Netanyahu's Border

The prime minister's address to the Knesset this week could be considered a spectacular success - the right and the left heard what they wanted. But Washington won't be as easy to convince.

If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the Knesset this week was a dry run, ahead of the real thing in the Oval Office today and on Capitol Hill Tuesday, it could be called a spectacular success. The coalition is more stable than ever. Here and there grumbling was heard from the usual suspects, including Benny Begin, Tzipi Hotovely and Danny Danon. But no one took it seriously.

When Netanyahu said "settlement blocs," did he mean what every child understands, or as he said on Wednesday to the Likud's right-wing faction, that "there are different definitions of the word 'bloc'"? He prompted Minister Dan Meridor, from the party's left-wing faction, to call his speech "a paramount strategic statement," and induced Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, from the coalition's right, to say, "There is nothing to prevent the coalition from surviving until 2013." Meridor heard "settlement bloc," Lieberman heard "there is no partner for talks." And they are both right.

Avigdor Liberman
Photos by Emil Salman

Netanyahu was set to leave for a six-day trip to the U.S. last night, which could be described as a last-chance visit. September is looming. President Barack Obama is entering an election year. The Palestinians have their sights focused on their emerging state. And in between comes sultry August, when nothing happens.

The Knesset address was the most dovish Netanyahu has ever delivered. "Settlement blocs" and "a military presence in the Jordan Rift Valley" demarcate a general map of Israel within the 1967 boundaries, with some adjustments. If he had said this along with "Palestinian state" in his first meeting with Obama in May 2009, both he and Israel would have been spared a lot of aggravation.

But he delivered the Bar-Ilan University speech a month late. He eased the siege on Gaza only after the Turkish flotilla incident. This week's Knesset speech came two years too late; the Palestinian state's ship has sailed. In any case, the maximum he can offer doesn't come close to the minimum the Palestinians and the international community are demanding.

Once you set aside "they are coming to destroy us," you get a Netanyahu not all that far from Tzipi Livni. Netanyahu, who has always stated that the border issue must be left to the negotiation stage, this week demarcated a border. His advisers reassured afterward that this was actually a survey of what most of the public supports, and not necessarily Netanyahu's position. That is something they won't be able to sell either to President Obama or to Congress.

The coming tsunami

On Wednesday evening, Netanyahu met with members of the Likud Knesset faction. After the meeting, the Prime Minister's Bureau stated that Netanyahu would "upgrade" his speech to Congress in the wake of what he heard from the MKs. Netanyahu found time for the Likudniks, but he canceled a meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon with the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee the day before it was due to be held owing to "schedule constraints." A meeting was proposed with a smaller group from the committee, but he couldn't find the time for that either. On Monday, committee chairman MK Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ) called Netanyahu a "weak, hesitant and cowardly prime minister."

Kadima leader Livni, whom Mofaz will challenge for the party's leadership when the time comes, also lashed out at Netanyahu, speaking after him at a special Knesset session marking the anniversary of Theodor Herzl's birth. There are some - including some in her faction - who think she could have congratulated Netanyahu for his leftward shift and for recognizing the settlement blocs, a move that implies evacuation of 140,000 settlers. What they were thinking of is known as a bear hug.

"I am not engaged with tactics," Livni responded, two days after the Knesset session. "No one believes him anyway. He is supposedly calling on us to form a unity government, but on what basis? On the basis that there is no partner, that there is no prospect for an agreement, that they want to push us back not to the 1967 lines, but to 1948? Is that the basis on which we are supposed to come together? Or because he said something about the settlement blocs and then went and told Tzipi Hotovely the opposite? Am I supposed to congratulate him for that?

"He is not looking for an agreement, only for the words that will imprison everyone into doing nothing," she continued. "Anyway, speeches are not the main thing, and his speech even less so. He will speak in Congress, with his American English, and everyone will applaud, but that will not prevent the tsunami. The Bar-Ilan hope was let down big-time, because there was no consistency between the speech and what followed it.

"If he wanted an alternative coalition, one that would back him for an agreement, he would get it. He has heard that from me on more than one occasion. Not only does he not want that, and not only has he decided to hang on to power - which is legitimate - he has also made a strategic decision to be re-elected on the basis of his right-wing camp. That's where he's aiming, and that means there is no chance that something will happen to extricate us from this mess."

Flash vote

The ministerial committee on legislation held its weekly meeting on Sunday in the Prime Minister's Office, but two Likud ministers were missing: Dan Meridor and Benny Begin were at a meeting of the forum of eight. Meanwhile, Syrian and Lebanese demonstrators climbed the border fences at Majdal Shams and Maroun al-Ras. Unrest flared in Gaza and the West Bank. In Tel Aviv, a truck driver left a swath of death and destruction.

The committee chairman, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, went through the bills with lightning speed. Toward the end of the meeting, he put forward the proposal by MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima ) to prohibit the investigation of a sitting prime minister for non-felony offenses. Minister Michael Eitan (Likud) was outside the room at the time. In the absence of Meridor, Begin and Eitan, the bill was approved within minutes. Neeman supported the proposal, even though officials in his ministry objected to it vehemently.

The Prime Minister's Office's ardent support for the bill was a known secret. A well-informed political source says Netanyahu "is ready to kill himself for this bill." When Eitan returned, he was surprised to discover the bill had been approved; Meridor and Begin, after finishing their meeting with the prime minister, were equally surprised - or not. The three ministers (dubbed the "feinschmeckers" by Avigdor Lieberman ) quickly submitted an appeal to the cabinet secretary. Currently, the bill is frozen until the cabinet discusses it (see Haaretz editorial, page B5).

Everyone who visited Likud headquarters during the last election campaign heard Netanyahu, then opposition leader, and his confidants praising the so-called "French law" as one of many that had to be pushed through after the elections. They were referring to a law in France that prohibits investigating an incumbent president for offenses committed before he was elected, or for minor infractions. Thanks to this law, former president Jacques Chirac avoided a criminal investigation over alleged improprieties committed while he was mayor of Paris.

Netanyahu was about to succeed Ehud Olmert, most of whose term was marred by exhausting investigations. Netanyahu's bureau noted that there was an initiative by Tirosh intended to free a prime minister from the fate that befell Olmert. Netanyahu was elected in February 2009, and formed his government at the end of March. He almost succeeded in getting seven MKs from Kadima to bolt to Likud. Tirosh was one of them.

At the end of March 2011, Raviv Drucker, a Channel 10 reporter, broadcast the findings of his investigation about Benjamin and Sara Netanyahu's travels. The state comptroller launched an investigation, which may lead to a police investigation. Now, amazingly, one of the first bills to reach the ministerial legislation committee after the Knesset's spring break is Tirosh's initiative.

The current formulation states the bill will not take effect until the next Knesset. Two points need to be made here. First, between the first and third readings, that could be changed. Second, Netanyahu is planning to be re-elected. The law, even in its present form, will apply to him - if not in this term, then in the next term.

I asked Eitan if he felt that the vote had been conducted behind his back.

Eitan responded, "Absolutely not. I was the one who messed up. I went out for a few minutes. That bill was second to last on the list. I was sure I would get back in time, in which case I would have objected, of course. Maybe I could even have persuaded them. Maybe a discussion would have been held. But they were in a big hurry. By the time I got back, the bill was approved."

Why now? I asked MK Tirosh.

"Because now, when I am in the opposition, no one will suspect me of wanting to serve a prime minister from my party. This bill will strengthen governance in Israel. I have another few bills like that up my sleeve."

Were you promised the coalition's support? That the Prime Minister's Bureau would push the legislation?

"I received no promise."

Still, you were part of the group that almost left Kadima.

"I'm fed up with those conspiracy theories. I am not in that place. Not everything has to do with my grandmother or my uncle. That is not only cynical, it is also embarrassing."

The logo on her website states: "Ronit Tirosh is fighting for you."

At least one citizen, a Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, can sign off on that.