Caricature of Netanyahu
Caricature of Netanyahu Photo by Amos Biderman
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Earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office announced that the premier had ordered Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman to formulate the loyalty oath bill (by which new citizens would have to swear loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic state" ), such that it applies to Jewish immigrants, too. This move was designed to erase the racist element from the original decision: Not only Christians and Muslims will be required to declare loyalty.

"Another zigzag by Bibi," the newspapers wrote. In a cabinet meeting two weeks ago, Netanyahu insisted that the ministers would be voting on the original formulation of the proposal, without amendments - meaning without the clause applying the declaration to Jewish immigrants, and without the proposal made by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to add "in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence."

Netanyahu's staff members quickly responded to the media reports. "What do you mean, zigzag?" they said. "The clause [about immigrants] appears in the original proposal on which the ministers voted on October 10. The government decision explicitly stipulated that the justice minister prepare a bill in this spirit, and then send it to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation."

The Prime Minister's Office even sent Haaretz the official formulation of the cabinet decision, and the fourth clause indeed affirms Netanyahu's staff's claims.

However, if the ministers did indeed decide 12 days ago that the justice minister should include this clause, why did the Prime Minister's Office never rebut the allegations that the loyalty oath bill was racist?

During the October 10 cabinet meeting, two ministers addressed Neeman's proposal to apply the oath to Jews, too. Michael Eitan (Likud ) said he would vote for the resolution if it contained the clause; Yuli Edelstein (Likud ) said the exact opposite. In the end, Eitan voted against the proposal and Edelstein voted in favor.

I asked the two ministers, separately, about their votes.

Eitan: "I understood perfectly what I was voting on. I asked that the resolution include two items - that is, the Neeman proposal. The proposal put up for a vote did not include the second item, so I voted against it. There was mention of a 'clarification' of various items, but that was not enough for me."

But the clause that you wanted appears in the government resolution. Do you think it was added retroactively?

Eitan: "I don't know. It could be that they pasted it in a minute later, or a week later, or at that time. When we voted, it wasn't in the resolution."

For his part, Edelstein said, "If this clause had appeared in the resolution, I definitely would have voted against it. Nothing of the sort was written. At the end of the discussion, the prime minister said Neeman would look into the option and bring a final formulation to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation. When Neeman brought up the proposal, I started to yell that this sets us back, legally, 50 years. Netanyahu grasped that this was a complicated matter, and dropped [the Neeman proposal]."

Three other ministers, speaking anonymously, said that during the October 10 meeting, nothing was mentioned about the loyalty oath being applied to Jewish immigrants; Netanyahu explicitly quashed this idea, they noted. When one minister suggested that he bring two alternative formulations to the ministerial committee, so that the ministers would have some maneuvering room, Netanyahu declared, "No! Only the Declaration of Independence proposal will be examined."

Fights and arrangements

In sum: Quite a few ministers are willing to swear that the resolution they were read did not apply the loyalty oath to Jewish immigrants. The Prime Minister's Office insists that this clause appears in the resolution, which was passed by a margin of 22 to 8. Confused? By 2040, when the minutes of the government meeting are released, everything will be clear.

The conflict between Netanyahu and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin concerning the Economic Arrangements Bill, which accompanies the state budget, was covered at length in these pages last week. On Wednesday, Yitzhak Rabin's memorial day, it appeared that tensions between the two had abated. Netanyahu delivered two speeches, one at Mount Herzl and the other in the Knesset. Both times he even referred to the Knesset speaker by his nickname, Ruby.

Earlier in the week, however, Netanyahu was told that Rivlin had said in a closed meeting that his own wife takes no part in political appointments. Rivlin had said this in a conversation with MK Zevulun Orlev regarding Knesset appointments. Earlier, the speaker had ran into Roni Mana, a former friend of the Netanyahu family. Mana told Rivlin that Sara Netanyahu is swearing to anyone who will listen that Rivlin will become president only over her dead body. An hour later, Rivlin made his remark during his chat with Orlev.

In response, the prime minister's associates leaked to Channel 2 that Netanyahu is considering supporting a bill that has been sitting in the Knesset for six months. The bill would mandate that a Knesset speaker who wishes to run for president must wait two years after completing his term. It's a proposal that will never win a majority, not in the Knesset and not in the government. MK (and minister without portfolio ) Benny Begin branded it "unnecessary and pointless."

The retaliatory leak depicted Netanyahu as entangling himself in petty politics, rather than devoting his energy to matters of vital state interest. It was also a practical mistake - the prime minister must be careful about how he treats the Knesset speaker, who can make his life hellish.

Knesset colleagues perceive Rivlin as a defender of their status, and of the parliament in general. He is widely popular. When he clashes with Netanyahu, he is seen as having the public's interest in mind, not his own.

"I don't understand why Netanyahu believes I want to harm him personally," Rivlin said this week. "We are talking about schools of thought. His is designed to harm the Knesset; mine is to defend the Knesset. They are trying to make it seem like Bibi and I have a personal conflict. That never has happened."

Rivlin explained: "The Economic Arrangements Bill formulation requested by Netanyahu and the Finance Ministry had a long list of reforms with no connection to the budget, and initiatives rejected by the Knesset, such as the Wisconsin welfare-to-work plan, which would render the Knesset impotent. There was the 'Mofaz bill,' that would undermine the Knesset's rules of the game [this proposal, which would have helped the Kadima party split, was opposed by Rivlin], and there was the referendum bill, also designed to bypass the Knesset, and there was also the loyalty oath bill, which I opposed. These relate to worldviews. They are not personal issues."

He continued: "For many months I asked Netanyahu and [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz not to go overboard with the Economic Arrangements Bill. I thought they had agreed. When Netanyahu told me, 'Everything will go into this bill,' I told him it wouldn't happen. This week, Yarom Ariav [former Finance Ministry director general] called me and said, 'Ruby, I was stunned and ashamed by the dimensions of the bill that they tried to pass.' I considered this serious, and gave warnings. When [MK Ophir] Akunis came out with his referendum bill, I asked him whether Netanyahu backs it. He told me, do you think I would propose such a bill without Bibi's assent? Then he told me the proposal was his own initiative."

Are you in contact with Netanyahu's people, in an effort to straighten things out?

Rivlin: "It should be clear: I won't surrender to temptations, nor will I give in to threats."

Persona non grata

The annual public memorial event for Yitzhak Rabin, to be held next Saturday evening in the Tel Aviv square named for the assassinated prime minister, will be devoid of politicians. Apart from President Shimon Peres, only "cultural figures" are slated to appear. That doesn't mean that it won't be a political rally. During the 2006 event, which was also ostensibly free of politicians, the writer David Grossman delivered an address. This was a few months after Grossman lost his son during the Second Lebanon War, and the event became a singularly political occasion. Grossman denounced Israel's "hollow leadership."

Were this year's event organizers to invite any single politician, they would be obligated also to invite Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. Last year, Barak drew boos from some audience members. The event organizers strongly wanted to avoid a repeat of that this year.

"If the Labor Party had a popular chairman, I imagine we would have reached a different decision," a member of the event's organizing committee stated this week. "But Barak is a problem. Who will leave the house to hear him?"

The person who 11 years ago celebrated his election in Rabin Square, as though he were the successor of the assassinated prime minister, who promised his constituency "the dawn of a new day," is now a persona non grata there.

New start for Shas?

Deputy Finance Minister Yitzhak Cohen, of the Shas party, is one of the Knesset's most popular figures. Recently he celebrated the brit milah (circumcision ) of his grandson; the event was held in a synagogue on the ground floor of the Jerusalem apartment building where Shas leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef lives. Among others, Tzipi Livni and Dan Meridor attended the event.

During the celebration, an emissary of Rabbi Yosef came to the synagogue and told Meridor, "The rabbi wants to see you."

The last time Meridor visited Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's house was 21 years ago, on May 14, 1989. At the time he was justice minister in Yitzhak Shamir's unity government. He and defense minister Yitzhak Rabin had submitted a peace plan to the government. The rabbi phoned Shamir, asking for details. Shamir sent Meridor to present the plan to the Shas spiritual leader.

This time, Meridor went upstairs and entered the rabbi's living room. "Meridor, my friend," the rabbi cried out, happily. He sat next to Meridor and began a conversation. At one stage he put his hand on Meridor's head, and blessed him, while lightly slapping Meridor's cheek with his other hand.

Meridor absorbed the slaps and the blessing. One his way out, he met Livni, who also had been invited upstairs. Livni, too, had not been to this apartment in quite a few years. Her relations with Shas chairman Eli Yishai are tense; two years ago, Shas scuttled Livni's attempt to form a government. Subsequent to that, Livni delivered a number of speeches criticizing the ultra-Orthodox and complaining about religious coercion. Yet she, too, was invited, and also received a blessing - with the rabbi's hand hovering over her covered head, and without any slaps on the cheek.

People at the rabbi's apartment sensed that he is trying to make a fresh start. Who whispered in Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's ear that he ought to try to reconnect with politicians who have been at odds with Shas - or, in Orthodox idiom, that he ought to "prepare hearts"? Perhaps the answer lies in the videos shot at deputy minister Cohen's celebration.