In Israel, We Speak Republican

This week, as the divisiveness among Israel's top leaders was revealed in full, the squabbling between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the U.S. administration - which he hopes will not remain in the White House after November - also reached new levels.

In January 2009, on the eve of the Israeli general elections, and before the newly elected U.S. president, Barack Obama, was sworn in, the leading candidate for the premiership, Benjamin Netanyahu, met with his then-adviser and former consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas. Netanyahu asked Pinkas, who was close to the leaders of the Democratic Party, to help him build a bridge to the new administration.

"You are familiar with the language of [President Bill] Clinton and you know Obama and [future White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel. I am not. You speak Democratic; I speak Republican. Help me to understand them," Netanyahu said, according to Pinkas. Even as the former diplomat set out to help, he discovered that Netanyahu had in the meantime surrounded himself with diplomatic and security advisers, both official and from the outside, who spoke "Republican with a heavy accent": Uzi Arad, Ron Dermer, Dore Gold and Zalman Shoval.

Three and a half years later, the advisers are the same advisers (Arad was replaced by Yaakov Amidror as national security adviser ), the Atlantic is the same ocean and Netanyahu still has no direct ties into the White House. No quiet, discreet channel exists for a preliminary examination of sensitive issues. Everything takes place by means of sharply worded, aggressive messages. The two sides hurl insults and are insulted in turn.

Netanyahu is demanding that Washington set "red lines" for Iran, but he himself does not stop at red, as the saying goes. Even after the lengthy conversation he had with President Obama after midnight on Tuesday, Netanyahu does not intend to stop talking aloud about the need to set those red lines, a political source promised on Wednesday. True, the source said, this might not induce the Americans to embrace him, but this is the way Netanyahu thinks is correct. If the premier had not spoken out for years about the Iranian issue, the source maintains, there is no guarantee that a coalition would have been created due in part to this subject, or that sanctions would have been applied. There are also secret channels of communication, the source added, but they are not enough.

This week the divisiveness among the forces in the top ranks of the Israeli leadership was revealed in all its acuity. On the one hand, Netanyahu squabbles openly with Secretary of State Clinton and with Obama. On the other hand, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Barak compliment the Americans for their determination and for beefing up their forces in the Gulf (Peres ), and preach to Netanyahu that the differences between the two superpowers - that is, the United States and Israel - need "to be addressed openly in closed rooms" and that it is crucial "to remember the importance of the partnership with the United States and make every effort not to harm it" (Barak ).

When the president of Israel conveys time and again - and twice just this past week - a message of gratitude to the United States; when the defense minister scolds the prime minister; and when the secretary of state sticks a finger in Netanyahu's eye, declaring that no red line will be set - what can the Iranians do but guffaw and ask what's happening to the Israelis?

A very senior Israeli figure who is in close touch with members of the U.S. administration relates in private conversations that in the eyes of the Democratic administration, Netanyahu is perceived as campaigning on behalf of Mitt Romney. Romney's visit to Israel and the fundraising event held for him in Jerusalem under the aegis of the billionaire Sheldon Adelson - Netanyahu's patron - left Obama and his staff under no illusions about the prime minister's intentions.

To the president and his aides, the tongue-lashing he and Hillary Clinton took from Netanyahu, their depiction as ostensibly preferring Iran above Israel, the cooperation of the prime minister and his aides with Republican congressmen working against the White House, and the leak to the media by the Prime Minister's Bureau that Obama refused to meet with Netanyahu - all this looks like crude, vulgar and unrestrained intervention in the U.S. election campaign.

"Things are happening that Netanyahu never dreamed would happen," a source who is connected to the same senior Israeli figure said this week. "He was in a state of mind that said that he and Adelson were in control of the American political scene. He took pride in the fact that without him no sanctions would have been imposed. He hoped that his threats would scare Obama, on the eve of the elections. But he is finding that the administration is sticking to its guns. They are not getting stressed over there in America. They are not dancing to the tune of the prime minister of Israel. Bibi's strategy is collapsing. What will happen if Obama is reelected and the next day says to Netanyahu: 'You want to attack? By all means, attack.' What will Netanyahu do then?"

Black flag

On Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of days full of discussions in the Defense Ministry, Ehud Barak set aside time to meet with 15 distinguished citizens who are known in these parts as "intellectuals." They were among the signatories on a petition published in Haaretz (Hebrew edition ) last month, which claimed that a "black flag" of illegality flies over the possibility of an attack on Iran.

That loaded phrase disturbed Barak very much. He wanted to persuade his guests that they are wrong, that there is no place for comparison. (The term was first used in connection with the massacre of civilians perpetrated by Israeli security forces against residents of the Arab-Israeli village of Kafr Qasem in 1956, and now refers to any "manifestly illegal order." ) It is not a case of two people, he and Netanyahu, who possess a messianic approach and want to drag the world into a battle, Barak told the group. He also sought to reassure them that, in regard to the Iranian issue, and even to the dispute between Israel and the United States, the media are inflating and exaggerating the story and generating unwarranted panic.

The invited guests included a group of professors - Joseph Agassi, Judith Buber Agassi, Yoram Yovell, Yehuda Bauer, Uriel Reichman, Yaron Ezrahi - along with the writer Hanoch Bartov, actress Gila Almagor, former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit and former cabinet minister Ephraim Sneh.

The three-hour meeting was described by some of the participants as "fascinating." "Barak displayed great knowledge," one of the professors said. Two weeks ago, Barak held a similar private meeting with the writer Yoram Kaniuk, another signatory to the petition.

Barak told the group that he had met with F-16 and F-15 pilots. "If we decide, we will have to look into their eyes and tell them why we are sending them on the mission," he said. "Some of them studied under you, listen to you, read your work. The phrase 'black flag' got to them."

One of the participants said that Barak described the possible Israeli strike as "surgical." He also offered his assessment that a strike would not result in widespread destruction in Israel or in a large-scale war. "I am sick of wars, I am in panic, I am afraid," said Gila Almagor. "That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about," Barak said, "about the exaggerations."

Philosopher Joseph Agassi wondered why Israel is not pressing Iraq to make peace with it. Barak was amused. "Forget it," Barak told him, "we even have difficulties with the Israeli Iraqis." Barak said that a decision about whether to attack had not yet been made.

"I have known you for many years," said Sneh, who was Barak's deputy in the Defense Ministry in 1999-2001, when Barak was both defense minister and prime minister. "If you are holding a meeting like this, that means the decision has already been made."

No second chances

On the day after the Channel 2 report about the alleged carousing of Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, from Yisrael Beiteinu, a very unpleasant phone conversation took place between him and the party's leader, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. At the time, Lieberman was on a family holiday in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The two sides provided no details about what was said.

You would probably not be at risk of losing your money if you bet that Misezhnikov will be dropped from the list of candidates to be compiled by the "arrangements committee" of Yisrael Beiteinu ahead of the next elections. He will go the way of all those who have embarrassed the leader and the party. In Yisrael Beiteinu, as in other efficient organizations, there are no second chances.

In Misezhnikov's case, this is the second such report (the first was by Raviv Drucker, on Channel 10 News, about a year and a half ago ) to cast a dark shadow over his personal behavior and ministerial management.

Without Anastassia Michaeli (who threw water in the face of another MK ) and Misezhnikov (who is alleged to like drinking ) in the Knesset, Lieberman will have to beef up his list with a couple of well known and esteemed faces from the Russian community. This time he will check very closely his - sorry, the arrangements committee's - choices. At the moment he has mainly MK Faina Kirshenbaum, who is the most serious and most prominent figure on the Russian street and is a candidate for a cabinet portfolio in the next government, plus two or three less prominent MKs.

The stories about Misezhnikov's fondness for the bottle have been making the rounds in the political corridors for years. Their source lies with his bodyguards. They tell their friends, who tell the ministers they guard, who sometimes share the juicy gossip with reporters. In the Channel 2 report, by Amit Segal, a red line was crossed for the first time: The bodyguards themselves spoke to the reporters.

The ministers must be in a state of shock. They have become accustomed to view their bodyguards rather like a piece of furniture - people who are seen but who do not see, do not hear and do not talk. The latest development - disgraceful in terms of the bodyguards' ethics but welcome from the journalistic viewpoint - will prompt some ministers to be much more discreet in their behavior. A former minister said this week that in the light of the latest reports, and after the leaks from the security cabinet, the ministers would do well to take a breathalyzer test rather than a polygraph test.

In 1981, against the background of mysterious political activity in which he was engaged, Prime Minister Menachem Begin famously told reporters who wanted to know where he had disappeared the previous evening: "You don't ask a gentleman where he spent the night." Nonetheless, no one suspected Begin of going to a striptease club, getting drunk and having to be propped up by his bodyguards to reach his car.

On Monday, in his first response to the Channel 2 report, Misezhnikov said, "I am a dynamic young man of 43 and I don't want to go to sleep at 10 o'clock." That sounds like a pitch on a singles site. Times sure have changed.

Clean slate

Haim Ramon has a life project: to put an end to the premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu. "I toppled Bibi in 1998, in his first term as prime minister, and I will topple him again," Ramon said recently to an interlocutor.

Ramon is a political pensioner who wants to return to the arena. He is establishing a new center party, which will rise on the ruins of Kadima and contest the elections as part of an alignment alongside Yair Lapid's party. Ramon's party will be headed by Tzipi Livni, who is his candidate for prime minister on behalf of the bloc. Livni too is a political retiree who wants to return to the arena. So does a third pensioner, Ehud Olmert. But it's unlikely that he will be available to lead in the next elections, if they are moved up to February 2013 because of the government's inability to pass next year's budget.

Last week, this column reported on a public and very friendly meeting between Olmert and Livni during a wedding the both attended. That conversation was preceded by a private meeting between them of some three hours, held in Olmert's office in Tel Aviv two weeks ago. According to informed sources, the two settled their differences, wiped the slate clean - and there was plenty to wipe - and decided to open a new chapter in their relations.

They agreed that if Livni runs, Olmert will support her with all his might. On previous occasions, he did not really help. In fact, he scattered obstacles in her path. Encouraged by the new supporter, Livni this week granted an interview to Army Radio, in which she lashed out at Netanyahu for the damage he is causing to Israeli-U.S. relations. It was a first step on her way back to the center, in more than one sense.