No Matter What Happens With Kerry, Netanyahu Determined to Be the Last Man Standing

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Three times a week, a silent swarm of dark-suited men head for the gym in the Knesset building’s basement. From this dense pack, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emerges in exercise garb, ready for battle. For one hour he leaves behind the stack of troubles that are piling up ever higher on his desk, and devotes himself wholly to stretching the bounds of physical stamina to the farthest limits allowed. In any event, the mental equivalent of that is tested 24/7.

Under the guidance of Anatoly, the trainer at the gym, Netanyahu engages in a series of intense exercises, with no break between one set and the next. At the end of one such set this week, he asked the paramedic who is always with him to take his pulse. The result was exemplary. But that wasn’t enough: An hour later, back in his office, he called the paramedic back in to do another check. Once again, everything was tip-top. By the book.

The trainer told him that 95 percent of his age group (the prime minister’s 64-and-a-bit) don’t achieve that level of fitness. Netanyahu took that information as both good news and bad news. The good news: He leaves 95 percent of the people his age in the dust. The bad news: Somewhere out there, people are still ahead of him. But not for long, he promises his interlocutor, not for long. He recalls his period in the ultra-elite Sayeret Matkal army unit, 40 years ago. At that time he was above the 100 percent in his 18-25 age group.

A few ministers taking part in a discussion in his bureau this week were treated to this story. If you thought that only fateful discussions about existential matters, or existential discussions about fateful matters, take place behind the double doors to his office – think again. Part of the time is devoted to gossip, tall tales, battle heritage sagas and domestic trivia. Maybe he wants to intimate to his interlocutors that they should not make far-reaching plans.

Ariel Sharon used to convey a similar message, via stories about his mother and his aunt, who had very long lives. Netanyahu’s family is also known for its longevity, but he doesn’t trust the genes alone.

Of course, most of his energy and time are taken up these days with issues relating to the peace talks, which are slowly working up to boiling point. The U.S. framework plan, which continues to be prepared in Secretary of State John Kerry’s pressure cooker, is (to change the metaphor) continuing to rattle the already taut nerves of the edgy and conflicted coalition (which, let’s admit, is not very simpatico).

As of midweek, the Prime Minister’s Bureau was unable to predict when the American document will be submitted or what it will or will not contain. According to diplomatic sources – who might be indulging in wishful thinking – the delay is due to the problem the Americans are having. Not with Israel, but with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. These sources say Netanyahu made it clear to Kerry that Israel will not be able to swallow a document that lacks the two unequivocal statements that reflect the American stance regarding the final-status agreement: (A) recognition of Israel as a Jewish state; and (B) rejection of the “right of return.” Abbas is finding it hard to accept those elements.

Have no fear, Netanyahu tells the Likud ministers, it will be an American document and will express American views; Israel will be entitled to object to every infuriating clause, such as the one about the 1967 borders or about East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state. After the two sides have objected as much as they like, the negotiations will be officially extended until the end of 2014.

From the premier's point of view, this period of time will be utilized for discussion – for “digging in,” as he puts it in those discussions – on the issue of security, security and security, and on three other subjects: the Jordan Valley, namely the eastern border; the northern, western and southern borders; and who’s going to safeguard the area Israel will evacuate.

At present, sources in Netanyahu's bureau say, 99 percent of the security work of collecting intelligence, thwarting terrorism and making preventive arrests in the territories is being done by Israel’s security forces. About 2 percent is being done by Abbas’ people.

Loath story

Do you intend to have the Knesset vote on the American framework agreement, the worried ministers ask the prime minister. He replies that he has no such intention, because this is only an American document, not an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians per se. Still, he is leaving a narrow opening for a possible change of mind in this regard. If there is a demand by ministers and MKs, he tells them, then maybe we will vote. We’ll see.

Netanyahu knows that no such demand will be made. Certainly not at a high volume, and still less by any senior coalition partners: neither by Yesh Atid, whose leader, Yair Lapid, has said publicly that he sees no need for a vote; nor by Naftali Bennett, the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, who in private conversations is saying he is also against a vote.

By the way, both of those party leaders voiced threats to resign this week, within the same 24-hour period. Lapid warned that he would leave the coalition if the new, emerging draft law doesn’t impose criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox evaders, as it does on secular draft dodgers. Bennett was both more original – and more confusing. “If the American document is not consistent with our values,” the economy minister declared at a conference in Jerusalem, “we will not be in the government.”

Sometimes it’s hard to understand what’s going on in Bennett’s mind. Who knows, maybe this is why the document hasn’t yet been finalized: Kerry and his staff are agonizing in an effort to adapt the document to the lofty values of Habayit Hayehudi.

Maybe Kerry should consult with the venerable sage of Bennett’s party, MK Moti Yogev, who said this week that Kerry’s efforts to bring about a peace agreement smack of “anti-Semitism.” Yogev, a lieutenant colonel in the reserves, thus demonstrated, for the thousandth time, the inverse relationship between scaling the promotion ladder in the army, and the scale of intelligence. MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta’al) once explained the paradox perfectly: “When I see you security types in the Knesset – from the army, the Shin Bet [security service] or the Mossad – I can’t understand how you manage to defeat the Arabs,” he said.

The two ostensibly dramatic declarations by the two party heads – without whom there will be no coalition – did not exactly shake the rafters. They were buried in the inside pages of the newspapers, as befits empty threats. And they surely made the prime minister for his previous coalition, and not for the first time. That coalition lasted four years without so much as one resignation threat being uttered. When Netanyahu looked in front, to the left and to the right, he saw Ehud Barak, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Eli Yishai. These days, when he looks around the cabinet table – he sees red.

Ministers present at the cabinet meeting last Sunday related that he couldn’t bring himself to exchange glances with Bennett. The row between them two weeks ago ended with Bennett’s backhanded apology, but the prime minister’s loathing for the wayward minister has not ended, and probably never will.

Netanyahu enjoyed telling ministers about the two dismissal letters that had been prepared for Bennett. Why two? One was short and laconic, in which the prime minister informs the economy minister that he has decided to fire him. Just two lines. The second, a longer missive, was drafted by the cabinet secretary, attorney Avichai Mandelblit, and was addressed to the ministers, explaining the reasons for the dismissal.

On the eve of a major policy decision, it’s the domestic arena that comes under scrutiny. The prevailing assumption in the political realm is that Netanyahu will not make a dramatic move that will threaten his hold on the premiership and will lead, sooner or later, to a new election. That, for him, is the supreme criterion: survival, survival and, again, survival.

Media commentators are sometimes tempted to concoct riveting scenarios, or unfounded suppositions, about how he will suddenly move leftward, split with Likud and create a new center party – a kind of 2014-model Kadima – with Avigdor Lieberman to his right and Tzipi Livni to his left, and with them ride into the sunset of peace.

Netanyahu reads and listens to such forecasts and, at least according to what he told MKs from his party this week, laughs about them. “I have no intention of engineering a ‘big bang,’” he told them. “I don’t intend to forgo my tribe.”

By “tribe” he means his political base, namely the right-wing electorate. For him that is home, the foundation, the bedrock, the rock of our existence. From there he came, and to there he will always return. Without the right-wing base, which has never abandoned him – not even when he was a worried citizen, far from politics – Netanyahu is a leaf tossed in a storm. A candle in the wind. Like the Land of Israel without thousands of years of history. Like Sheldon Adelson without the casinos. That tells the whole story.

The power of symbols

Netanyahu is currently observing the race for Israel’s next president from afar and with caution. At the moment, there is only one definite candidate from the Likud Knesset faction: MK Reuven Rivlin, who this week started (with the help of his close friend and fellow faction member, MK Haim Katz) to collect signatures of support for his candidacy. Ten MKs’ signatures are needed for a candidate to be included in the secret vote that will be held in the Knesset this May-June. Rivlin has collected four votes of support from Likud (Gideon Sa’ar, Tzipi Hotovely, Tzachi Hanegbi and, of course, Katz), and intends to get the other six from different parties, to demonstrate broad support. Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) is still checking out his chances.

Netanyahu tells his interlocutors that if there is more than one candidate from the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu slate, he will not get involved. Let the younger men play around. The question, though, is what will happen if Rivlin – Netanyahu’s rival, whom he ousted as Knesset speaker – ends up as the only Likud candidate. Wisely, Netanyahu chooses not to commit himself.

In the meantime, Prof. Dan Shechtman, a Nobel laureate in chemistry who has announced his candidacy for the presidency, this week met with senior politicians in the Knesset and looked a little lost. He met with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, and with Yair Lapid and Avigdor Lieberman. He heard plenty of compliments but got no signatures.

Lieberman, for his part, is waiting for the decision of the oracle from Beit She’an, David Levy, one of whose daughters is married to Lieberman’s chief of staff, while another is an outstanding MK in Habayit Hayehudi. If Levy decides to go for it, Lieberman will side with him and recruit support for him – even though Levy’s election would run counter to Lieberman’s political interest: to eliminate a Likud MK and thereby have the next person on the two-party joint list, former MK Alex Miller, enter the Knesset; that would raise the number of Yisrael Beiteinu MKs to 12 and reduce those of Likud to 19. That would also give Likud and Yesh Atid the same number of MKs – a purely symbolic matter that would have no practical effect, but symbols have meaning, too.

Illustration by Amos Biderman.

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