Flying to His Country's Defense

Next week, Prime Minister Netanyahu will head to Washington, where he will meet President Obama, and address Congress. All indications are that he plans to hold his ground.

Some 500 journalists have signed up to cover the speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the annual conference of the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC in Washington, according to the Prime Minister's Bureau. Netanyahu's remarks to the American Jews, in about 10 days' time, are not expected to generate banner headlines. The real headlines will come from the address he will deliver a day or two later before a joint session of Congress.

If Netanyahu's warm-up appearance is creating such intense interest, we can only imagine the scale of the media madness that will accompany the real thing, but also the scale of the global disappointment if the speech goes no further than presenting what senior Likud people who spoke to Netanyahu this week describe as a general, "comprehensive worldview" of events in the Middle East. According to what Defense Minister Ehud Barak said at the Independence Day event held at his ministry, Netanyahu might go a long way in making gestures toward the Palestinians. Barak himself proceeded to rattle off, more or less, the principles of the Clinton plan for Middle East peace as set forth in 2000.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Amos Biderman

The Likud people who met with the prime minister inferred from his remarks that there is no connection between what Barak said on Tuesday at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv and what the premier intends to tell the Congress in Washington. Their impression is that Netanyahu has made his choices: No to an Israeli return to the 1967 lines; no to a compromise in Jerusalem; no to more construction freezes in the settlements. They tried to understand whether he was hinting that he would need their support in the light of any concessions he may be planning, but they did not come away with any such notion. They heard a great deal from him about "security arrangements," which were needed in the past to maintain peace in this unstable region, but are now needed even more. On this point, it must be acknowledged, he's right.

Television viewers on Independence Day saw on all three major channels a tense prime minister, who barely managed to restrain his twitching leg when he sat with President Shimon Peres, Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz at an event called "Singing in the President's Residence." Only the cynical jokes and self-deprecating humor of Barak, who was by far the star of the evening, got the prime minister to burst into occasional laughter.

On the eve of Independence Day Netanyahu met in his bureau with some members of Congress. He gave them an overview about Iran, about the upheavals in the Middle East, about security arrangements - and again about Iran. One member of the delegation commented, "I'm not sure that will satisfy the president."

"I am not coming to Washington in order to satisfy the president," Netanyahu retorted (according to what someone who was present at the meeting told an Israeli friend ). "We are meeting for a conversation."

They will meet next Friday, five days before Netanyahu's speech on Capitol Hill. President Barack Obama will hear the main points of what Netanyahu intends to tell the Congress.

Exactly a year ago, following Israel's 62nd Independence Day, this writer wrote that Netanyahu had been called upon to come up with Israel's replies to demands made by President Obama. There were no more excuses then, I wrote: No more Holocaust, Memorial and Days; he will have to do what he doesn't like: decide.

A year later and nothing has changed.

A seat too far (again )

Here is something else that reprises a report in this space immediately after last year's Independence Day. That item was about a spat between the speaker of the Knesset and the head of the Information Center, which is accountable to the Prime Minister's Office, concerning where opposition leader Tzipi Livni and her husband, Naftali Spitzer, would sit at the annual torch-lighting ceremony ushering in the holiday, on Mount Herzl.

According to protocol, the leader of the opposition is in eighth place on the list of dignitaries - after the president, the prime minister, the Knesset Speaker, past presidents, the president of the Supreme Court, the chief rabbis and cabinet ministers. This means that the head of the opposition sits in the third row, after the 29 ministers who comprise Netanyahu's government. That is exactly where Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, sat when Ehud Olmert was prime minister and Netanyahu was leader of the opposition.

On the eve of Independence Day last year, the speaker of the Knesset, Reuven Rivlin, decided that in the Mount Herzl event - at which he is the head honcho and the only speaker - the leader of the opposition would be "upgraded" to the front row, where the speaker's family, the chief Knesset officer, the prime minister's wife and sons, and the head of the Prime Minister's Bureau sit. The bureau was furious over what was interpreted as an affront to the Netanyahus and instructed the Information Center to deny the speaker's request.

Rivlin saw that tough tactics would be needed. At the last minute he asked two of his children to move to the places reserved for Tzipi and Naftali, and placed the couple next to his wife, Nechama, and their other children and grandchildren.

In the wake of that scandal, a special meeting was held on the subject on June 20, 2010, in the presence of the heads of the Information Center, a senior representative on behalf of the prime minister, and the director general of the Knesset at the time, Dan Landau. Landau made it clear that as long as Rivlin was speaker of the Knesset, the leader of the parliamentary opposition would sit in the front row, as this was a Knesset event and respect was due to the branch.

After the meeting a summary of the proceedings was circulated, stating, "The seating arrangement in the front row of the central stage will be (from right to left ): Mrs. Netanyahu; Netanyahu son; Gil Shefer [the PM's bureau chief]; bodyguard; Knesset officer; Nechama Rivlin; Rivlin child; Rivlin child; Tzipi Livni; Yehezkel Livni [SIC: the document's author confused Naftali Spitzer with Yehezkel Beinisch, the husband of the Supreme Court's president]; ministers."

However, when Livni's aides arrived to collect the invitation for her and her husband this year, they discovered that they were again seated in the third row, between Minister Without Portfolio Yossi Peled and coalition chairman MK Zeev Elkin. Livni's office reported this to the office of the Knesset speaker. Rivlin's aides started to make phone calls.

They discovered that the directive had come from the very top. At the height of the new spat, Rivlin threatened that if the agreement about the seating arrangements was not honored, then whoever wished to dishonor it could have the honor of making the solemn address to the nation, instead of the speaker of the Knesset.

When Tzipi and Naftali Spitzer arrived for the ceremony on Mount Herzl an hour and a half ahead of time, they were still listed as sitting in the more obscure regions of the VIP gallery. Livni's bodyguards got uptight: One has to sit behind the person he is guarding, and there are also other, secret security arrangements that need to be organized in advance. Until the seating arrangement was finalized, it was impossible to organize properly for guarding Livni's back. Finally, as TV viewers saw, the Livni-Spitzer couple sat in the front row.

The old guard

But the problem has not been resolved. Two months ago, the government's symbols and ceremonies committee, chaired by Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, decided to accede to the request of the State Comptroller's Office and upgrade the comptroller, Judge Micha Lindenstrauss, to the "A Team." That is, from No. 10 on the list of dignitaries (after the ones mentioned above, plus the chairman of the coalition and the Supreme Court justices ) to No. 7 - ahead of the leader of the opposition. This would have the effect of pushing her farther down the list and behind in the benches.

The Lindenstrauss issue had been on the committee's agenda since the tenure of the previous government. It was actually Misezhnikov who pushed through the decision by a vote of 2-1: He and Minister Peled, from the Likud, who wasn't present at the meeting but left a note with his vote, voted in favor; Minister Benny Begin, from the Likud, voted against.

A few days later, Begin appealed the decision to the cabinet plenum, and the subject has been on the cabinet agenda for seven weeks. This week I asked Begin what happened to his appeal. He couldn't say, he said. "I submitted the appeal because I thought it was wrong to infringe on the status of the leader of the opposition. That is an important symbol of democracy, and it took many years of hard work to create it. It must not be harmed, either symbolically or concretely."

Is the fact that you are the son of the opposition leader who held that position longest - 29 years - the reason for your stance?

Begin: "It's true I had a good education at home, but one doesn't need to be a sheep or a goat in order to be a goatherd or a shepherd."

But sometimes it helps to be the son of a goatherd or a shepherd.

"Not necessarily. My friend, Ruby Rivlin, thinks as I do, without having been the son of Menachem Begin. My friends Dan Meridor and Michael Eitan [both Likud cabinet ministers] think as I do on this subject, without having been the sons of Menachem Begin. By the way, in the discussion held by the symbols and ceremonies committee, the secretariat [of the Tourism Ministry] was against the minister's suggestion. As far as I know, no one from the secretariat is a child of Menachem Begin."

What Begin and all those he mentioned have in common is not their father's home, but their political home and shared values: The true followers of the Herut party tradition, those who possess a Revisionist outlook and were raised to respect the principles espoused by Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, will never support the infringement, however minor and symbolic, on the status of whoever represents the opposition in the Knesset, in favor of an appointed official. A very senior official, true, who with his signature is capable of sending a minister to a police interrogation and turning a politician into a suspect - but, nonetheless, an official.

Unclear future

In June 1963, just 48 years ago, following the final resignation of David Ben-Gurion as prime minister, the newsmagazine Ha'olam Hazeh ran a banner headline on its cover: "Ben-Gurion has gone." Below it was a photograph of the "Old Man," his back to the camera, receding into an unclear future. At the bottom was a second headline, more modest in scale: "When will Peres go?"