Taking Fire From All Sides

Last year Barak and Peres were praising Netanyahu as a man who could bring peace. Now even party colleagues are publicly taking shots at the prime minister

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent most of the time at the opening of the winter session of the Knesset on Monday in his chair, hunched over a draft of his speech. Occasionally he cast an offended glance toward the podium. He took flak from the Knesset speaker, from the president of the country and from opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who ended a long period of silence with a particularly aggressive speech.

Amos Biderman
Amos Biderman

The only moment at which Netanyahu smiled was when Livni said, "I paid a political and personal price for my silence, and I regret that."

"Mother Teresa, a real Mother Teresa," minister Benny Begin mumbled. The ministers chuckled, enjoying the moment. But in off-the-record conversations, none of them was willing to speculate on where the Netanyahu government itself will be this time next year.

In a talk with reporters, Speaker Reuven Rivlin predicted that by the end of the current session, six months from now, the date of the next elections will have been set. In his view, the Knesset will not survive the current policy and political disputes.

Labor Party ministers said it is only a matter of time before they leave the government. Labor leader Ehud Barak came to his party's faction after the "loyalty law" was voted on in a cabinet meeting. He apologized to his MKs for not consulting with them before putting forward his own version of the legislation, which the cabinet rejected.

The Labor MKs discussed the political deadlock. Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog, who chaired the meeting, threatened to leave the coalition if direct negotiations with the Palestinians were not renewed by the end of the month, "unless something dramatic happens."

"There is no doubt that this session of the Knesset will be critical," Barak said. In other words, he is giving the coalition until the end of next March, well after the MKs' deadline. Barak hedged his prediction on the collapse of the coalition: "I would say it will happen at the end of December."

Herzog wanted to know why he had chosen the end of December. "After all, the Arab League gave a month for the resumption of the talks, until the beginning of November," he said. "Where did the extra month come from?"

Barak told his faction they should wait until after the dust settles from the U.S. mid-term elections, at the beginning of next month. "Then comes the Thanksgiving holiday, and then they start preparing for Christmas," he said.

And what will happen then? the MKs wanted to know.

"Then we will meet and discuss the matter," Barak promised.

But Herzog lamented that the party is in a state of total depression. Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer added that they had been marginalized.

"Lieberman is deciding the developments, and no one gives two hoots about us," he said. "The question is whether we will be able to achieve a political breakthrough in the near future. If not, I see no point [in remaining]."

"There is no doubt," Barak said, "that the coming period, between the coming four weeks and the coming four months, will be fateful."

Four months brings us to February 2011; four weeks is November. Herzog seemed to indicate that the February dog would not hunt.

"The ground is burning beneath our feet. Our partnership in the government is on its last vapors of fuel," he said.

After the meeting the MKs hurried to listen to the speeches of Rivlin, Peres, Netanyahu and Livni.

Livni lashed out at Netanyahu, calling him weak, indecisive, incapable of speaking the truth, engaged in political survival games, exercising purely political considerations and so on and so forth.

"You have turned Israel into a weak, frightened, insular, self-conflicted country, which is losing its only friend in the world and is defying the leadership of the free world," she said from the rostrum.

Afterward, Barak shook her hand warmly. "You delivered an excellent speech," he told her. "A true speech."

'Between statesmanship and partisanship'

As they do every year, top politicos convened in the Knesset speaker's office before the opening of the winter session for coffee, refreshments and small talk. "I get up every morning and don't know how the day will end," President Shimon Peres sighed to Netanyahu. "To get up every morning is already good," Netanyahu replied encouragingly.

In contrast to his speech a year ago, this time Peres did not express confidence that Netanyahu would bring peace. The key sections of his remarks were aimed directly at the prime minister. The media focused on a trivial incident in which MKs from the National Union jeered Peres when he said that there is a majority in the Knesset supporting the two-state principle. The following passages from Peres's speech were especially noteworthy:

"We must distinguish between the substantial and the insubstantial. Distinguish between statesmanship and partisanship. At a time of historic decision, the long-term state-oriented approach must prevail over short-term needs. There is nothing wrong with politics. We cannot get along without it. It's our everyday. But at a time of decision, we must turn our eyes to the pages of history, not to the hands of the clock ... Fate has placed the hard decisions in our hands. It is difficult to make them, dangerous to defer them. An agreed-upon map has to be reached soon ... If we remain passive, the negative tendencies will fuel the bloody conflict indefinitely and are liable to endanger our ability to preserve Israel's Jewish and democratic character."

This week, Netanyahu launched a holy war for the "Jewish state" on two fronts: internally, when he agreed to forward a bill that will oblige non-Jews who receive citizenship to declare loyalty to a "Jewish and democratic" state; and externally, when he turned the demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state into a condition for another construction freeze in the settlements.

Now Peres has told him the truth: Israel's Jewish and democratic character is endangered by those who allow history to pass them by because of "short-term needs."

The largest political upshot from the events of this week is that Netanyahu's two biggest defenders, Peres and Barak, who spent the past 18 months praising the man to everyone in Israel and the world and insisting that he has changed, are beginning to wearily despair of their client.

Goodbye Ruby? Not quite

No prime minister ever fielded from the speaker of the Knesset, a party colleague, the kind of withering criticism that Rivlin unleashed against Netanyahu, still less at a serious event such as the opening of a new Knesset session.

No Knesset speaker has ever before been applauded at the conclusion of his remarks, still less from the opposition benches. But neither has any speaker ever waged the kind of stubborn war for the independence of the legislature that Rivlin is leading.

In his speech Rivlin took issue with Netanyahu for his intention to introduce into the Economic Arrangements Law (which accompanies the state budget and obliges the entire coalition to vote in favor ) a series of unrelated riders.

"This is an attempt to void the Knesset of content and turn the MKs into a rubber stamp," Rivlin said. "We will not lend a hand to the weakening of the Knesset ... For some time, the Knesset has been compelled to cope with the thrust to change the character of the parliamentary regime in Israel and replace it de facto with a mini-presidential regime. For example, in the Arrangements Law, the government, like its predecessors, seeks to undermine the role of the Knesset as the watchdog of the government. It is unthinkable for the Arrangements Law to enhance the government or be compensation for a wayward coalition. It is inconceivable for the government to coerce the Knesset into accepting moves it makes crookedly."

Rivlin said Netanyahu's intention to hold a popular referendum on a final-status agreement with the Palestinians was "sabotage of the parliamentary tradition that has been ours for 62 years."

Rivlin wanted to see the smallest Arrangements Law possible, or even none at all. But Netanyahu wanted a fat law that would foist upon the coalition MKs all the laws, reforms and initiatives they had rejected in the past year and a half, or those that were stuck in Knesset committees.

These include a move to reinstate the Wisconsin workfare program and the implementation of reforms of the Broadcasting Authority, public transportation, the capital market and the municipal oversight system . There are also a series of amendments in the judicial sphere, such as having one district court judge hear certain appeals instead of the present three. When Rivlin asked Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman what the connection is between appeals and the budget, the latter replied, "There is a connection: Instead of the state paying three judges, it will pay one judge."

Several months ago, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz asked Rivlin to give public backing to another two-year budget. Rivlin had reservations. He asked the heads of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, who happened to be visiting him just then, for their opinion. They praised the initiative.

Rivlin informed Steinitz that he would publicly back the two-year budget even though it undermined the relevance of the Knesset, provided the Arrangements Law would not "be wild and would not humiliate the Knesset." Steinitz promised to take care of everything.

In the meantime, Rivlin heard rumors that the treasury was toiling over an Arrangements Law such as the Knesset had never seen. A few weeks ago, he called Netanyahu's bureau. "We are throwing everything into the law," he was told. Rivlin called the treasury and told Steinitz he was a liar and the bill would not be put up for a vote.

Treasury officials asked the attorney general if the Speaker of the Knesset has the right not to put a government bill to a vote. The attorney general said he has the right.

The Prime Minister's Bureau thereupon looked into the possibility of removing Rivlin as speaker. It can be done, but only if 90 MKs vote in favor. Rivlin informed Netanyahu's aides that he would make do with a regular majority of 61.

By Wednesday, Netanyahu and Steinitz caved in. The ministerial committee on legislation met and deleted dozens of bills and reforms from the Arrangements Law. The bill will be brought to the Knesset in the format Rivlin wants.

"The speaker of the Knesset congratulated the prime minister, the finance minister and the budget director on the cooperation and understanding they showed for the Knesset's requests," Rivlin's bureau said in a statement.

The power of four

MK Yaakov Katz is the chairman of the four-person rightist National Union faction in the Knesset. A few weeks ago, Katz conveyed a message to Netanyahu, using as intermediaries Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Netanyahu's chief of staff, Natan Eshel, among others.

"We will not topple you," Katz, who is in the opposition, informed the prime minister. "We have learned the lessons of the past. We saw what happens when the right brings down a Likud prime minister." In 1999, Netanyahu was forced out of power when the right and the left joined forces to advance the elections.

This week, Yaakov Katz was interviewed on Israel Radio. The implication of his remarks there was that if Netanyahu decides to renew the construction freeze in the settlements, the National Union will topple him from power.

"If he decides on a freeze, it will no longer depend on us. He will fall from within. Likud will capsize him. The coalition will pull him down," he said.

Katz said his faction wouldn't be the ones to pull the trigger if it came down to four votes.

"If it is dependent on our votes, we will not be the ones to topple him. It's true I sent him a message in that spirit. One of his representatives asked me: 'What if Bibi crosses lines?' I replied that if he crosses lines, you yourselves will oust him. If Labor leaves, Netanyahu will have a coalition of 61. He will be able to bring us in, but he won't do it, because he doesn't like us very much. If he were a strong leader, like Rabin, like Barak, he would continue to rule with a majority of 61. But he will go to elections immediately, because he will not want to head a [completely] right-wing government. [Yitzhak] Shamir ran the country with 61 MKs, Rabin did it with 58, Barak went to Camp David and conducted negotiations when he had the support of only 30 MKs. Netanyahu just isn't built like that."

Katz believes that, should it come to elections, Netanyahu will pull an about-face on pledges he made in his Bar-Ilan speech last year.

"Netanyahu will say he made a mistake when he declared his support for two states for two peoples. After all, he won't be able run on the same platform as Livni," he said. "Afterward he will be reelected and pursue the same line again."

Katz defended Livni, who he was seen huddling with in the Knesset.

"She is a friend of mine," he said. "I have a very high regard for her integrity. I prefer one like her, who follows a crooked path in a straight way, than someone who follows a crooked path in a crooked way."