livni - Moti Milrod - December 9 2010
Tzipi Livni. Photo by Moti Milrod
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Midday on Monday, the day after the first documents were leaked by Al Jazeera, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Tzipi Livni met in the Knesset speaker's office, on the occasion of the Knesset's birthday. All present, including the host, were preoccupied with the juicy tidbits that had been revealed from the back rooms of the negotiations that took place in 2008-2009 between Ehud Olmert and Livni, on the Israeli side, and Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qureia on behalf of the Palestinians.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin: "Why were they even talking about Jerusalem? Jerusalem should be a red line."

Livni: "For years you accused me of selling the country for a pittance to the Palestinians, of dividing everything, but now the truth has emerged, and not from me but from their side. I said nothing and revealed nothing of what went on there, because I didn't want to spoil things."

Netanyahu: "I don't understand why they want us to freeze construction in Jerusalem and in the settlements, which even according to them will remain ours."

Livni kept her cool at the gathering in Rivlin's bureau. But later, in private conversations, she blew a gasket. "That's what he had to say - Yallah, let's send the bulldozers in and start building? This is a prime minister who wants an agreement? He hurries to declare that it's ours? How is that? Did you conduct a dialogue? Did you agree to give something? Instead of saying something positive, instead of addressing the issue itself - that's all he had to say?"

The documents published so far show Livni to be a negotiator with genuine intentions, but not someone rushing to forgo vital interests. The details showing how close the Israelis and Palestinians were to striking a deal will also help her in the confrontation with her party rival, Shaul Mofaz, who is trying to promote an interim agreement now, on the grounds that a final-status solution has no chance.

"For the past two years they have been saying that the negotiations were either not serious or that they failed. I kept quiet, because I wanted to give things a chance. I intend to return to the negotiating room, and it was important for me to preserve the trust that was created," Livni said this week.

This week she heard Likud's Gilad Erdan, the cabinet minister who is the liaison between the government and the Knesset, accuse her of sending emissaries to the Palestinians to tell them: Wait, don't go into a room with Netanyahu - we'll be coming soon.

"What drivel," she responded. "What do I care if the Palestinians don't believe him, if they think he doesn't want to reach an agreement? If they thought otherwise, they would sit with him. Is someone seriously blaming me for the fact that there are no talks?

"It's interesting," Livni added, "that after publication of the documents, the Likud people did not rush to accuse me of treason, of leftism, of holding a liquidation sale. Even they understand that something serious went on here. That's what I hear from the public, too. I am not commenting on the veracity of the documents, but people read them and were impressed, and realized there was a real chance to resolve the conflict."

Livni went on to note that nothing that was published should have come as a surprise to Netanyahu.

"When we left, he received all the material from us, fully and honorably. If he had truly wanted to reach an agreement he only had to announce that he was continuing the talks from the point at which they were broken off. But I doubt that he even read the material. Uzi Arad read it," she added, referring to the head of the National Security Council.

"It is clear today that the process did not fail, but rather was not completed. It did not end, but failed to reach the stage of agreement due to the elections and the choice made by this government not to continue the negotiations," Livni stated in a speech to the Knesset this week.

On March 31, 2009, the eve of the swearing-in of the Netanyahu government, the outgoing prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stated in his farewell speech before the Knesset: "The intensive negotiations we conducted - the foreign minister and I - with the Palestinians did not, regrettably, reach the point of a signed agreement. Our attempts to bridge the gaps did not yet draw a response, whether because of a lack of readiness or because of apprehension or the other side's inability to decide. Thus, no agreement was reached."

If so, Livni and Olmert disagree - not for the first time and not only on this issue. As head of the parliamentary opposition, Livni has a clear interest: to place the blame on Netanyahu. In this case, Olmert's version of events might be considered to be free of immediate political considerations.

Livni was asked this week: "On the assumption that you are right and Netanyahu is to blame for the failure to reach an agreement, are you convinced that if you are elected prime minister and return to the negotiations from the point at which they stopped, you will reach an agreement?"

Livni, to her credit, hesitated a great deal before replying, "I don't know. I can't say. It depends on a lot of things."

Tribe of cannibals

Micha Harish's swan song as an active politician came during the primary election of his party, on the eve of the 1996 general election. Harish, who was the industry and trade minister in the government of Yitzhak Rabin (after whose murder the Peres government took over ) suffered from the image of having a bland personality. He failed to win a realistic slot in Labor's list of Knesset candidates, and the drama of Netanyau's election as prime minister overshadowed that of Harish's departure from the Knesset into the business world.

This week, after a 15-year absence from the public arena, the 74-year-old Harish became Labor's new temporary chairman. The same quality that brought about his political fall is the one that made him the best suited to serve as Labor's "sewer cleaner" (in the words of Labor's Benjamin Ben-Eliezer ).

That image is unfair, though. Harish was one of the most successful Labor Party secretaries general. He's affable, an astute politician and a decent person. In the months ahead he will work from morning to night, trying to rebuild the party. Afterward some meteor will be elected as its leader and Harish will likely disappear again.

It's an unprecedented project: to build a party up from the foundations while erasing every memory of Ehud Barak's rule, with a new constitution, new rules of the game and new institutions. One thing Harish will not be able to do, though, is to eradicate the virus that lodged in the body of the party for the past decade, during which Labor had no fewer than seven leaders.

The party's new-old Knesset faction chairman, MK Eitan Cabel, said this week: "The first three meetings of the group of eight" - referring to Labor's eight MKs after Barak split the party - "were conducted in an impressive way."

In other words, there was no physical fighting, no insults?

"Correct. But that says nothing about the future. We haven't yet reached core issues such as the date of the primaries. I want them to be held as late as possible - not for a year, at least."

Why?

"Frankly, the basic problems we face are so deep that we need a dramatic change in our conduct. Even after the earthquake we experienced, our narrative has not changed. Someone could be elected and in another year Bibi [Netanyahu] will call us, and that person will say we should enter the government, because 'the country needs us.' We are Mapainiks, you know" - referring to the forerunner of Labor, and its pragmatic ethos.

"My working assumption is that if we set the primaries for seven months down the road, the race will begin immediately. And in that case, why did we recall Micha?"

What you're saying, then, is that after Harish goes the infighting will resume.

"It's very possible. All those who are crying today that they were trampled and eaten alive did the same thing to others. Wasn't Barak a cannibal? He was. Have we forgotten what he did to Peres? And wasn't Peres a cannibal? Have we forgotten what he did to Barak? This didn't start two years ago. We haven't recovered from the assassination of Rabin ... Today I am nostalgic for 13 Knesset seats. When we got 13, I was nostalgic for 19, and when we got 19, I wanted to go back to 26. It's been like that for the past 20 years."

What's the conclusion?

"That this is how we are being erased. But I am not despairing. Maybe we still have a chance."

Clipping wings

A new bill stipulates that the term of office of the CEOs of the Channel 2 and Channel 10 news corporations will be reduced from five to three years, and that there will no longer be a need for 75 percent of the board of directors - that is, the representatives of the public - to agree to dismiss or appoint a CEO. The sponsor of the bill, MK Yariv Levin (Likud ), interviewed on Channel 10 news on Wednesday, accused the commercial media of being too left-wing and too one-dimensional. He wants to impose limitations, he said, by means of his bill.

Netanyahu's forceful support of the proposed legislation came as no surprise. The prime minister is not an advocate of strong, critical and free media. Netanyahu delivered a fire-breathing speech in the Knesset in favor of the bill.

In the 22 months during which Moshe Kahlon has served as communications minister, we have grown accustomed to see him as a representative of the downtrodden - taking a stand against the cell-phone companies and communications organizations, defending the rights of the ordinary folk. Many were surprised when, in meetings of Likud ministers and of the ministerial committee on legislation on Sunday, he spoke and voted in favor of the CEO bill. People expected him at least to voice a protest, like Ministers Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Limor Livnat.

Does the explanation for Kahlon's position stem from the fact that a few days earlier Netanyahu entrusted him - instead of any of the four Likud ministers without portfolio - with the social affairs portfolio, which was left behind by Labor refugee Isaac Herzog? No comment was received from Kahlon's bureau, when asked about this. The bill to clip the wings of the CEOs was supposed to come up for preliminary reading in the Knesset on Wednesday, but was deferred in the wake of an appeal submitted to the government. By whom? By Ministers Meridor and Begin, of course.