For three and a half years, Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu paid occasional visits to the second floor of the President's Residence, where they shared an intimate dinner with Israel's No. 1 citizen, who lives there alone. From time to time, he visited them for a Shabbat-eve meal. In those 41 months, Shimon Peres served the prime minister loyally in the world's capitals, defended him, did PR for him, exalted and magnified him.
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The interviews Peres gave to Israel's television channels last Thursday finally gave public expression to the view that politicians and journalists had heard the president espouse privately in the past two years. He firmly opposed an independent Israeli attack on Iran, putting an abrupt end to the lengthy romance between these Jerusalem neighbors. This week there was a total divorce between them; their bureaus spoke, the leaders did not.
Peres' office sought to calm matters. Netanyahu's confidants did not relent. They reminded the president of his series of historical "mistakes": his support for the Gaza disengagement and for the Oslo Accords, "which led to 1,000 deaths," they said; and his opposition to the 1981 attack on the Iraqi reactor. They continued to dredge up the president's misdemeanors: In an April 2005 interview in the French daily Le Figaro, four months before the Gaza withdrawal, Peres suggested that Israel not demolish the settlers' homes and let the Palestinians turn them into "holiday and youth villages."
In 2002 he called for an end to Operation Defensive Shield after one week; in the end, it lasted seven weeks and did mortal damage to the West Bank terrorist infrastructures. And during the lead-up to the Oslo Accords, led by Yitzhak Rabin and Peres, the army knew nothing until the deal was signed. Today, by contrast, the army is an integral element in the Iranian-related discourse led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Netanyahu's aides say they will continue to subject Peres to nasty, personal, below-the-belt blows if he continues to let his opinion be known. They say they have a file on him.
Netanyahu's aggressive response has stunned Peres and his staff. The president was especially hurt by the reference to "the 1,000 Israelis who were killed." Peres, always the gentleman, would never say, for example, that Netanyahu's hands are stained with the blood of the 17 soldiers killed in the violence that erupted after Netanyahu, during his first tenure as prime minister, ordered the opening of the Western Wall tunnel in 1996.
Peres would never say that Netanyahu is responsible for the death of 44 people in the Mount Carmel fire last year. He also may be wondering, albeit to himself, why, if the Oslo Accords were so terrible, Netanyahu didn't nullify them - or, if the Gaza disengagement was such a horrendous mistake, why Netanyahu supported and even voted for it in the Knesset and cabinet, before changing his mind at the 11th hour and resigning from Ariel Sharon's government.
Can't remain silent
Peres' decision to publicly declare his opinion is contrary to his presidential temperament, to everything that has characterized him in his five and a half years as president. And it reflects the magnitude of his apprehension and concern. Despite what the Prime Minister's Office thinks, Peres doesn't intend to run for prime minister at the age of 90. He simply is unable to remain silent any longer in the face of what he sees as an act bordering on national suicide. For the first time in his life, the eternal optimist - who has seen everything and done everything, held every position and buried almost everyone - is deeply pessimistic about the fate of the Jewish people in its land.
In the meantime, the prime minister is not convening the ministerial forum of eight very often these days. He prefers one-on-one meetings, mainly with members of the security cabinet, to explain to them the dire necessity of attacking Iran - even without the Americans. Netanyahu and Barak are working on mustering a majority in the cabinet. This week the premier sent National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror to Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to soften up the spiritual mentor of the Shas party. Shas ministers Eli Yishai and Ariel Atias, both members of the security cabinet, are thought to be opposed to an Iran attack.
There are 14 ministers in the security cabinet; eight of them comprise the above-mentioned octet. At the moment, two are definitely in favor of an attack: Netanyahu and Barak. Two others are thought to be supporters: Avigdor Lieberman and Yuval Steinitz. It's believed four are against: Yishai, Dan Meridor, Benny Begin and Moshe Ya'alon. Ya'alon put the brakes on an attack twice in the past year, though it has been sounding recently like he's going to change his tune. Some claim that his shift stems from political considerations: He hopes to succeed Barak as defense minister in the next government, if Netanyahu is the one who forms it.
The view in governmental circles is that Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman will always vote with Netanyahu. Uzi Landau will certainly back an attack. Silvan Shalom came out against an independent attack a week ago. The Prime Minister's Office counts him as a definite opponent of a military strike - for political, anti-Bibi reasons.
That makes six for and six against, for now. Of course, that could still change.
The other two members of the security cabinet are Gideon Sa'ar, from Likud, and Yitzhak Aharonovitch, from Yisrael Beiteinu. Their views are not known. So it seems to be neck-and-neck, though if Netanyahu so wishes, he'll likely find a majority. One may already exist. The question is how much of a majority is enough for such a dramatic move. 9-5? 10-4?
Those close to him do not think Netanyahu is playing a game. Nor are those involved in closed meetings avoiding talk of failure - that is, an attack that merely delays Iran's nuclear project by a year or 18 months.
Such a scenario also probably looks something like this: The United States is furious. The price of oil soars. Thousands of missiles strike Tel Aviv, Haifa, Dimona and other Israeli cities. The economy collapses. Hundreds are killed, thousands wounded. A mass flight of Israelis abroad. Tent cities. In this scenario, a senior figure in the ruling party said this week, Netanyahu will certainly lose the next election. Not even avowed Likudniks will vote Likud.
Is Netanyahu aware of that political scenario? "Of course," the senior source said. "He is not stupid. He sees the whole picture and all its parts." Will that stop him from taking action? "No," the senior figure replied. "He believes that this is his raison d'etre in life. That this is why he was elected prime minister. Not to reform balcony regulations, not to ensure free education from the age of three." Is Netanyahu persuasive? "On one hand," the source said, "he and Barak have no doubts ... That is a bit worrisome. On the other hand, they have very reasoned arguments. Their perspective is broader than that of the army officers."
And let's say the extreme scenario occurs. Who would the alternative leader be? Shelly Yacimovich? She's not there yet. Shaul Mofaz? He's finished. "Ehud Olmert," the source said. "This will bring him back."
By the way, Netanyahu himself was asked a few weeks ago, in a closed forum, whether he is taking into account that a failed attack with disastrous consequences will lead to his losing power. "Come on," he said. "You are insulting me."
'The right to his view'
Ehud Barak, whose stoic serenity Peres is easily capable of shattering, reacted with surprising moderation to the president's interviews last week. Barak's confidants noted that Peres has many achievements to his credit - that his view is known, that he has the right to have that view and that there is no great difference between their approaches. "The defense minister too does not think an attack, if and when, will destroy Iran's nuclear reactors, but at most will delay the project," one says.
Six months ago, on the eve of Peres' trip to meet with President Barack Obama, the lead headline in this paper was that the Israeli president would be telling his U.S. counterpart that he opposed an attack on Iran without American cooperation. Barak was the one then who mentioned the "sin" of Peres' opposition to the attack on the Iraqi reactor. Netanyahu's aides made do with a proportional response: "Peres has many achievements to his credit, but in the end it is the government that decides."
Behind the scenes, however, Netanyahu demanded that Peres not make his opposition known to Obama. Peres, who thought at the time that there was a chance to torpedo the attack, denied that he was going to actually speak against it.
Now, things have turned around, and political observers are wondering why. Is it because on the eve of elections, Barak wants to return to his electoral base, so he is being careful to show respect for the president, who last week placed himself at the head of the center-left camp? That's a question without an answer, for now.
Barak didn't even really lash out at Peres when speaking in private conversations this week. "He is an important person," the defense minister said. "Everyone respects him. But I don't think [what he said] is strengthening Israel and its approach - not in regard to the Iranians, not in regard to the Americans and not in regard to the issue itself. How does it strengthen our stand? Our deterrence? The possibility that the Americans will take action?"
At the foot of the residential tower in which Nili and Ehud Barak are temporarily living, at the corner of Ibn Gvirol and Shaul Hamelech streets in Tel Aviv, a small demonstration is held each evening against an attack on Iran. Among the organizers is former Barak adviser Eldad Yaniv.
Yaniv explained the rationale on his Facebook page: "Barak once told me that Rabin made a mistake by allowing [far right] demonstrations every week below his home and not demanding that the police and Shin Bet stop them. 'When demonstrations become a regular thing, they start to have an effect,' Barak explained. 'The regular demonstrations next to Rabin's home - and not the terrorist attacks - were the cause of the turnabout in Israeli public opinion.'"
Yaniv's conclusion: "If we persist and come to his home every evening at 8, the demonstration will become a permanent fixture, and that is what will stop the attack on Iran."
But Yaniv is wrong. The ongoing demonstration by Itamar Ben Gvir and his flock opposite the home of Leah and Yitzhak Rabin in Ramat Aviv in the mid-1990s was part of a broader and continuing series of violent actions by the right wing. They included blocking roads, mass rallies, marches with or without coffins, processions with or without Netanyahu. Plus there was the demonstration in Zion Square in Jerusalem in which an effigy of Rabin in an S.S. uniform was brandished. Of course, there was the greater context of deadly suicide-bombing attacks, such as at Beit Lid Junction and next to Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv. And there was Yasser Arafat. All those elements added up to serious pressure that contributed to the shift in public opinion.
In this case, it's Yaniv and his friends and a few retired security people who are involved. Barak does not seem to be taking the small gathering too seriously. From his point of view, they are a group of innocents who, on the way to the nearest pub, stop for a while at the intersection to shout childish slogans.
Channeling their anger
Less than a day passed after the board of directors of Channel 10 issued an order to fire 150 of the channel's employees, before that directive was suspended "at the request" of Histadrut labor federation chairman Ofer Eini. At the moment, Eini is the best thing that has happened to Channel 10, and vice versa. The connection between them represents a rare confluence of interests. If there is anyone capable of preventing the blow to Israeli democracy (not to mention the human calamity ) entailed in shutting down 50 percent of the country's commercial television stations, because of a negligible debt of NIS 45 million - Eini is the man. He will surely also derive a certain pleasure in resuscitating the station, thereby spiting both of the Netanyahus, who are thirsting for revenge.
At the same time, Eini needs this achievement in order to insinuate himself into an area where he's had no foothold until now: the communications industry. This week, the union leader who always showed up at depressed factories in unemployment-battered remote towns stood in the sterile, digital and active Channel 10 newsroom in Givatayim to speak to the despairing employees. A year ago, an unflattering investigative report about him, his partner and what goes on between them was broadcast from the same site.
If the station survives thanks to Eini, Channel 10 News might not become his slave, but it will not likely broadcast similar reports about him in the future. And, of course, there is the possibility that other media organizations that are experiencing difficulties will turn to Eini for help.
The heads of Channel 10 commissioned two surveys to examine the public's attitude toward them. One was an Internet survey of the entire public; the other was a telephone survey of Likud members. Both were conducted by Prof. Yitzhak Katz's Ma'agar Mochot survey institute. The choice of Likud members was aimed at grabbing the attention of the party's chairman, Netanyahu, and his ministers of communications and finance.
The results: 56 percent of respondents in the public survey were sympathetic toward the station, as were 49 percent of Likud members. According to the survey, Channel 2 is only slightly more popular: It has the support of 59 percent and 55 percent, respectively. The ratings gap between the two channels are, of course, a different story, but that gap is slowly narrowing as well.
The two polls asked whether people would be upset if the station was shut down. An almost identical percentage from both groups of respondents (44 percent of the public and 43 percent of Likudniks ) said it would bother them very much. Another question asked: Should the station be allowed to pay its debt in installments so that it can continue broadcasting? An overwhelming 79 percent of the general public responded affirmatively, as did 70 percent of Likud members.
Why should Channel 10 be allowed to go on broadcasting, the pollsters asked. Five reasons were given: not to decrease the number of free stations; not to harm employees' livelihoods; because it has good programming; because it has good reporters; and because Israel is a democracy.
Objections to shutting down a free national channel received the highest level of support: 73 percent and 68 percent, respectively. The lowest percentage was for the number of good programs on the channel.
Conclusion: The Israeli public, including members of Likud, does not want the channel that their leader abhors to be shut down. No citizen with a democratic consciousness should want that. Is Netanyahu impressed by these figures? No. Likud members don't like higher taxes or higher gasoline, cigarette, water and electricity prices, but that doesn't bother the premier. So, will their fondness for Channel 10 divert him from his path? Not likely.
One Ofer Eini, who can pull the plug on the country, should worry him more than the party's members, with all due respect. And there is respect.