The Game-changer

In setting Likud's primary in January, Netanyahu will neutralize his main party rival and consolidate power ahead of possible early elections. In the process, he may have forced Livni's hand as well.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to move the Likud primary to January 31 has set legislators and talking heads atwitter, wondering what he is trying to accomplish. He got Kadima stirred up, he set an agenda.

Life would be swell if he devoted those same energies to stymieing the unpopular legislation before him.

Benjamin Netanyahu - Olivier Fitoussi  - 05122011
Olivier Fitoussi

By setting the primary early, he has shoved his long-standing rival Silvan Shalom to a corner, but this was just a collateral benefit. MK Carmel Shama-Hacohen said that claims made by Shalom's "associates" that rescheduling the Likud primary for January 31 harms his chances of beating Netanyahu is akin to Hapoel Jaljulya contending that a change of rules would harm its chances of defeating Manchester United in a soccer match.

Netanyahu has claimed that his initiative aims, in part, at saving NIS 4 million for Likud. Were he not convinced that this rescheduling serves his interests, the NIS 4 million would likely be tossed to the wind.

A rumor spread this week in political circles suggesting that Netanyahu will follow up his assumed primary victory by issuing an immediate announcement for early general elections, in May or June 2012, instead of February 2013, as scheduled. He needs 61 votes to disband the Knesset.

Who can be sure that the entire coalition would support such a move? It's not even clear that all members of the opposition, who are theoretically enjoined to support early elections, want to shorten their parliamentary terms by that much?

Let's suppose that Netanyahu really wants early elections. Why would he want to drag the whole country to the polls? It turns out that he and his associates, including two or three cabinet ministers, have been secretly cooking up this early election formula for a few weeks. On Sunday night, Netanyahu made the rounds, telephoning Likud ministers and MKs. He told one minister: "Let's do what we did in 2007."

In summer 2007, Netanyahu unexpectedly decided to hold a party primary in the middle of the Knesset term, in order to put an end to threats posed by the eternal almost-rival, Silvan Shalom.

Should Netanyahu win in January, it will be his fifth term as Likud head. His first triumph came in 1993, a year after a Yitzhak Shamir-led Likud lost power to Yitzhak Rabin's Labor party.

The only time Shalom came close to posing a threat to Bibi's rule was in 2005, after Ariel Sharon broke up Likud and established Kadima. At the time, Netanyahu was distinctly unpopular, owing to allocation cuts he instituted as finance minister. He won 45 percent of votes in the primary; Shalom took about a third. In 1993, 1998 and 2007, Netanyahu handily won the primaries.

Unlike Labor, which throws its leaders aside without flinching, Likud remains loyal to its leadership.

'Livni missed the boat'

"Our primary mission is to topple Tzipi Livni," Shaul Mofaz tells people around him. Exactly a week after Livni indirectly signaled to Kadima members that she had decided to put off their party primary to some unknown time, Bibi came and changed the rules of the game. Now Livni will have to come up with a date.

During the past week, she held a number of consultations with party members. Many told her that she can't postpone the inevitable. Next week she will have a private meeting with Mofaz. People close to Livni say she has tried to schedule a meeting with him, but he has a habit of not returning her calls.

"That's nonsense," said Mofaz. "What's that garbage about? She was overseas. I'll meet with her next week, and I'll demand that a suitable date with accepted rules be determined. If she wants another 10 days, we'll give her that. She can't miss the boat another time. She missed it when it would have been possible to establish a government. She missed it when she didn't establish a government after the last elections. She missed it when [Kadima] didn't join the coalition. She missed it by not formulating Kadima's political identity. She missed it by not 'connecting' with the summer's social protests. And with regard to Gilad Shalit, her belated response was a disaster. I expect she will commit herself [to a primary date] because no matter what, she will remain in Kadima and contribute to the party."

Mofaz, who says he has enough MKs in his camp to force the scheduling of a primary now, is convinced that even if Livni loses, she'll stay on and be his deputy. "I expect she will make such a commitment," he said. "I commit myself."

Targeting Geneva

This week, the new, seemingly softened, NGOs law which was concocted by MK Faina Kirshenbaum, Yisrael Beiteinu's strongwoman, and Likud MK Ofir Akunis, reached the desks of Europe's ambassadors to Israel. They were amazed to discover that the law's preamble refers to Britain, Switzerland, Norway, Spain, Germany and Ireland as "foreign states that intervene in the State of Israel's internal discourse, with the intention of delegitimizing the activities of the IDF and its soldiers."

The ambassadors aren't surprised by Kirshenbaum. But they say Akunis would never have signed the bill without Netanyahu's consent. They are convinced that the prime minister still speaks through Akunis, his former spokesman. This week, Akunis declared that U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who spearheaded anti-communist witch-hunts in the mid-20th century, "was right in every word" when he claimed there were Soviet agents in the United States. The MK identifies himself as "someone who was educated by Jabotinsky's doctrine," and also as "someone who grew up under the influence of Menachem Begin." Not long ago, he exclaimed "I am a Beginite." It's not clear where in Begin and Jabotinsky's writings he finds the sources of his ignorance and stupidity.

Kirshenbaum is not a Beginite; she is a Liebermanite, from head to toe. And she'll fight for the new NGO like a lioness. Furthermore, she and Lieberman are not trying merely to hunt down anti-Zionist NGOs, or pro-Palestinian organizations that operate in Israel which receive foreign donations. They have one very specific target: the Geneva Initiative, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian players to prepare "public opinion and leadership to be accepting of the real compromises required to solve the conflict," according to their website.

About a month ago, Lieberman stated in a meeting with European Union ambassadors: "There's no problem with the Geneva Initiative organization and its positions. But this is a matter that Israeli citizens should decide about, not foreign governments. The activity it [the Geneva Initiative] undertakes with the Russian public should not receive foreign funding. It is trying to influence this public." Lieberman was referring to Russian-language political posters put up by the group.

Also, three weeks ago, he brought up the organization in an interview with Yaron Dekel on Israel Radio. "It receives millions of euros, dollars and Swiss franks from foreign governments for one purpose: to change the voting patters of Israel's public," he said.

I asked Kirshenbaum why such a strong political party needs to invest time in an effort as negligible as the Geneva Initiative.

"You're taking one of many examples," she said. "I wouldn't build an agenda just on Geneva. The Russian-speaking public reads Israeli and Russian newspapers. They've learned how to deal with, and understand, an array of data. But it's a fact that an organization such as Geneva receives foreign funds and tries to use them to change the political map of Israel."

I asked her about the fact that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has said that the bill is not legal.

"Weinstein's judgment relates to previous bills, not to the new law," she said. "When he states his opinion about the new law, then I'll respond."

Tibi and the survivors

November 29, 1947, the date when the United Nations approved the partition plan for the Land of Israel, is also the UN's International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. To mark this day, MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al ) traveled to Berlin for an annual conference held on December 1.

Tibi, an Arab gynecologist who is one of the most polished, outspoken critics of Israel, was the keynote speaker. At the end of the event, he asked his hosts, from the Palestinian association of physicians and pharmacists in Berlin, to take him on a tour of the villa in Wansee where heads of the Nazi government gathered in January 1942, and decided over breakfast about ways to implement the Final Solution for the Jews.

This was Tibi's third visit to Berlin, but the first time he asked to visit the Wansee site. "I hadn't thought of this before," he said this week. "Three Palestinian physicians, who are residents of Berlin, came with me; one is a refugee."

When they reached the suburban villa, which sits on the edge of a charming lake, they came across a young guide, an Israeli woman. Tibi relates that she was stunned to see him. She ran to one of her colleagues and told him, in German, "That's Ahmed Tibi, what has he come to do here?"

"She was very cold toward us," Tibi said. "I insisted on asking questions, in Hebrew. Slowly, she softened. That is a terrible place, where they reached that indescribably abominable decision. All of the evil was found there. She taught me something: I always thought that the Final Solution was reached there, but it was explained that the decision had been reached earlier, and at Wansee the decision turned into policy. From philosophy to bureaucracy."

Tibi says when the tour ended he went to sign the guest book.

"She stopped me. 'Not in this one,' she said. 'We have a book for VIPs.' She ran off and returned with the book," he said. "I sat down and wrote in it. The last one to sign it before me was [Israel] police commissioner Yohanan Danino."

Tibi wrote in Hebrew: "For me, it was important to come to this villa, a place where evil-spirited people gathered and were briefed about the progress of the worst crime in modern history. Genocide. All of us most learn the history so that crimes of this sort are not repeated. I have great empathy for Holocaust survivors, including those who live with me in the same state, in the same land. The world would be a better place were it to stop producing modern victims. Must we always produce victims in order to survive? The answer is 'no.' Peoples have an absolute right to freedom and human dignity, and, in particular, they have the right to live anywhere, including their homeland."

Tibi is a more adroit politician than most of the Jews in the Knesset. Nobody would know about this visit to Wansee were he to keep mum about it. He wanted the story to appear in Israeli media, after it did in numerous Arab media outlets.

I discussed the visit with Tibi. He spoke with emotion, and no cynicism. I didn't ask him how his gesture can be reconciled with his close, friendly relationship with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom many Israelis consider to be a Holocaust denier. He would have merely evaded such a question, in his characteristically elegant way.