netanyahu - Amos Biderman - October 28 2011
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, trailed by Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Photo by Amos Biderman
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Government Press Office
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets Gilad Shalit upon his return to Israel. Photo by Government Press Office

Over the last 20 years, the third winter session of each elected Knesset has become a place of no return for prime ministers. Yitzhak Rabin was the last to survive that session in office; he was murdered in November 1995. None of his successors, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term, made it beyond the third winter session.

This week, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin told Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, that during the summer recess he expected the upcoming session to be the 18th Knesset's last. In the wake of Gilad Shalit's release, however, he thinks it will continue to serve until October 2012.

When the Knesset went on vacation in early August, protest encampments had cropped up in every city. Hundreds of thousands were demanding social justice. A number of Likud ministers began to worry about their seats. Netanyahu, who will open the session on Monday with a political speech, has quite a number of advisers who believe in God, but none would have dared to predict a comeback like the one he is currently enjoying.

The atmosphere in the premier's office in the past two weeks has bordered on euphoric. Unpublished surveys show he is gaining ground in both personal and electoral terms, at the expense of the main opposition party, Kadima, and its leader, Tzipi Livni. But past experience shows mania is followed by depression. This could be caused by terror attacks perpetrated by prisoners released in exchange for Shalit, the renewal of the social protest - which faces a critical test tomorrow night - or an unexpected catastrophe/fiasco/failure being cooked up as we speak by the State Comptroller's Office.

But Netanyahu is living the moment. As long as Shalit's shy smile continues to be a daily news item, the halo of the leader who redeems captives will continue to hover above the prime minister, like a political Iron Dome.

Last summer Netanyahu was still considered the right's default choice. This fall he is considered an actual asset for the right-wing electorate. The Shalit deal and the preceding tiff with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations have enhanced Netanyahu's status with the right's political base.

The Shalit deal is a paradox: The political career of anti-terror fighter Netanyahu began in 1985, in the wake of the so-called Ahmed Jibril prisoner exchange, in which Israel released 1,150 security prisoners in return for three soldiers who had been captured during the first Lebanon War. He strongly protested the deal, considered resigning from his position as UN ambassador, and wrote books condemning such deals. Afterward, he found his way into the top echelon of the Likud Knesset slate, and was later voted party chairman. In 2011 - thanks to a deal that is antithetical to everything he has written and preached - he's breaking records for popularity.

The genuine right

About a month before the hearing (before Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein) that will determine his legal fate, Avigdor Lieberman has embarked on a fierce campaign against Abbas. The foreign minister's bombardment began on Monday afternoon, in a briefing to political correspondents. It continued Wednesday in an interview with Army Radio, in which Lieberman employed the verbal equivalent of cluster bombs, going on about how the Palestinian leader contacted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the height of Operation Cast Lead, pleading with him to destroy the Hamas regime in Gaza. The high point of the assault - which in military terms could definitely be termed unconventional warfare - came that afternoon, when the minister's office sent the leading foreign embassies in Israel an official summary of all Lieberman's accusations against the PA president: He called on Abbas to resign, dubbed him "an obstacle to peace" and accused him of being motivated by personal interests.

Since Lieberman, unlike the Palestinian president, is free of personal interests, he will probably not agree with the following assessment making its way around political circles: His unrestrained attacks are designed to bring back the right-wing electorate to his party. Although Netanyahu has not indicated that he's about to make gestures to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, Lieberman wants to take the credit for being the one who "prevented" the prime minister from taking a sharp left-hand turn.

The foreign minister's extreme statements are meant to send the following message: I'm the genuine right. Ariel Sharon betrayed you. Netanyahu betrayed you. With me, what you see is what you get. I'm the straight-talker.

Livni's test

Since the social protest started, the polls have been been murderous for Livni and her party; the election of Shelly Yachimovich as Labor leader tore another chunk out of Kadima's flesh. Livni's silence during the Shalit deal and her speech earlier this week were not to her advantage. The alleged corruption involving the Kadima treasurer hasn't helped her either, although she was the one who discovered it and complained to the police. Even the special session Kadima convened this week to discuss the government's failures turned into a boomerang; in the part aired on television, Livni's rival Shaul Mofaz insulted her when he expressed support for the Shalit deal just a day after she had expressed opposition.

Thus, the Knesset winter session will be crucial not only for Netanyahu and his government and for Lieberman and his portfolio, but for Livni as well. The more she protects herself with the Kadima constitution, which grants her exclusive power to set the date for a party primary, the more she broadcasts weakness; Kadima members believe the primary will be next February.

In private conversations, Livni says she intends to put her faction in order; indeed, she still has majority support there. So far she has not weighed in on the bizarre phenomenon of Kadima MKs who quickly sign onto every racist and anti-democratic bill sponsored by Yisrael Beiteinu and Likud's right wing, other than saying that those MKs do not reflect the spirit of her party. Because of this behavior, it's not clear where the party stands on strategic questions, on legislation or vis-a-vis the concept of Israel as a democratic state. But maybe now Livni will enter the fray and assert her authority.

The message she intends to convey to activists in the field when the time comes is: "I will not remain in Kadima as Mofaz's deputy. Either you elect me again, or I'll disappear. I don't intend to stay in Kadima just to bring seats for Mofaz. I came to lead, to foment change. I can do that only from a position of leadership. Under Mofaz, Kadima will not be Kadima. I won't remain in the party because of some out-of-date rule. It's your choice, it's your decision."

Whither the protest?

Tomorrow night, Rabin Square in Tel Aviv will fill up with people demanding social justice. That's a safe bet: Only 60,000 people are needed to fill the square and adjacent streets. Two months ago, nearly half a million people turned out around the country in various demonstrations to protest their financial situation, the cost of living, the increasing wealth of the tycoons, the lack of hope. Since nothing has changed, there is no reason why all or most of these people shouldn't once again march and shout - and laugh, too: The Cameri Quintet, known for its satirical television skits, will be reuniting for a one-time performance, with a new skit in honor of the social protest's return.

Ofer Eini, chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, who has maintained close ties with all the protest leaders, is waiting to see what happens in Rabin Square. If the turnout is good, he will see that as a sign that he should ramp up his battle against the employment conditions of subcontracted workers.

For their part, Knesset committees will start addressing the various aspects of the Trajtenberg report on socioeconomic reform, before drafting legislation to turn its recommendations into law. Two pressure groups will accompany the MKs almost on a daily basis: the group led by National Student Union Chairman Itzik Shmuli, who believes the report's "positive" clauses should be supported and the "negative" or missing clauses should be changed; and the group of Dafni Leef, Stav Shaffir, Regev Kontes and their friends, who are unwilling to recognize the Trajtenberg recommendations and are demanding the state budget be rewritten.

The rift between the two groups - mainly, between Leef and Shmuli - is an open secret on the Tel Aviv protest scene. The accusations flying about, the dispute over who gets credit, the battles over how the protest should continue and who should lead it - all this would not shame veteran political parties and professional politicians. About a week ago, in an effort to smooth things out, Leef and Shmuli held a summit on the roof of a Tel Aviv building, which took much time and effort to coordinate, and didn't help. On the contrary.

Leef, Shafir and their friends want to preserve what they call the "innocence" of the protest, which in July sparked a fantastic social phenomenon that swept the country and aroused great interest worldwide. Shmuli and his supporters, however, are headed to lobby the Knesset Finance and Economic Affairs Committees. Shmuli thinks the era of large demonstrations is over, and that the time has come to launch protests on campuses and elsewhere, along with the Knesset activity.

"Bibi, look what's happening in America," said Leef, reprimanding Netanyahu at a press conference she convened midweek at Rabin Square. She threatened the premier that this was the "last time" she would address him directly, and informed him she would never look him straight in the face again. She reprimanded him for the fact that the first word he said publicly after returning Gilad Shalit was "I." In the short excerpt from her own speech, as broadcast on TV and the Internet, she used the world "I" at least 10 times.

At the press conference she sat next to Ruth Krieger, an 80-year-old Holocaust survivor. "I'm a tired woman," Leef complained. The cameras caught the elderly woman casting a surprised and somewhat worried glance at her. "It feels a little like high school when you go inside," Leef said about the Knesset.

But in that high school, democratic decisions are made. Laws are legislated. Reforms are passed. Governments rise and fall. Welcome to reality.