have endangered his path to party head. Both he and Yachimovich have a certain amount of status beyond the party.

The third candidate, MK Avishay Braverman, is not a factor in the equation. The fourth potential party leader, Union of Local Authorities chairman Shlomo Buhbut, is irrelevant.

There could be additional candidates, like businessman Erel Margalit or MK Amir Peretz, who appears poised to jump on the bandwagon. This is Peretz's last chance. Five years ago he led Labor to 19 Knesset seats, as Kadima won 29, and the Likud scraped by with only 12. The 2006 Knesset race was about social issues. Peretz talked about minimum wage, pensioners and single mothers. Yachimovich would follow in that path. Herzog, despite his record at the Social Affairs Ministry, does not come across as a social issues candidate. His name is written in gold letters at the entrance to one of the country's biggest law firms. Both candidates would desperately need the help of MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini, the party's two major power brokers. Yachimovich is working hard to renew her relationship with Ben-Eliezer after 100 years of rancor.

For his part, Ben-Eliezer was asked this week whom he would support. "All of them," he replied.

Advisers' 'Shabbatphone'

Last week we asked in these pages how all the religious Jews in the Prime Minister's Bureau are affecting the bureau's functioning on Shabbat. The question arose after Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Amidror was proposed to replace outgoing national security adviser Uzi Arad. A week ago that appointment appeared certain; now it is just not an impossibility.

Last Friday morning, I received a call from a senior Prime Minister's Bureau official. He said that a special telephone called a "Shabbatphone," invented by the Zomet Institute, which develops technologies for the religiously observant, has been installed in the homes of the Sabbath-observant officials.

A special mechanism lets a person place a call without desecrating the Sabbath. When the phone rings, it's probably the prime minister, or someone on his behalf. All the religious officials talk on the Sabbath with the prime minister, and among themselves, as much as necessary, said the official.

I also received another call last Friday morning from a former prime minister's associate who knows Amidror back from his days in Military Intelligence.

"The problem with Amidror isn't that he observes the Sabbath," said the caller. "It's a pity that every day isn't the Sabbath. He's an extremist. When his colleagues, national security advisers from across the globe, meet with him for background talks and learn about his views, the world will panic. I don't know why Netanyahu needs this. He should appoint someone moderate, a person with a more internationally acceptable outlook."

On Wednesday Haaretz's Chaim Levinson published selected remarks by Amidror from an Israel Democracy Institute conference about a year ago on "National Values in the Israel Defense Forces." Amidror reportedly said: "A soldier who won't attack when they tell him 'forward' because he says, 'Two soldiers to my right and two to my left have been killed, so I won't move' - any normal military system should put a bullet in his head, and a liberal system should put him in jail."

In interviews yesterday with Razi Barkai on Army Radio and Yaron Dekel on the Voice of Israel, Amidror tried to blur those words. He even offered a semi-apology to Dekel. He is also repeating his proposal, in an article in Israel Hayom, to re-occupy the Gaza Strip in reaction to fire by Hamas.

It is Netanyahu's right to appoint any adviser he wants, but he should not complain afterward if Israel becomes more isolated.