Having completed two years of his term, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become, in the words of the late Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, media insolvent. He firmly believes that most of the media, with the exception of his "home-team" newspaper, the free Israel Hayom, are determined to topple him and, until that happens, to humiliate him.
The media reception of his plan for national housing committees is, as he sees it, another case in point. For weeks, he toiled over it with his finance, justice, interior and housing ministers. The moment it was presented, it was immediately written off as a maneuver designed to improve relations with Shas. For good reason, Netanyahu has come to embrace Ariel Sharon's motto: "I don't have disappointments because I don't have expectations."
Of late, he's been working with a team of strategic advisers on figuring out ways to bypass the traditional media, and he seems to be finding the answer online: that is to say, on Facebook and Twitter.
As part of a pilot project, Netanyahu connected through Facebook this week to a group of pre-screened participants. They asked questions and he replied, for nearly two hours; no one interrupted him. Afterward, the participants continued the online discussion. The plan is to hold such discussions and then allow the media to turn them into news items. Netanyahu's team is planning in this way to upgrade his online presence, as well as that of his bureau, beyond Israel as well. Like Presidents Obama and Sarkozy have done.
Netanyahu is taking this online project seriously. No less than "the second Bar-Ilan speech" - a term that has become inimical even before the speech has been written.
On Wednesday, a symposium entitled "Begin and the Parliament, initiated by Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, was held in the Knesset to mark the 19th anniversary of the death of Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Among the participants were right-wing ideologues like former cabinet minister Yoram Aridor and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, as well as prominent leftists, including Profs. Mordechai Kremnitzer and Amnon Rubinstein. Also present were Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and Netanyahu.
The prime minister spoke out in the sharpest and most vehement terms against Jewish lawbreakers in the territories, asserting: "The law does not pass over anyone. There is no one who is above the law. If Menachem Begin were with us, he would not refrain from expressing both outrage and shock in face of that tiny marginal minority that even today is harming emissaries of the law and justice, as well as innocent people, only because they are Arabs. The State of Israel will not tolerate or accept harassment of Arab inhabitants as a method of protest against the government. This is a total distortion of the concept of civil protest, the perception of human morality and the spirit of Jewish justice."
The Prime Minister's Office published his remarks on its website and via text message. They reflect the fact that Netanyahu seems to be trying to find himself today. One day, in wake of the revolution in Egypt, he declares, "There is no one to rely on in this region, apart from ourselves." The next day, privately, he says that a bi-national state would be nothing less than "a disaster" for Israel and that he intends to present a "diplomatic plan" to prevent it from happening. After that he rushes to the Jordan Valley and declares that in any agreement, Israel will maintain a military presence there. He later clarifies that this doesn't mean maintaining Israeli sovereignty, just a military presence.
Then he appoints Maj. Gen. (res. ) Yaakov Amidror, a rapacious hawk, as his national security adviser, and urges Brig. Gen. (res. ) Mike Herzog, brother of left-wing Labor MK Isaac Herzog, to become his diplomatic adviser. Three weeks ago, he approached the head of the extreme right-wing National Union faction, MK Yaakov Katz and offered him, and some other members, a chance to join the coalition. At the same time, he rejected Katz's pre-condition for joining - that he declare support for construction in the territories, East Jerusalem and Ma'aleh Adumim.
Most likable politician
One of the symbols and leaders of the Labor Party over the past 20 years is now hospitalized in critical condition at Assaf Harofeh Hospital. Labor MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the most likable politician in our midst, is anaesthetized and on a respirator.
A year and two weeks ago, a splendid birthday bash was held in his honor in Even Yehuda. It was attended by cabinet ministers, tycoons, movers and shakers, and the president. The person who organized this "surprise party" - Ben-Eliezer accidentally received a text message about it in advance - was Ayelet Azoulay, his longstanding bureau chief. When asked why she was throwing such a huge party to mark his 74th birthday, she replied: "Today the king [this is how she refers to him] is at the height of his power. Minister of industry, trade and labor. Beloved. Strong. Who knows where he will be next year?"
A costly campaign
Newspaper advertisements, billboards in strategic places and posters plastered on buses are urging us to join the Labor Party. The "Enlisting for Israel" campaign is being launched by a new movement headed by businessman Ariel Margalit, who himself is considering a run for party chief, and Jerusalem Foundation President Ruth Cheshin. Other members are businessman Moshe Gaon and former head of police investigations, Moshe Mizrahi, who said at the press conference this week that he decided to join because this is "clean politics."
The goal: registering about 30,000 new party members and thus doubling the total number. This campaign is not connected to any of Labor's official institutions. The problem is that legally an initiative of this sort could be considered making a donation to the party. Quite a number of parties have been fined for undertaking similar campaigns, even though they had no connection to them: The state comptroller forced them to pay heavy fines, sometimes double the cost of the campaign itself. The reason - to prevent shady conspiracies to bypass existing legal caps on donations.
MK Eitan Cabel, who up until less than two years ago was secretary general of the Labor Party and now serves as chairman of its Knesset faction, fears his party will be slapped with a formidable fine now. "If the campaign costs NIS 1 million, we can expect a fine of NIS 2 million," he says. "This will bury us once and for all. For something like this, a party in Israel can shut down."
When Cabel became party secretary general six years ago, Labor was NIS 140 million in debt. When he left, the debt had shrunk to NIS 80 million, and as recovery measures have continued, it has dropped further to NIS 56 million. All debts to suppliers have been paid off, all outstanding court cases have been closed, and assets that haven't been sold are mortgaged. More than half the party-funding money transferred to Labor monthly is now used to cover debts to the state. The little cash it has goes for salaries. "In the past, we paid fines of millions for similar things," says Cabel in despair. "I have no complaints against Margalit or Gaon. But they should know - this could be the end of us."
In response, the spokesman for the new movement, Nadav Galon, said its members had been told there was nothing illegal about their activities and that, therefore, they had no intention of responding to the request to end the campaign. He refused to reveal how much money has been invested in the membership drive.
A nod from Sara
On Sunday, national security adviser Uzi Arad left his office in the exclusive "aquarium" of the Prime Minister's Office and returned to academia. He is still pining for a senior diplomatic posting after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman thwarted Netanyahu's plans to appoint him ambassador to London.
The prime minister held a toast for Arad. A number of cabinet ministers were invited, speeches were delivered and compliments were exchanged between the departee ("I found in you a leader of stature who can navigate and lead the country at a high professional level" ) and the the premier. ("Uzi has a copyright and developer's rights on the National Security Council" ). Also present at the ceremony were members of the Arad family and Sara Netanyahu. The presence or absence of the prime minister's wife at such events is the best possible evidence of the status of the person in whose honor it is being held. When media adviser Nir Hefetz left the bureau a few months ago, Sara did not come. Nor did she when political adviser Shalom Shlomo left.
So, despite the disappointment and bitterness, Arad is still a friend of the family. Yes, he resigned, but he will not join the long list of former advisers who have become foes with axes to grind.