Defense Minister Ehud Barak usually begins his background briefings with journalists by stressing that the conversation is "off the record." When he really means it, he says it's an "American off," meaning a total prohibition on any quotations, in any form, that could indicate the speaker's identity. In light of recent developments, Barak will have to come up with a new term: Maybe "Iranian off" or "North Korean off." Nothing leaks from those regimes.
On Sunday morning, before WikiLeaks published the first of some 250,000 U.S. State Department documents, the cabinet ministers belonging to the Labor Party convened for their weekly meeting in Jerusalem.
"Ehud, do you know anything? Give us a bit of a lead," probed Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon.
"I have no idea what is going to come out," Barak told them, "but I am sure everything they think about me will be a lot more complimentary than what some of you think about me."
So far, hardly any mention of Barak has come to light in the cables. Same for Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Soon they will be saying, if you aren't in the WikiLeaks documents, you don't exist.
The person who chalked up an impressive presence was Benjamin Netanyahu, in three incarnations: as leader of the opposition, as prime minister-designate and as prime minister. At least five cables were sent to Washington following meetings with him between April 2007 and November 2009. Officials of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv reveal Netanyahu as an incautious politician who forgot a basic rule: Even if you don't believe your words will ever see the light of day, it is not a good idea to say bad things about your government to representatives of foreign governments, especially on sensitive matters like the way the Israel Defense Forces functioned in time of war.
All the cables describe how Netanyahu repeatedly talks about the Iranian threat and proposes stiffening sanctions, imposing an economic boycott and tightening the blockade. Nowhere does he explicitly urge the Americans to attack Iran militarily. One of the cables reports that he pestered his guests, U.S. Congress members: "For a third time, Netanyahu asked, 'What are you going to do?'" if the sanctions fail.
"While he noted that he could not say for certain that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel," the cable says, "if Iran had a bomb, Israelis would have to ponder that question every day."
Netanyahu often shares the results of public opinion polls with his interlocutors: In April 2007 he relates that 65 percent of Israelis want elections. After the elections, he reveals that 70 percent are prepared for concessions but believe there is no partner.
Five days after he established his government Netanyahu pulls from a drawer a new survey showing 80 percent of Israelis support the Palestinians running their own lives (and his government is also in favor of that, he tells the Americans ), subject to security constraints.
In April 2007, nine months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, he predicts that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be ousted by Kadima (Olmert wasn't ousted by Kadima but rather by Barak, about a year later ). He also predicted that Kadima, which he called "a fake party," would collapse. (Two years later Kadima won one more Knesset seat than the Likud ).
A few days after the last Knesset elections, he tells his interlocutors he intends to establish a unity government with Kadima but he will not agree to a rotation with Tzipi Livni. (About two weeks after that a coalition agreement was formulated between Likud and Kadima, which promised Livni the post of prime minister for the final third of the term. )
On April 6, 2009, as prime minister, Netanyahu says the only difference between him and Livni is that she talks about a two-state solution whereas he will not. A little while later he went to the United States, met with President Barack Obama, arranged an appearance at Bar-Ilan University and gave his two-state speech.
Anyone who saw the Knesset's Wednesday afternoon session was left with the identical impression: The option of a Likud-Kadima government is a thing of the past. Netanyahu's body language radiated chronic restlessness with angry hand gestures, frantic pantomime to his cabinet ministers, and frequent and uncharacteristic heckling of a few of the speakers.
Kadima MK Roni Bar-On heckled Netanyahu by quoting Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's opinion of Netanyahu: "Elegant and charming."
Netanyahu quickly corrected him: "Intelligent and charming."
Bar-On insisted: "Elegant."
Netanyahu did not give up: "IN-TEL-LI-GENT!"
Tzipi Livni, after a few months of moderate speeches in which she stressed her faction's desire to help Netanyahu advance the diplomatic process, attacked the prime minister, calling him untrustworthy, a liar and weak; reminding him of Ariel Sharon's remark about his right hand and his left hand; and accusing him of deceiving young couples he sends to build their homes in the West Bank.
Before the premier ended his speech, Netanyahu observed to her that she seemed absorbed with her mobile device and scribbling on her papers. He wanted to imply that Livni's external advisors were sending her advice by SMS before she took the podium.
"I write my speeches myself and speak from my own heart," said Livni afterward, in an internal discussion. "During the course of his speech I added points because he was making me angry, and while I was doing that some of the people who were watching the deliberations wrote to me by SMS: 'He is demonstrating weakness,' or 'He's very much on edge.' That was a pathetic attempt on his part to depict me as being operated by others. Only people who themselves are operated by or who have been operated by consultants can say this of others."
Someone asked Livni if there was still a chance she could join up with Netanyahu. "He doesn't want to take the big, necessary step," said Livni. "All he's doing is preserving his coalition. He doesn't decide, and he is paying off his partners. The problematics of this government go way beyond the diplomatic process. For example, the Referendum Law, or the bill on evading service in the Israel Defense Forces [which the coalition defeated] or the Military Conversion Bill [which is liable to meet a similar fate]. If we were to enter the government, we would also be entering with a domestic, social agenda, not only about the diplomatic negotiations. I get the impression he has taken a strategic decision - to keep this coalition and go all the way to the end with it."
Kadima faction chair MK Dalia Itzik predicted at that same discussion that Netanyahu's second term is heading for a bleak end, like the first.
"Dalia is wrong," said a member of the Likud faction later. "This time it is going to be worse."Electoral disaster
Last week Shas chairman Interior Minister Eli Yishai forced Netanyahu to block the draft evasion bill proposed by MK Israel Hasson of Kadima, which was aimed at cracking down on secular girls who avoid IDF service by pretending to be religiously observant. Now Yishai is planning to do a similar thing to Netanyahu, this time with the Military Conversion Bill proposed by MK David Rotem of Yisrael Beiteinu, which seeks to make it easier for soldiers and reservists to convert with the help of military rabbis. These are thoughtful pieces of legislation, not anti-religious, which any government could be proud of.
At the beginning of the week, the ministerial committee on legislation met to discuss the fate of bills scheduled to come up for a vote in the plenum. All the ministers, from all the parties, including Likud, supported the Military Conversion Bill. With the exception of Shas.
At the meeting, an argument broke out between Likud ministers Limor Livnat and Gilad Erdan, and Religious Services Minister Yaakov Margi of Shas.
"You should be ashamed of what you are doing to MK [Chaim] Amsellem," Livni charged Margi angrily.
"We are nostalgic for the Olmert government," mourned Margi.
"Maybe you will leave the coalition," said Erdan.
"With Olmert they got everything they wanted," explained a leading Likud cabinet minister this week, referring to Shas. "The key religious laws were passed under the previous government, but in a center-left government that is conducting a diplomatic process these things pass easily, whereas with us the potential for damage is much greater because there is no diplomatic action."
"This alliance was good in order to get us the government," said another cabinet minister, "but now it is an electoral disaster."
"Netanyahu looks like someone who is working for them," said a third minister. "We are going to pay a high price in the elections."
On Wednesday afternoon Yishai caught Netanyahu in the plenum. He informed the prime minister that the Shas cabinet ministers had received an order that day form Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to oppose the Military Conversion Bill approved in the ministerial committee, and he threatened a coalition crisis if the bill were to progress.
I asked one of Yishai's people what the prime minister's reaction was.
"That didn't really interest Eli," replied the man.
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