How Peres Ruined Netanyahu's Independence Day

In the midst of a blame game between Israel and the Palestinians over the collapse of the talks, the president pulled the rug from under the Israeli version of events.

Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter
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Peres and Netanyahu during the opening ceremony of the 19th Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. July 18, 2013.Credit: Reuters
Yossi Verter
Yossi Verter

It’s not hard to understand why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was livid with rage at the end of Independence Day. His blood boiled when he learned what President Shimon Peres had said in a television interview: That Peres had all but reached a historic agreement with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas three years ago, but it had been shot down by the prime minister.

This story itself is not new. It was reported in real time, when at the last minute, Netanyahu ordered Peres to cancel a trip to Jordan, where he planned to sign a series of accords that were to set in motion direct talks between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

The problem is that Israel, under Netanyahu’s leadership, is currently in the midst of a blame game with the Palestinians, a game that both sides like to play. At this critical juncture, none other than the senior figure among all senior figures, the president of the presidents, Shimon Peres himself, is yanking the tablecloth from under the dishes being served up the Israelis – to the effect that it was the Palestinians who left the table at the moment of truth, just as they have always done in the past. We left, too, the president said serenely. More to the point: Bibi left.

The contacts between the president of Israel and his longtime friend, the Palestinian president (with the full authority and knowledge of the prime minister), are an open secret. Peres has shared the relevant details, in full or in part, with many people over the years. For example, according to Peres, he and his counterpart agreed to resolve the dispute over recognition of Israel as a Jewish state by means of an original idea, whereby the peace agreement would be signed “on behalf of the Palestinian state” by President Abbas, and “on behalf of the Jewish state” by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Thus, Peres believed in the past – and continues to believe – that without militant declarations and without anyone setting conditions, Abbas would recognize de facto that Israel is the Jewish nation-state. Peres believes that Netanyahu’s militancy and insistence on making this principle a huge political banner pushed Abbas into a corner and left him no choice but to reject the idea outright.

Besides the holiday gift that ruined Netanyahu’s fun on Independence Day, Peres behaved with perfect decorum. In all the interviews he gave – to newspapers, television channels and Internet sites – he was piously respectful to Netanyahu.

For his part, Peres will celebrate his own independence after he steps down as president, midsummer. Indeed, in the interviews, in which he came across as lucid and sharp, he did not speak of the vast disappointment he has felt vis-a-vis Netanyahu in the five years they have worked together. He did not share with the public the immense frustration he feels as his term draws to a close. He did not say who he thinks is most to blame for the fact that Israel’s international status in the middle of 2014 is gloomier and darker than it was in the middle of 2009, when Netanyahu was elected and promised Peres the moon.

Naively, the president believed him and traveled the world, persuading leaders everywhere that the “new” Bibi would not let history pass him by without leaving his imprint. And after every globe-trotting PR mission he conducted for Netanyahu, Peres was greeted with deliberate leaks from the Prime Minister’s Bureau to the effect that the institution of the presidency should be eliminated because of its “wastefulness and ostentation.” Who was saying this about him? None other than the Spartan monk from the residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem.

The two men continue to meet occasionally for dinner in the President’s Residence to talk about the situation in the country. If in the past Peres emerged from these meetings optimistic and primed for his next (superfluous) mission – these days he’s mainly passing the time and counting the days he still has left in office.

Once, Netanyahu asked him, like a pupil asking his mentor: Tell me, Shimon, why hasn’t the United States signed a defense pact with Israel to this day? “Because the United States doesn’t sign such pacts with countries that don’t have formal, official borders,” Peres replied – as though to say: Bibi, you can’t have it both ways.

Bad karma

Netanyahu has bad karma when it comes to presidential matters. Twice in the past two decades he tried to be a presidential kingmaker, so to speak, and twice he failed. In 1998, while he was a faltering prime minister in his first term, he supported a Likud backbencher, MK Shaul Amor, against President Ezer Weizman, who was seeking a second term. In 2007, as leader of the opposition, he backed Likud MK Reuven Rivlin against Peres.

Without pretending to be able to read Netanyahu’s mind, I would venture to say that the two losses were traumatic for him. By the way, in 2000 he was forced to watch abjectly as Ariel Sharon, his successor as Likud chair, managed to pull off an impossible feat: From his inferior post as leader of the opposition, he brought about Peres’ defeat and the election of Moshe Katsav (later convicted of rape) as president.

Now Netanyahu is facing a cruel dilemma. The person who is considered the leading candidate, or one of the leading candidates, is Rivlin, from Likud. On the face of it, this is a golden opportunity to make amends. But Netanyahu doesn’t want Rivlin. Why? Just because. They don’t get along. There’s no chemistry between them.

Actually, “doesn’t want” is an understatement. Key political figures who’ve met with the premier lately describe him as haunted and obsessed, determined and dead set on preventing Rivlin’s election at any price and by any means – short of calling in a hit squad. “He’s ready to abrogate the whole country, just so Rivlin won’t be president,” one of these sources said, and added, “It’s hard to believe: He’s like a wounded animal fighting for its life.”

The prime minister has met with the leaders of his coalition partners – Avigdor Lieberman, Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid – to ask their opinion on the idea of eliminating the institution of the presidency. Lapid and Bennett were noncommittal. They’re not wild about being involved in such a problematic, hasty and panicky move. After all, the final day for registration of candidates is only about a month off, we are in the middle of the legally determined period for holding the election – between 90 and 30 days before the end of the serving president’s term – and the reasons for such a move are personal, emotional and caustic, anything but substantive.

Netanyahu hasn’t presented alternatives to the vacuum that would be created if the institution of the presidency no longer exists. There is no method to his suggestion/importuning. It’s all shoot from the hip. He isn’t saying who would sign off on amnesties for prisoners, for example, or who would take the president’s place in a whole series of state ceremonies and events (the PM is already the busiest person in the country, and how much can poor Yuval Steinitz do?). Above all, who will decide what  MK to turn to to form the next government?

It may be this latter problem that’s rankling the prime minister. Looking ahead to the next elections, he sees a situation in which there might be a few medium-sized parties in competition. On the assumption that Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu do not run together again – as the latter’s leader, Avigdor Lieberman, has declared – Likud could be one of those medium-sized parties. The other parties will make a whole range of recommendations to the president about who should form the next government. The person who is president then will have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Netanyahu fan to let him be the one to forge a new coalition. The last time we looked, there was no such person.

To run or not to run

As far as Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom is concerned, he can now resume his race for the presidency from the place at which it was abruptly curtailed some six weeks ago, when suspicions of sexual misconduct in the past were raised against him. He sees Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein’s decision to close the case against him as absolute vindication. Still, the situation is no longer what it was a month and a half ago, when Shalom seemed to have the best chance of succeeding Peres. In any event, there is one sentence missing in the attorney general’s announcement: “We found nothing amiss in the minister’s conduct.”

Indeed Weinstein’s formulation left a bitter aftertaste. According to Gidi Weitz’s report in yesterday’s Haaretz (Hebrew edition), the AG believed the story of the original complainant, M. However, the statute of limitations applied in this case, and it was impossible to charge Shalom with sexual harassment.

Shalom will now have to make a tough decision: to run or not to run. Unlike the other candidates, or most of them, he has never officially declared that he is in the race. I’m considering it, I’m examining the possibility, I’m consulting about it, I have definitely not made up my mind, he said. But he was up to his neck in preparations, even had unofficial campaign heads – Likud MKs Zeev Elkin and Yariv Levin, two of the savviest parliamentarians around. Both of them, by the way, still think he should run. But people who spoke to Shalom on Wednesday did not find him especially eager. He spoke about the need “to think it over” and about the hard life of a politician, a life of doing and giving incessantly, from morning to night – and this is what he gets as a reward.

Another nail in the coffin

Adina Bar-Shalom achieved a rare honor this year: On Independence Day eve, she was one of the women who lit a torch in the traditional Mount Herzl ceremony. The next day, she was awarded the Israel Prize for her life’s work and her special contribution to society and the state, for establishing an ultra-Orthodox college in Jerusalem and for her activity on behalf of Haredi women who want to enter the labor market.

It’s no secret that Bar-Shalom wants to enter national politics. Reports say she intends to run in the next Knesset election. Not, heaven forbid, as a candidate of Shas, the party founded by her late father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, but in a party with a more modern, secular, open character.

One option that she is seriously considering involves joining forces with Moshe Kahlon. At her request, she met with the popular former Likud minister two weeks ago, and they talked about her joining the social-oriented party he intends to establish before the next election. Kahlon confirmed that the meeting took place, but was unwilling to say whether anything was finalized. He will reveal the names of those he has recruited at a time and place of his choosing, when the election is looming on the horizon.

Among her public activities, Bar-Shalom is a member of the public council of the leftist Geneva Initiative, founded by former Labor minister and Meretz leader Yossi Beilin. In the past, she has expressed support for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria, and for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the 1967 boundaries, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Kahlon, however, is a right-winger. In the past, he was part of Likud’s most extreme faction – for example, he was an honorable member of the “rebels” who opposed Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip. Since then, he has become slightly more moderate. But does that matter? So irrelevant is the notion of peace these days that a salient and proud leftist like Bar-Shalom can cohabit the same political house as a rightist like Kahlon without anyone raising an eyebrow.

The connection between Bar-Shalom and Kahlon could be the last nail in Shas’ already perforated coffin. Even without her, Kahlon, a Mizrahi (that is, a Jew with origins in Arab lands) is thought to be capable of wresting four or five seats from the Haredi party whose best days are long behind it.

If the daughter of Rabbi Yosef, with all that this implies for the orphaned and yearning Shas public, joins a competing party and becomes one of its stars, perhaps even serving as a cabinet minister in the next government, that would be something of a big bang in Haredi-Mizrahi politics. Aryeh Deri, pay attention.

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