Back to Base

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with his base in the Likud's far right four days after direct talks with the Palestinians begin. Will there even be a point by then?

The Tagar group is the most ideological circle within the Likud party. The only thing to the right of it is a wall. Theoretically, the "Jewish Leadership" group associated with Moshe Feiglin is Likud's militant right, but it isn't really an authentic part of Likud. In contrast, Tagar's founders are veteran Likud politicians. They exhausted their reservoir of compromises at the Camp David Summit in the late 1970s; they dream of Menachem Begin, long for Yitzhak Shamir, but also love Benjamin Netanyahu. These are party faithful who stand rapt with attention at Likud Central Committee meetings, and sing the Betar anthem passionately because they are the only members of the party who know the words and take them seriously, just as they believe in Netanyahu's ideology, books and preaching about the problems inherent in a Palestinian state.

Barack Obama
Amos Biderman

From Netanyahu's first days in Likud, Tagar members were his support base in his power struggles against Ariel Sharon. Once a year, before Rosh Hashanah, Netanyahu pays them a visit. On September 7 he is slated to visit them, four days after direct talks with the Palestinians begin in Washington, and after the fate of the settlement construction freeze (which expires on September 27 ) becomes clear.

The meeting between Netanyahu and the Tagar group was scheduled weeks ago, long before U.S. President Barack Obama sent out invitations to the summit. On Wednesday morning the Prime Minister's Office said the visit will take place as planned. Some Likud members believe that if Netanyahu intends to depart for Washington as a "peacenik" siding with Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan, as opposed to Benny Begin and Reuven Rivlin, he will be giving up on Tagar. If he visits this diehard Likud group after giving "more" concessions to the Palestinians, that would be like the British woman who threw a cat into a trash can before delivering a lecture to an anti-animal-cruelty group.

Still frozen

Like the late summer heat, teachers union chairman Ran Erez's threats before the opening of the school year and the disruptions at Ben-Gurion International Airport ahead of the fall holidays, we have learned to expect a new "campaign" by the Yesha Council of settlements prior to any new round of peace talks.

Spearheading this campaign is new Yesha Council director general Naftali Bennett, who headed Netanyahu's office until two years ago and left on bad terms. "We don't think anyone will convene the cabinet and renew the freeze," Bennett said this week, "but we are concerned we might be exploited in a bluff, such as the government announcing the freeze has ended when in fact nothing changes."

Bennett's and his associates' other concern is that Netanyahu might offer gestures to the Palestinians, including putting more land under their control. "We've heard something about the northern Dead Sea," says Bennett. "We are looking into this."

In contrast to the prevailing view, nothing much will happen in the territories on September 27, Bennett says. Apart from the renewal of some private construction, most of Greater Israel will not see bulldozers clearing areas for increased Jewish settlement, because Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the government's strongest figure, holds the keys to the ignition. I asked him whether, based on his personal acquaintance with Netanyahu, he sees him as someone who is susceptible to pressure.

Bennett replied: "He needs to be helped."

Today the group launches its campaign calling for the renewal of construction in the settlements, with newspaper ads and billboards. The slogan is "We are building on your word." The campaign will prominently feature photos of government ministers, mostly Likud members, captioned with the ministers' statements in favor of renewing construction. The first stage will feature Limor Livnat, Gilad Erdan, Moshe Kahlon, Eli Yishai (Shas ) and Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu ).

Netanyahu will star in a special ad of his own. Barak is the governing power in the territories, the leader who releases construction tenders and freezes building. Don't hide behind his back, the settler leaders will urge Netanyahu. With respect to Lieberman, the money being spent on his part of the campaign would be better used on holiday meals for the indigent. As opposed to Yishai, who will not quit the government no matter what (because Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Minister Ariel Atias won't let him ), Lieberman will leave whenever the spirit moves him, but not before having tortured Netanyahu on the settlement freeze issue.

Senior Yisrael Beiteinu figures are already signaling to coalition ministers that Lieberman has taken as much as he's going to; during the Knesset's winter session, which will begin two weeks after the holidays conclude, Lieberman will go into payback mode. Interviewed on Wednesday by Yaron Dekel, Lieberman could not have put it more clearly, saying: "The Palestinians are going to these talks because they were forced into them ... Nothing will come of it. This will be another event, like past events. They come with a list of conditions and demands that do not reflect a serious approach."

The question is whether Lieberman is saying what Netanyahu is thinking, or whether a better reflection of the prime minister's thoughts comes from Dan Meridor, who believes Israel should limit itself to construction in settlement blocs, in order to promote the establishment of a Palestinian state. Or perhaps neither one of these two really knows what Netanyahu wants, since the prime minister isn't telling them. Perhaps Netanyahu himself does not know what he wants, and therefore has nothing to hide.

Nothing until November

On Tuesday night MK Shaul Mofaz, Kadima's number two politician, sat with suitcases packed, en route to a vacation overseas. The start of direct talks does not really excite him. "Nothing will happen until November, because of the midterm elections in the U.S.," he says. "Then we will have to wait and see which guidelines will be accepted by the sides to continue talks. The guidelines will be the key to the story, and we'll only know what they are later on."

Do you know what Netanyahu intends to do?

"I don't want to talk about intentions. That's not the main thing. The main question is whether the prime minister and the heads of the coalition parties really want to forge an agreement, or whether their desire is to kill time and survive politically. We'll find out only in another few months."

And if it turns out that they want an agreement, will you demand [Kadima leader Tzipi] Livni let Kadima join the government?

"If it turns out that Netanyahu is engaging in a real process that requires him to create a meaningful coalition that supports him. Most of Kadima's leaders believe that if Netanyahu gets into a serious diplomatic process, that would be cause for our party to join [the coalition]."

That is, you think the real political season won't begin in September-October, but only later?

"The moment they agree on guidelines - and that will be after a few months - that could very well serve as the trigger to what you are calling the political season. But that too has a time limit. You have to remember that next March, the Knesset will already have been in session for two years, and in another year Obama will launch his reelection campaign."

Do you think there is a prospect of reaching a permanent settlement accord within a year?

"Unfortunately, no. In the current situation, anyone who wants to address all the issues at the same time - refugees, Jerusalem - will end up in the same place as others who tried to do so. I put a plan on the table [for a Palestinian state with temporary borders] whose main idea was first an agreement on borders and security arrangements. I think that is the only viable plan. Netanyahu will eventually reach the same understanding."

The problem with your plan is that the Palestinians don't accept it.

"I'm not so sure. I've spoken indirectly with Palestinian and Jordanian figures. They all say that in public, they can't agree to any plan that doesn't include Jerusalem and the refugees. But I believe the plan can be moved forward."

Commando takeover

On Sunday morning, members of the special commando units completed their takeover of the state's main positions of power. The state's three premier security figures now are veterans of special commando units: Netanyahu and Barak are veterans of the Sayeret Matkal unit, and chief of staff candidate Yoav Galant served in the navy's special forces unit Shayetet 13. How many countries in the world have their top security positions staffed by commando veterans? What does that say about us?

The moment Barak told the key government ministers whom he was as appointing chief of staff, the country fell silent. That would not have happened had Barak agreed to requests that he defer the appointment for a few months, until the investigation of the Galant document has been completed. The man suspected of forging the document, Lt. Col. Boaz Harpaz, is still under investigation, but he is unlikely to open a Pandora's Box and damage Galant's candidacy.

Last Saturday, before Barak announced the appointment, he had a long talk with Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. Barak was not satisfied with the police's official announcement that Galant was not connected to the document. He wanted to verify it. Weinstein did so. Barak then made his announcement.

Last week, while the Galant document affair was still going strong, someone mentioned in front of Barak that the document proposed portraying incumbent Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi as someone who feels chronically insulted, like retired politician David Levy.

That person mentioned that Barak's driver also happens to be named David Levy. "Perhaps," the man said, jokingly, "the document's author was referring to your driver, and not the former politician? Perhaps he wanted the chief of staff to come off as the boss's driver?"

Barak briefly demurred, but couldn't restrain himself. "Sometimes people call me, and ask 'Ehud, where are you?' and I say that I'm in the car, with David Levy. And the caller always is surprised," Barak related. "'What!? He's back?'"