Word is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is no longer as gung ho about an attack on Iran as his media interviews suggest. Haaretz's Amir Oren reported this week that Barak opposes launching an attack on the eve of the U.S. elections, and that he may be aiming to join a party headed by Tzipi Livni and to become defense minister in a Livni government.
A top American source told an Israeli politician this week that the Americans now consider Barak to be a pouring-cold-water-over-things type of person, rather than someone who starts fires. People who have met with him in recent weeks got a similar impression. One said Barak cited his reasons for not attacking now with the same conviction and skill he used to support the opposite approach just two months ago.
About a month ago, writer Yoram Kaniuk and others signed a petition against an attack on Iran. A few days ago, a group of proponents of this stance, including various writers and artists, as well as attorney Eldad Yaniv, asked Kaniuk to sign a petition to the High Court of Justice against such a move. Kaniuk declined. I asked him why.
"There will not be an attack. Barak is against it," he said. "I know for certain he's no longer considering this. He believes the Americans and he doesn't want to further damage ties between the two countries."
Kaniuk refused to say if he had met with the defense minister, and if so, when. Actually, they did meet - and not long ago.
"My friends' assumption that Barak is with [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] on this issue is ungrounded," Kaniuk told me this week. "He's negotiating with the Americans to stop the thing. I'm positive of that. That's why I declined to sign the petition. I think it's unnecessary. It will also cost a lot of money. There won't be a war in the near future."
Kaniuk regrets having signed the previous anti-attack declaration. "I was rash," he said, adding that he thinks the problem is Netanyahu, not Barak. "I asked one of the people who demonstrate every evening in front of Barak's Tel Aviv home why they don't demonstrate in front of the prime minister's residence. He replied, 'This is closer.'"
In any event, attorney Michael Sfard is expected to submit the group petition to the High Court soon, whether Kaniuk signs or not.
What's good for the country
Has Barak really changed his mind? Is he really against an attack? Is that why Netanyahu lowered his tone this week and spoke about perhaps avoiding a military confrontation by drawing a red line? Isn't it possible that when Barak says he's against he's really for? Or that when he persuaded everyone he was for, he was actually against? After all, he's a trickster from the days in which he served in the Sayeret Matkal commando unit up until his decision to split the Labor Party.
If the defense minister really has changed his mind, as the Americans and Kaniuk think, what prompted this? A source close to Barak says there is no reason for the change, because there has been no change. According to the source, Barak thinks Israel needs to reserve the option to act, to prepare to act and, if there is no choice, to go ahead and act. But he also thinks Israel mustn't strain relations with the Americans to the breaking point. Facts on the ground change, and what was true three weeks ago isn't necessarily true today.
I offered the source the following scenario: Barak realizes that elections are close in Israel and is moving to the left of Netanyahu to survive in the next Knesset. That's why he's distancing himself from the prime minister on a number of issues. He's against an attack, against the budget as it stands, against a university in Ariel, in favor of Channel 10's survival. And, as this column noted two weeks ago, he didn't bash Shimon Peres after the president told reporters he opposed an attack on Iran. Furthermore, I pointed out to my interlocutor, some sources say Netanyahu notices these developments and even suspects that Barak is groping his way back to Labor. The once-total trust between the leaders has been damaged a little.
No way, the source close to Barak replied: There's no problem between Barak and Bibi; Barak's independent views on various issues are nothing new and have nothing to do with the elections here. The source noted that since this government took over, Barak has talked about the need for negotiations with the Palestinians. And he called for Kadima to be brought into the government because the current leadership is not making progress on peace. Bibi didn't like that. Already two years ago, the source added, Barak spoke out against parts of the draft budget and suggested increasing the deficit - a proposal Netanyahu recently adopted.
How will Barak's Atzmaut faction vote in the Knesset if and when a budget is submitted? Atzmaut will do what's best for the country, the source said; think about what's good for the country and from that you can infer what the party will do.
Until the mid-1990s, the security cabinet was a small, prestigious, top-notch body. Its members discussed the fateful issues. Generally, nothing was leaked. Then at some point, prime ministers began to prefer more intimate forums. One result was Netanyahu's kitchen cabinet in his first term as prime minister. Ehud Olmert had his triumvirate. In Netanyahu's second term there has been the forum of seven, later the forum of eight and now the forum of nine.
No wonder the 14 ministers in the security cabinet (which includes five observer-ministers with no voting rights ) feel frustrated. It's true that if Netanyahu decides to attack he'll need their authorization, but the whole process has in effect been taken out of their hands.
Netanyahu was right to be angry about the leak from the security cabinet this week. But the theatrical act of calling a second meeting, releasing a short and angry statement and adjourning the meeting after a minute or two was unnecessary. Let's say one minister leaked something and 18 others know how to keep a secret. They're not children in a rebellious classroom.
The media subsequently reported that the prime minister is considering forcing the ministers, government officials and army officers to take a polygraph test. Let's say the test finds that the leaker is a minister from an important party. Will Netanyahu fire him and risk bringing down the coalition? Or maybe the culprit will be a minister close to Netanyahu, or someone who wasn't a minister but some official who enjoys his confidence?
In the meantime, the unnecessary drama boomeranged on Bibi. The list of his own leaks and slips of the tongue on security issues was pulled out of the archives. Somehow, he never succeeds, even when it isn't his fault.
The happy couple
Palmach Ze'evi, the son of minister Rehavam Ze'evi who was assassinated in 2001, got married this week. Congratulations. But the guests at the wedding, which was held in Caesarea, had their eyes on a different couple: Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni. The two sat next to each other, immersed in a long conversation. People got the impression the two have buried the hatchet. Not long ago they were the top politicians in the land.
Olmert is awaiting his sentence for his role in the Investment Center affair. If he gets less than three months of community service he will be eligible to run in the next elections. Other obstacles loom: The Holyland trial is still under way, and the state might appeal Olmert's acquittal in the cash-envelopes and double-billing cases. He's dying to get back into politics. It's not certain he'll be able to do so in time for the next elections, whenever they take place.
Livni, too, is dying to get back. She says she's sure that if she runs, her party will emerge the largest in the center-left bloc. In other words, she'll be that bloc's candidate for prime minister.
Could there be cooperation between Olmert and Livni? It's too soon to say. They have much in common, mainly contempt for the Netanyahu-Barak duo. In Israeli politics you don't need much more than common adversaries and a desire for revenge to create a wonderful political partnership.
The polls give Meretz four to five seats in the next Knesset, on a good day. The left-wing party has three seats in the current Knesset. On the one hand, increasing its representation by two-thirds would be an achievement. On the other, Meretz had four times as many seats 20 years ago.
According to surveys cited by Meretz, about 18 percent of Israeli voters describe themselves as leftist or moderate leftist. In other words, around 20 left-wing Knesset seats are floating around. Ten will go to parties that not only do not consider themselves leftist, but shun that label like the plague: Labor, Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid and Kadima.
A poll that Meretz commissioned among young people affiliated with the left asked for their opinion on leftist statements such as "Netanyahu and his policies are disastrous for Israel," "The time has come to separate religion and state," and "Israel's problems won't be solved without a long-term solution to the conflict with our neighbors." Between 60 and 80 percent of the respondents expressed unmitigated support for these sentiments.
Meretz leader Zahava Gal-On sees these people as her voters. "My conclusion is that there's enough meat on the left to achieve a good result in the elections," she said. "The set of values among left-wing voters conforms with Meretz's set of values."
Today, Meretz activists will be at 11 major intersections carrying signs with a new slogan: "Meretz, Israel's left."
"I intend to hit the left-wingers over the head," Gal-On said. "If you're left-wing in the heart, you're Meretz at the ballot box. And if you want a center-left government, you need a strong left, because without it the center parties will go with the right wing.
"How in the world can someone vote for Kadima and think that hollow party will work for human rights or a change in priorities? And how can someone vote for Labor and think it wouldn't enter a right-wing government? It's in their DNA to crawl in."
Gal-On wants to be a minister, an experience that she - unlike all the other leaders of her party - has never had. If not a minister, then at least opposition leader. And if not opposition leader, then at least her party should get six or seven seats. They're out there. Let them come in from the cold.