Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
Photo by Amos Biderman
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On May 24, 2006, an eager new prime minister, Ehud Olmert, delivered an extraordinary speech to both Houses of the U.S. Congress. The applause, support and warmth extended to him spilled over like an exploding fountain. Olmert took Washington by storm, and returned to Israel full of self-confidence, and resolved to display the leadership skills that had won international recognition in the American capital.

Less than two months later, Olmert started the Second Lebanon War. Criminal investigations after the war concluded brought to an end what otherwise could have gone down in history as a successful term in office.

Exactly five years later, Benjamin Netanyahu, who spoke before the same forum this week and was received with a similar dose of unbridled enthusiasm, would be wise to reflect on the fate of the figure he replaced as Israel's prime minister.

In contrast to some predecessors - some who are no longer alive and others who are still with us - Netanyahu is not much of a drinker. But he's an addict when it comes to speeches. For him, the more prestigious the dais, the greater the thrill - and he enjoys the hangover that comes after a good speech.

Netanyahu writes his speeches virtually by himself. He worked on the speech to Congress for weeks, his advisers report. On the eve of its delivery, they described it as an "historic address." People who saw Netanyahu hours later witnessed a leader who wholeheartedly believed that he had made history.

Insiders in Israel's political arena tend to think that when elections center on security-diplomatic issues, the right and Likud are always strengthened - even when they are responsible for plunging Israel into some security-political quagmire. Netanyahu is convinced that this is the case. This week, he made his choice. He chose the right wing, which conferred to him the prime ministerial position 26 months ago, even though Likud had lost the election to Kadima by one Knesset seat. Right now it looks as though he is riding confidently toward another term. Yet nothing is ever in the bag, for anyone or any party, even if, at a particular moment, they appear to be invincible.

Results of a Haaretz-Dialog poll published in yesterday's edition look too good to be true. The question is whether they will remain in effect until the next election. The Middle East does not reward leaders who prefer a good speech over courageous action.

One fact is indisputable: Had Ehud Barak and his confederates not quit the Labor Party last January, and had they not created the new Atzmaut faction and allied politically with Netanyahu, it is doubtful that the prime minister would have been able to deliver his speech this week in Congress.

Labor was not supposed to remain in the government after March-April this year. Its departure would have, in all likelihood, led to early elections. Barak understood that early on. Netanyahu, too, grasped the reality. The two of them concocted the Labor-Atzmaut split so they would still be together this May as prime minister and defense minister, solidly entrenched in their offices.

"There are few people who could have described in such an effective, polished fashion the Israeli mainstream narrative," exclaimed Barak after Netanyahu's speech to Congress. He rejected the argument of those who claimed that the event was simply a verbal exercise. "In the American system, which is built on checks and balances, it is significant that Congress so strongly supports Israel. That is a genuine strategic asset," Barak stated during discussions with advisers and Atzmaut colleagues.

Barak regrets the clash with Obama, but he believes that ultimately the dispute had more to do with style than substance. He recognizes there is no great personal warmth between the two leaders, nor is there a special level of trust. But when it comes to real, substantive issues, Barak claims the gaps between the U.S. president and Israel's prime minister are not so large. Barak, a cool, calculating character who has never been accused of excessive empathy for his political colleagues or any other living soul in his surroundings, says that he completely sympathizes with Netanyahu's woes. "I don't judge him casually, nor do I overlook the reality in which he lives," says Barak.

"Whoever heard [Netanyahu's] speeches in the Knesset, AIPAC and then in Congress, listened to him moving forward in baby steps, inch by inch, toward the Israeli mainstream, even as he wrapped everything in an envelope that protects him against losing the majority and the political right. You have to understand that Netanyahu has come a long way. But nobody can demand that he risk losing the coalition, and losing the right, before a settlement [with the Palestinians] is forged, at a time when we are far from having such a settlement and it is far from clear that a settlement can be obtained. If I were the prime minister, I would say different sorts of things - but even in such a case, I'm not sure that [my words] would lead to a settlement," Barak opines.

Barak says he doesn't "love what happened" at the White House, "but I also see other sides of the story. I saw today [Wednesday] Uri Ariel [National Union Knesset member], Reuven Rivlin and Silvan Shalom [both Likud MKs]. You hear them speak and you grasp that the pendulum has swung in a very complicated way. They understand that."

In terms of results - the judgment standard that Barak favors - he acknowledges that this week's speeches will not help jump-start negotiations. "We have to look for a way to translate what has happened, the assets which were compiled, along with the scratches and setbacks that occurred, in a way that blocks the diplomatic tsunami. To [Netanyahu's] credit, there is support for blocking the tsunami in Congress. On the other hand, there was friction. But any attempt to level the blame entirely on Obama, or on Netanyahu, or entirely on the Palestinians, is simplistic. Life is more complex than what is projected in commentators' descriptions."

The photograph distributed by the Prime Minister's Office of Blair House, the White House's guest lodgings, said it all. Netanyahu was pictured in the company of his advisers. Whoever believed and wrote that Netanyahu was about to amaze the world by unfolding a diplomatic initiative didn't bother to review the company he keeps: The chances that someone who surrounds himself with retired National Religious Party functionaries, neo-Republicans, conservatives, and right-wing ideologues will turn into the Menachem Begin of the 21st century, are akin to the likelihood that Tony Soprano would deploy his henchmen to carry out pious deeds of charity and community work.

Why bring up Mafia imagery? This week, Channel Two broadcast an interview with Yaakov Amidror, who heads the National Security Council. He compared Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas to "an attorney who represents the Mafia," following the PA's reconciliation accord with Hamas. Amidror, the top-ranking official in the Prime Minister's Office, did not try to conceal his contempt for Abbas. Netanyahu is more sophisticated than Amidror, but, in the end, the difference between the two is marginal.

A moan in Berlin

The following things were said off the record. The "senior official in the Foreign Ministry" who uttered them promises - or, stated more precisely, threatens - to go on the record with the statements. Should that happen, we will witness a fierce conflict in the ministry pertaining to the age-old subject of political appointments.

The subject is, mainly, an appointment that is seemingly about to be made by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman in Berlin, home of one of the three most important Israeli embassies in the world (due to Germany's status as a leading state in Europe; the other leading diplomatic posts are in the U.S. and at the UN ).

A few days or perhaps weeks ago, Foreign Ministry diplomats discerned that Lieberman had a candidate in mind for the Berlin post (which will become vacant in two months ) - Yael Metser, a member of Yisrael Beiteinu and a friend of Lieberman's. Metser previously served on the party's policy committee and, until eight years ago, also served as vice president of the University of Haifa.

According to Metser's resume, when she worked at the university she was responsible for external affairs, public relations and fund-raising. As a fund-raiser for an academic institution, she organized friends organizations in several European states, including Germany. Her parents are from Germany, and her native tongue is German. She has a network of connections with influential persons in Berlin.

Foreign Ministry officials are ready to go to war about the appointment - for the time being, off the record. "This is an energetic woman who has schnorring talents," the anonymous official says. "That's it. Due to the importance of Germany, the ambassador who serves there is almost always from the Foreign Ministry, and is someone who has experience and seniority. We are accustomed to political appointments made by Lieberman since he became foreign minister. We restrained ourselves each time; but that's enough, we won't keep quiet any longer. The way Lieberman has traded in appointments has, quite simply, caused harm to Israel's foreign policy."

I read this statement to an official who advises Lieberman. He laughed. "Find me someone in the Foreign Ministry, anyone, who has talents that approach hers," this official said. "I assume that the person who spoke with you wants the post, but I doubt he can produce a CV that compares to hers. Yael Metser is a serious person; she has considerable experience and is a person of quality. Ten years ago she managed to arrange a meeting for an Israeli with the [German] chancellor at the time, Gerhard Schroder, after Israel's ambassador failed to set up the appointment. The people who are speaking with you are frustrated officials who have nothing to do."

Knowing Lieberman, it is likely that when he hears what diplomats are saying about him (these being officials who probably greet him cordially in the ministry's corridors ), he won't rest until Metser becomes Israel's ambassador in Germany.