Still hoping for the best
Finishing four years in the President's Residence is a reason for Shimon Peres to celebrate. Or not.
This week Shimon Peres is celebrating four years in the President's Residence. He has served as president for 48 months, 26 of them alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and has three years to go until he decides what his next career move will be.
People who met Peres this week, when he was celebrating, heard prophecies of doom from him the likes of which have never been uttered before. Here are some of them:
"In the end we'll reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the question is whether we will suffer some sort of blow beforehand, or not. In the end, whoever accepts the basic principle of the 1967 lines will receive international support from the world. Whoever rejects it will lose the world. Economic boycotts against Israel are taking place before our eyes. There's no need for boycotts - suffice it if ports in Europe or Canada stop unloading Israeli merchandise. It's already beginning. September is only a date. The question is what will happen before and after.
"I'm concerned about the continued deadlock. I'm concerned that Israel will become a binational state. What is happening now is sheer foot-dragging. We're about to crash into the wall. We're galloping at full speed toward a situation where we will lose the State of Israel as a Jewish state."
Peres seems to be struggling with himself about whether to go publi and shout these things. He respects the institution that he heads. He is neither leader nor deputy leader of the opposition - although during meetings such as the one he had with Tzipi Livni this week, she urges him to stand by her side. He also understands that he is not the prime minister.
What good would it do Peres to quarrel with Netanyahu? The left would applaud him, but he would once again be considered "subversive" and would lose much of the public's affection in an instant.
About two years ago, shortly after Netanyahu came into office, Peres spoke at the AIPAC conference in Washington and informed the audience that the premier was about to make history. He really believed that. He hoped that Netanyahu would take advantage of his second term to propel Israel toward the end of the conflict, or at least make significant progress in that direction.
Two years later, Peres is no longer saying such things. He still harbors hopes regarding Netanyahu's declarations about a Palestinian state, settlement blocs and a long-term military presence along the Jordan River. He will continue to take advantage of every opportunity to run all over the globe to spread the news about the Israeli economy (and, in secret, to sit through another brainstorming session with one Palestinian leader or another ), and hope that one day it will happen. As he prepares to celebrate his 88th birthday (on August 2 ), what is there left for Peres to do except to hope for the best?
Netanyahu's coalition has never had a better week. Last weekend, its members shared a "bonding" experience at a Safed hotel. New recruits who are drafted into elite army units also undergo such bonding, usually comprised of an exhausting series of training exercises, in order to examine their suitability and their ability to work together as a team. But there is no coalition team with more solidarity than Netanyahu's.
The ministers had barely unpacked their suitcases with the soaps from the Rimonim Hotel, and nine of them, together with the prime minister and his wife, took off for a day and a half in Rome. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who was in both Safed and Rome, said: "The trip to Rome is only a continuation of bonding in another way." On Tuesday morning Netanyahu and his ministers returned from Italy. Soon the prime minister will be flying to Poland.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu and Livni found time to clash this week in the Knesset plenum, during a special meeting, requested by at least 40 MKs, that requires the prime minister to remain glued to his seat. This ritual repeats itself once a month and receives almost no media coverage: She asks the same questions, he gives the same answers. A few hours after that session, I told Livni that for the past two years she has been giving the same speech. "That's true," she admitted. "This week I recalled the film 'Titanic.' There is a scene there in which Leonardo DiCaprio is standing on the deck, embracing his girlfriend and shouting into the wind, 'I'm king of the world!' while in the dining room and the ballroom the chandeliers on the ceiling begin to shake. That's Netanyahu: Since his return from Washington he's been on a high, celebrating, declaring he's king of the world, his ministers are dancing at a ball - and any minute there's going to be a collision with the iceberg."
And who is he embracing on the deck?
Livni: "Let's say that it's [Defense Minister] Ehud Barak."
You must admit that the five or six principles that he presented in his Knesset speech last month, which he mentioned once again this week, are acceptable to Kadima. And when he asks which of these principles you object to, you have no answer.
"He's got himself a real gimmick, with those principles of his. It's true that he mentioned them in the Knesset, but he didn't submit them for approval to his cabinet or his party. We conducted negotiations over those principles: the refugees, the end of the conflict, Jerusalem, a demilitarized state. I said everything in the negotiating room and I argued about everything and I stuck to those principles, while outside they accused me of selling state assets. And he only gives speeches. He didn't even submit the Bar-Ilan speech to the cabinet for its approval."
Don't you get discouraged sometimes?
"No. As long as I'm around, I'll keep saying things in every possible way, in every possible forum and in front of every possible audience. We're in a very problematic position. He's sending the State of Israel to Masada. And not to see an opera."
On Tuesday, eight MKs from right-wing parties entered Nablus, and under the heavy guard of Palestinian policemen and Israeli soldiers, they arrived at Joseph's Tomb, prayed there, and hastened to issue reports to the press about how moved they were by this historic occasion: It was the first time in 11 years, since the outbreak of the second intifada, that such a visit was made in broad daylight and not under the cover of darkness.
The visit was preceded by a long saga, involving numerous discussions and threats between the office of the Knesset Speaker and the defense establishment. It began after the murder of Bratslav Hasid Ben Yosef Livnat, who together with friends snuck into the tomb in April, in the dead of night, without coordinating with the army, and was shot to death by a Palestinian policeman.
Representatives of the right-wing parties asked Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin to arrange for Knesset sponsorship and approval of the visit. Rivlin approached the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet security service, who objected, claiming the act was a provocation, and that it would lead to a conflagration.
"You're saying no in order to see how we will react," said Rivlin. "What provocation is there here? After all, the Oslo Accords state that any Israeli is permitted to go to the tomb, providing the visit is coordinated. We're interested in coordinating the visit."
The heads of the defense establishment withdrew their objection, and it was agreed that a few days later the visit would take place, at 10 A.M. The night before, at midnight, Defense Minister Ehud Barak called Rivlin. Also on the line were Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen and the regional army commander. Netanyahu was in Washington at the time, between the meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama and the speech in Congress; he knew about the plans but didn't intervene.
Although the security people told Rivlin they could guarantee that the MKs would not suffer a scratch during the visit, they were concerned about any rioting that could ensue as a result. Specifically, there was a fear that a number of Palestinians would be harmed by Israel Defense Forces fire, which would cast a shadow over Netanyahu's visit to the U.S.
At the end of the nighttime talks, Rivlin ordered the Knesset officer to contact the MKs and tell them that the trip had been postponed by a week. He decided with Barak and Cohen that the visit would take place the following week.
When the time came, Rivlin informed the defense established that the visit was about to get under way.
"No," he was told, "this week isn't good. There are problems, issues. Next week will be all right."
"Is that final?" asked Rivlin.
"Of course," they told him.
Once again he informed the MKs that the visit would be postponed by a week - to this past week. At the same time, he asked the defense establishment to send him a letter approving the visit. The following day he received the response, and saw that two words had been added to the word approval: "in principle."
At the beginning of this week Rivlin informed the Defense Ministry and the Shin Bet that the visit was about to take place. Look, they told him, there's a fear there will be riots. Maybe we'll postpone it? "No problem," said Rivlin, "if you don't want the MKs to go, I'll go. I don't need your approval. I'll activate Unit 730 [the Shin Bet force responsible for VIP security] and they'll take care of me. I won't agree to be the tool for deceiving the MKs."
That day Defense Minister Barak was in China, and tried to reach Rivlin several times by phone. Rivlin was busy. Barak got the message and approved the visit from China. The MKs went and came back, on Tuesday, and no riots broke out.
From Nablus the MKs returned to the beginning of the Knesset plenary session, the part devoted to one-minute speeches. One after another they approached the microphones in the corners of the hall and reported on their experiences.
"You see," Rivlin told them, "you're lucky you had a chance to fulfill the Oslo Accords."
In the presence of the prime minister, Likud MK Ophir Akunis stood on the Knesset dais on Wednesday afternoon and quarreled with members of the opposition.
"I would like to say something that is unusual in political life in Israel," he said toward the end of his speech. The Knesset fell silent in anticipation.
"I would like to say thank you," said Akunis. "Thank you for helping many Israelis to stand proud. Thank you for refreshing the world's memory that Israel is in Judea and Samaria by right, and not as a favor. Thank you."
Akunis was Netanyahu's spokesman. He is considered the MK closest to Netanyahu. He speaks with him regularly, and spreads his messages in the media.
The MKs in the plenum broke out in loud laughter. Deputy Knesset Speaker Ahmed Tibi, who was moderating the session, called out to them: "Don't interrupt him. He is trying to say something unusual in politics and you're disturbing him."
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