Marking His Territory

Facing criticism all around, Ehud Barak took the opportunity of Netanyahu's meeting with Obama to make sure the nation knew who was responsible for the newly rosy ties with Washington. You guessed it: Ehud Barak.

On Wednesday morning, hours after the White House meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama, Defense Minister Ehud Barak hooked up almost immediately with Army Radio and Israel Radio in order to mark his territory. The lightning interviews had three goals: 1. To cement his place as being largely responsible for the springtime in relations between the two countries; 2. To send a message to his grumbling party colleagues (mainly cabinet ministers Issac Herzog and Avishay Braverman, who are plotting to push him out of the Defense Ministry to make it easier for one of them to replace him ) to cool it; and 3. To strengthen the legitimacy of Labor's place in the government in the public eye.

Ehud Barak
Amos Biderman

On Tuesday night, Barak held lengthy phone conversations with Netanyahu and with members of the National Security Council in Washington. There will be ups and downs along the road, but for the first time there is a chance, Barak thought .

On Wednesday, in the Knesset, he called meetings with Kadima MKs Tzipi Livni and Dalia Itzik to get their thoughts about the previous day's events. The two offered a united front of disbelief. Nothing will come of it, they said. Barak thought otherwise. Netanyahu is serious, he told them, and no one gets to be president of the United States if he is not capable of discerning signals of seriousness and truth.

Barak's message was essentially thus: Had I not spent hundreds of hours in talks with the Americans and with Netanyahu, we would now be in a far worse place. I was the one who invested, I toiled, I took the trouble - not those MKs who in press briefings "call on me" to kick-start a political process with the Palestinians and threaten to resign.

This, then, was the word put out by Barak during another week in which he was raked over the coals by the media and his colleagues and skewered by his ally, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, whose secret meeting with the Turkish foreign minister was leaked to the press.

One thing that did manage to penetrate Barak's armor was a headline in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth: "Barak is harming the country's security" - a statement attributed to Ben-Eliezer.

Barak called the veteran Channel 2 News commentator, Amnon Abramovich, who broke the story of Ben-Eliezer's meeting with the Turkish official, and got him to write an op-ed clearing Barak of having been the source of the leak.

In regard to the spat with Ben-Eliezer over the Turkish affair, the defense minister reiterated how he had twice expressed his objections to such a meeting: the first time when he was offered the chance to meet with the Turkish foreign minister in Washington two weeks ago, and the second time when Netanyahu told him that Ben-Eliezer wanted to hold the meeting.

But when Netanyahu decided to go ahead and Ben-Eliezer called Barak to brief him, Barak wished him luck. Ultimately, Barak maintains, he was proved to be in the right: Nothing good came of the meeting, only damage.

What did I want? Ben-Eliezer said to his confidants at the beginning of the week. All I wanted was to do something good for the country! To try to shatter the isolation and restore good relations with Turkey. I briefed the defense minister on the trip and he wished me well, but when I got back I was attacked on the grounds that he, Barak, had been against the meeting and that he too had been offered the chance but had turned it down because he thought it would be harmful. Why didn't he tell me all that when we spoke? All he said was to give his regards to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

Ben-Eliezer is deeply hurt. He, a key player in Barak's political comeback just three years ago, now is getting this kind of disdainful treatment.

In regard to his relations with minister Shalom Simhon (Labor), as described in this space last week, Barak has an insight which he shared in a conversation with confidants this week.

Among us, he said, there is a person, Shalom Simhon, who put himself forward as a candidate for chairman of the Jewish National Fund. Immediately, as is the way in the party, everything went to court and the legal battles are still ongoing. On the other hand, there is someone in Kadima who wanted to be appointed to a similar post in the JNF, namely MK Eli Aflalo. In that case, the party chair called him and offered him the position and that was the end of it. Two parties of principles. The public voted en masse for one of them and not for the other. The other party has unity of action, whereas with us it's dog eat dog.

What Hanegbi could be

Next Tuesday, following a four-year trial, the verdict will be handed down in the case of Tzachi Hanegbi (Kadima ). He is the first politician to be charged with making politicized appointments - numbering dozens - when he served as environmental protection minister in Ariel Sharon's first government. The verdict will be of great importance in regard to the legality of political appointments, an issue that has tripped up many ministers in the past. Indeed, the judgment could have far-reaching political and coalition consequences.

Since being indicted, Hanegbi has matured and grown more moderate. For six years - since the start of the affair - he has paid a political price. For two years he was barred from serving as an operational minister, and since 2006, from serving as any sort of minister. Throughout, he did not complain.

In this period, during most of which he was the chairman of the prestigious Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the Knesset, Hanegbi became the confidant of the country's leaders: Benjamin Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Tzipi Livni, Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon.

He's been in the Knesset 22 years. The former mischief maker, who was not always able to tell wrong from right, lawful from criminal, became a kind of elder statesman in Kadima. If he is acquitted, or if he is found guilty on only some counts, and they are not classified as moral turpitude, his political path will be reopened. The Kadima faction has all kinds of disappointed folk - those disappointed in Livni, those disappointed in Shaul Mofaz - and they view Hanegbi as their natural leader. But that will be a concrete possibility only if he is acquitted.

If freed of the fear of the law, Hanegbi will be able to provide both sides with the mechanisms they are looking for: Livni, who will demand to conduct the negotiations with the Palestinians; and Netanyahu, who will want to armor himself against the toppling of the government. He will also seek a key government portfolio and membership in the security cabinet and in smaller forums. He will work to reduce as much as possible the vast disparity between his public image and his image in the political realm. That will be his test in this decade.

No love for Sa'ar

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud ), who for years maintained friendly and beneficial relations with the Haredi politicians, and who drew up coalition agreements with the ultra-Orthodox parties and cooperated with them in the opposition, has now become the favorite punching bag of the Haredi media.

In the episode involving segregation at the girls' religious school in Immanuel he refused to allow any solution that would bypass the High Court of Justice and also reprimanded his deputy, MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judaism ), who demonstrated against the High Court, and kept him away from the decision-making process in the case.

In recent weeks, Sa'ar adopted an old legal opinion issued by two former attorney generals, Elyakim Rubinstein and Menachem Mazuz, to the effect that Haredi educational institutions will be budgeted by the Education Ministry according to the proportion of the core studies (English, mathematics, etc. ) they offer in their schools. For example, a school whose curriculum offers 50 percent of the core subjects will be budgeted 50 percent. Only schools that teach 100 percent of the core subjects will get the full funding.

The Haredim are expressing their bitter disappointment in Sa'ar colorfully in their newspapers. The commentator Yaakov Rivlin, writing in Bakehila, laments that Sa'ar neutralized Porush: "To be a deputy minister under Sa'ar is endless Chinese torture ... Sa'ar suffocated Porush with a thick blanket ... Anyone who knows the vengeful Sa'ar knows that with him there is more than a first portion. If you get on his nerves, he hits you with an entree and also dessert."

In Mishpacha, Eliezer Shulman warns that Sa'ar is planning to launch a stubborn war against Haredi institutions that will separate Sephardi and Ashkenazi girls. In the same magazine, Ariel Deri wonders why in the course of seven years the two previous education ministers, Limor Livnat (Likud ) and Yuli Tamir (Labor ), did not make this demand. And the newspaper Sha'ah Tovah writes, "Woe! We expected a sympathetic education minister."

From Bakehila again, last weekend: "Sa'ar, a well-known populist, who long since discovered the Haredim-bashing trend, has become the number-two enemy of the Haredim." (The number-one enemy is Yoav Laloum, who brought the Immanuel school case to court. )

The Haredi MKs are not threatening a coalition crisis over this issue. They are realistic: They know that to dislodge Sa'ar - Netanyahu's confidant and loyalist - from the Education Ministry, they will need help from on high. Not even they are counting on that.

Attempted embrace

Some people think that what's happened to the National Religious Party in recent years is a tragedy. This week, though, it looked more like a farce. The union that was declared between Habayit Hayehudi, an offshoot of the NRP which is in the coalition, and the National Union, which is in the opposition - a union about which most of the two parties' MKs first heard about from the media - is one of those hallucinatory events which transcends even Israeli politics.

At the end of their joint press conference in the Knesset early in the week, the leaders of the two parties, minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayit Hayehudi ) and MK Yaakov Katz (National Union ), fell into each other's arms, in an attempted embrace.

After the elections they thought Netanyahu would form a right-wing government of 65 MKs. Hershkowitz coveted the education portfolio, which had been promised to Sa'ar. Katz eyed the housing portfolio, which Netanyahu had registered in Shas' name. They established a parliamentary bloc of seven MKs (four in the National Union, three in Habayit Hayehudi ) and threatened Netanyahu that if he didn't give them what they wanted they would not let him form a government. That was the last straw that sent Netanyahu into the arms of Ehud Barak. Katz and his buddies were cast into the opposition; Hershkowitz crawled into the coalition at a bargain rate (the science portfolio ).

Now they have announced that they will run together in the next elections, undoubtedly under Katz, the leader of the larger faction. It would be interesting to know what Yosef Burg and Zevulon Hammer, now both in paradise, think when they see their handiwork operating under the shadow of a marginal, extremist party, one of whose leaders is a self-declared follower of Meir Kahane.