Netanyahu and Barak, Alone at the Top

During the four days of missile attacks on the south, Netanyahu didn't convene his security-diplomatic cabinet even once. He and Barak made all the decisions.

On Wednesday, the Knesset plenum held its monthly ritual for the last time during the winter session: a debate initiated by the opposition under the "40 signatures" rule, in which the prime minister is obligated to sit for two hours and be battered by criticism. Under Knesset regulations, the opposition leader is the final speaker. She has the last word.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the plenum after successfully concluding the latest round of violence in the south. He heard a fair number of compliments from the opposition speakers. Labor Party MK Amir Peretz, who as defense minister initiated the development of the Iron Dome missile defense system, praised him and Defense Minister Ehud Barak (! ): "Your actions were measured and you were not dragged into extreme situations." Even some of the Kadima MKs prefaced their routine criticism with statements such as "allow us to offer our support in the fight against terror."

Cartoon - Amos Biderman

The main headline that evening came from the prime minister's speech, in which he noted successful Israeli actions that were taken in the face of American opposition: declaring the establishment of the state in 1948, embarking on the Six-Day War in 1967, and destroying the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. The message was clear.

Last Friday's conflagration erupted after Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz reported that a deadly attack was coming in Sinai. As the fighting subsided, Netanyahu, in private conversations, cited the main goals that were achieved: The first was no Israeli fatalities. Strategic relations with Egypt, which could have been damaged, he noted, have been maintained. The Iron Dome missile-defense system afforded Israel room for maneuver. Furthermore, the terror attack's planners, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Islamic Jihad, sustained significant damage. Hamas was humiliated, and its leaders' decision not to join the rocket fire caused internal disagreements.

When Netanyahu was asked if he intended to speed up funding for more Iron Dome batteries after the system's success this week, he avoided giving a clear answer. His associates say this could be made possible by shifting priorities within the Defense Ministry budget. If more money is needed, he'll find it.

He did not answer the obvious question: What happened since the last conflagration, in August, after the terror attack launched from Sinai? Then too Iron Dome proved itself, but since then not even one new battery has joined the lineup. Over four days in the most recent round of fighting, scores of missiles struck towns in the south as far north as Gedera, and the prime minister did not convene - even once - the eight-member inner cabinet, never mind the security-diplomatic cabinet. He and Barak made all the decisions. They do not need anyone. Only each other. This was also good for Barak. In the Haaretz public opinion polls a week ago, Barak's public satisfaction rating improved significantly.

Politicians faded to the sidelines and let Netanyahu and Barak do their work. Not a single member of the octet demanded that Netanyahu convene the group. He spoke to some of them one-on-one, mainly in order to make them feel good. Nor did any Kadima members question the moves.

Two weeks from now, on March 31, Netanyahu will mark his second government's third anniversary. He concluded the fighting in Gaza with a military, public and political victory. But he knows, and we all know, that the next round is on the way. What worked well this week will not necessarily work in a month.

Something bad

"When I come back as prime minister, the Palestinians will enter the negotiating room," Tzipi Livni told Channel 2's political correspondent Rina Matzliach on the Friday news program "Ulpan Shishi."

On the eve of the Kadima leadership primaries, something bad is happening to Livni and her associates. This was clearly seen when Netanyahu visited the United States this month. She abandoned the basic rule that has always guided opposition leaders: Don't criticize the prime minister when he is abroad. Save it for when he returns home. Certainly don't criticize the prime minister while he's on a visit deemed "fateful" regarding the Iranian bomb.

But Livni didn't hold back. She attacked his Holocaust comments ("hysterical imagery, we aren't in the ghetto" ) and his policy statements ("which are causing the world's leaders, one after the other, to warn Israel to stop" ). In comparison, Labor Party chair MK Shelly Yachimovich simply wished Netanyahu success on his trip. So did Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee chair MK Shaul Mofaz of Kadima, Livni's main rival. Is it any wonder, then, that in the Haaretz-Dialog poll, which was conducted March 4 and 5, while Netanyahu was in Washington, Livni dropped to last place out of the 16 leaders ranked? Is it any wonder that in the Teleseker Maariv survey, also published last Friday, only 24.5 percent of respondents called Livni suited to be prime minister, versus 62.2 percent for Netanyahu?

The recent Dialog-Haaretz poll, supervised by Tel Aviv University Prof. Camil Fuchs, predicted 10 Knesset seats for Kadima under Livni, and 12 for Kadima under Mofaz. That's pretty much a tie. This was the first time any opinion poll had shown this. Ever since the two had begun to vie for the party leadership four years ago, all surveys had given Livni a significant lead. This poll thus raised great interest in political corridors and severe distress at Livni's headquarters.

By chance, two days after the Haaretz poll was completed, Dialog surveyed Kadima members about the third leadership candidate, MK Avi Dichter. (The Haaretz poll sampled the entire Israeli public. ) This poll, conducted on behalf of Dichter, was unrelated to the Haaretz poll or to Prof. Fuchs.

Last Thursday, Livni's supporter MK Yoel Hasson told Israel Radio interviewer, Yaakov Achimeir, that the Haaretz survey was not really a Haaretz survey but rather a survey "commissioned by one of the contenders." Either Hasson did not know what he was talking about, or he was simply lying.

That same day, Livni's campaign manager Moshe Debby talked with Ayala Hasson on Israel Radio's "It's All Talk." He seethed that it was inconceivable that a research institute would work with both a media outlet and a politician, and alleged that Haaretz was obliged to note, "in the name of fairness," that Dialog also works for Dichter.

I asked Debby if he knew which institutes give Livni's house pollster, Kalman Gaier, the raw data for his surveys. Debby promised to check. The next day he came back with the obvious answer: "Gaier works with a number of institutes, including some that work with media outlets."

I asked him if he expected those media outlets (for example Yedioth Ahronoth, Globes, and in the past also Channel 2 ) to state that their polling institutes also work for Livni. Out of politeness, I have excised his reply.

The Kadima leadership primary is scheduled to take place on March 27, which is less than two weeks. As opposed to September 2008, now Livni is the underdog. Most Knesset members - including former chief of staff Dan Halutz, Livni's acquisition - now support Mofaz. The leader in exile, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, also supports Mofaz. The prevailing assumption is that it doesn't matter who wins because the fallout will lead the faction to split. This is not at all certain. The party will split only if Livni wins. She has already signaled to Mofaz and his supporters that she expects them to fall in line.

Mofaz is sending the opposite message: He is making an effort to preserve his relationship with most of Livni's supporters. He speaks with them by phone or in his Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee office, far from the public's eye. He promises he has nothing against them. He tells them he needs each and every one of them in order to pose an alternative to Netanyahu. He has already worked with them to come up with an identity statement for Kadima.

For three-and-half years, Mofaz has been walking around feeling that victory was snatched from him. During the last vote, polling was extended by half an hour, to 10:30 P.M. Impatient television stations reported at 10 P.M. that a sample of results showed a sure victory for Livni. Disappointed Mofaz supporters walked away. When the votes were counted, it turned out that Livni had won by only 431 votes. A mere 216 votes would have tipped the balance.

Thus, in September 2008 Mofaz lost not only Kadima but the prime minister's seat. He could have succeeded where Livni failed and maintained Olmert's government after Olmert resigned. On the eve of the primary, he had reached agreements with all the heads of Olmert's coalition.

"I could have established a government in September 2008 that left Netanyahu and Likud in the opposition for another year and half, frustrated with their 12 Knesset seats [from the 2006 elections]," he tends to say with a hint of (inevitably justified ) bitterness. "Everything could have been different. Instead, look what happened: We had unnecessary elections at the start of 2009, we stayed outside the coalition, we lost our way entirely, we dispersed, we disappeared, we lost more than half our Knesset seats in the public opinion polls and we have become a laughingstock."