The Midnight Hour

Netanyahu is the last leader who can afford Haredi anarchy on his watch, but the ultra-Orthodox are giving him a run for his money. If that's not enough, there are some doubts about the flotilla investigation panel.

Many hours passed until, close to midnight on Wednesday, a call was issued from the Prime Minister's Bureau: "At this fateful hour, when Israel faces existential threats from its enemies, I call on all the parties involved to show restraint, to respect the law and to resolve the problem peacefully and affably."

One can imagine Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides hunched over the press release ahead of its publication, to ensure that it contained not even the slightest hint, God forbid, of a demand that the Haredim respect the ruling by the High Court of Justice, even though - at least as of yesterday morning - none of the Haredi MKs had threatened to resign because of the furor this week in Immanuel. And even if they were to threaten - what of it? Prying MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ) loose from the Finance Committee will take more than 86 men and women spending a little time behind bars for contempt of court.

Only in this country could Meir Porush (UTJ ), a deputy minister in the Education Ministry, which is the respondent in the High Court petition, organize, from within that ministry, this chaos against the state.

Netanyahu is the last leader who can afford Haredi anarchy on his watch; it will stick to him until the end of his term. A public, anti-Orthodox wave before the next elections will hurt not only the Haredim, but also whoever is tied to them in a political alliance.

Amos Biderman

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, a senior member of Likud, gave a straightforward response to Haredi requests to help effect some sort of roughshod manipulation in the High Court: "Judgments are not amenable to discretion. They are not a recommendation, and not even the minister of education is above judgments of the Supreme Court." Even words as self-evident as these were not reflected in the prime minister's statement.

On Wednesday night, Sa'ar called Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. He wanted Weinstein's opinion about an idea that former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri had been marketing all day: to end the school year in Immanuel immediately, if not sooner, send the Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls to a day camp together, and find a solution for the coming school year. Weinstein rejected the idea out of hand. It's clear why: The High Court signaled in its decision that next year things will work out, and was asking merely that the girls attend school together for two weeks. Deri wanted to eliminate even those two weeks.

All the elements of this affair seem to have been tailor-made for Deri, the comeback kid: archaic ultra-Orthodox parties, decision makers who are incapable of making decisions, Haredi politicians who are captive to slogans. And in the face of all that, Rabbi Aryeh, fresh, creative, suggesting a sane compromise. "Look how much you need me," was the subtext in all the interviews he gave, "but have no fear - I'll soon be back."

Cruel and unnecessary

One of the members of the ministerial forum of seven was walking through the Knesset corridors on Monday, when he ran into someone. The latter told the minister that press photographers had just come from the home of Prof. Shabtai Rosenne, a member of the Turkel committee of inquiry into the Gaza flotilla episode, who is 93, wheelchair-ridden, has a permanent caregiver and was photographed in pajamas. The minister gave his interlocutor a stunned look.

"You're joking, right?" he asked.

"No," the man replied.

"Is this a joke or not?" the minister persisted.

"Absolutely not," the interlocutor said.

The minister repeated, "You have to tell me, seriously: Are you pulling my leg?"

"No, it's true," the other person repeated, a bit embarrassed.

The minister swallowed hard. "It doesn't look good," he mumbled to himself.

Even though he belongs to the exclusive, all-knowing forum that authorized the committee's composition, no one told the man about the physical condition of one of the three panel members, just as he had not been told all the details about the flotilla making its way to Gaza more than two weeks ago.

Probably not even the prime minister knew about Rosenne. The justice minister, Yaakov Neeman, and committee chairman Turkel met with the world-renowned jurist in his home. Afterward, Neeman told Netanyahu that Rosenne is "lucid."

At one point that day the premier and his aides even considered replacing Prof. Rosenne or asking him to step down, but both ideas were vetoed. The first, because of the tremendous PR damage it would do to the Prime Minister's Bureau, which would once again look like something out of a French farce; and the second, because it would be heartbreaking: The professor was photographed perusing a thick file entitled "The Gaza Flotilla." There he was, already at work. To take that away from him, especially as he has nothing wrong, would be cruelty akin to abusing the helpless.

Deepening rift

At the end of every cabinet session, the ministers are asked to approve planned visits abroad by their colleagues and the appointment of acting ministers for the following week. The ministers vote automatically when the cabinet secretary reads out the list of prospective travelers. On Sunday, something dramatic happened: The cabinet authorized the defense minister's departure for the United States on Saturday night for a weeklong visit, and his replacements: Minister Dan Meridor from Sunday to Wednesday (at which time he will leave for his own visit to New York ) and thereafter Minister Yossi Peled, from the moment Meridor leaves until Barak's return.

Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer, himself a former defense minister - a member of Barak's party and his confidant - has been the regular and only acting defense minister during Barak's visits abroad during the years they have served in the Olmert and Netanyahu governments. Yet, just in the period in which the navy might encounter yet another flotilla, Barak preferred to place ministerial responsibility for the Israel Defense Forces, during his absence, in the hands of two Likud ministers.

Last Friday, this column noted the strained relations between Barak and Ben-Eliezer, after the latter, in total opposition to the former, supported establishment of an international committee of inquiry into the flotilla episode - a stance for which Barak berated him. Of late, the two have barely been on speaking terms. On Tuesday, they met for more than hour in an effort to work things out, but as the late Rafael Eitan once said after a crisis-conversation he had with Netanyahu: "Not one wrinkle was ironed out."

In private talks with confidants this week, Ben-Eliezer said the reason for the tension between him and Barak is "the political stalemate" that is the root of all of Israel's troubles, including the flotilla incident and its aftermath.

"I know that Barak is on Bibi's tail about this, but it's not enough," Ben-Eliezer said. "Our situation is deteriorating. We are waiting for others to come talk with us, instead of our searching out contact with them. Ehud has a magical influence on Netanyahu. They are constantly talking, but I expect more, more, more. Barak can do a lot more than he has done so far. I want to see action. Bibi is ready. He's capable of it, he has internalized it. But does he want to take the leap forward? I don't know. Bibi has to stop being afraid! The nation is behind him - he must start running ahead."

Ben-Eliezer was asked in the closed meeting if he expected Barak to confront Netanyahu with an ultimatum.

"No," he said. "The worst thing would be for us [the Labor Party] to leave, because the government would not fall. Netanyahu can bring in Ateret Kohanim [meaning the National Union - Y.V.], he will have another four MKs, and then it will be a right-wing government. Now, at least, our votes blend with those of the moderates in Likud."

Someone also heard him threaten that "if at the end of the freeze, construction in the territories is resumed, and there is no political [peace] process, I will take Labor out of the government."

As minister of industry and trade, Ben-Eliezer is often abroad. He's a guy the goyim like to like: a pursuer of peace. The genuine article. Speaks Oxfordian English. Ben-Eliezer likes to be liked, but in recent months, even he has encountered a cool reception. Returning traumatized from every visit abroad, he bursts into the offices of Netanyahu and Barak and implores them: Do something!

Ben-Eliezer is still pinning his hopes on Netanyahu. "Only a leader of Likud is capable of bringing about a breakthrough," he says. "In our Israel, no left-wing leader will become prime minister. And if he does, and he wants to make a move, he will be slaughtered as Rabin was slaughtered. And Rabin was slaughtered by a Jew."

Barak's aides say Ben-Eliezer is frustrated at not being in the ministerial forum of seven, and by being only in the political-security cabinet; that he sees four MKs demanding that Barak force Netanyahu to co-opt Kadima into the government, and two ministers, Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman, priming themselves to contest the party leadership; so he, - Ben-Eliezer - also has to make his presence felt.

"How long have we known Fuad?" Barak's people ask. "He always had periods like this, against the party leader."

For his part, Barak suffered a few serious setbacks this week on the party front. His loyalist, Weizmann Shiri, Labor's director general, is going to leave after possibly getting into trouble with the Securities Commission. The Petah Tikva District Court prevented Barak from blithely appointing his buddy Shalom Simhon, the agriculture minister, to be chairman of the Jewish National Fund. And Barak's candidate for head of the party's Young Guard was defeated by Michal Biran, the candidate of his archrival MK Shelly Yachimovich, who also had the support of Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog. Barak sent an aide to fight for every vote, to the point where some claimed that he considered the "Biranian threat" to be equivalent to the Iranian threat. And the fourth blow was the deepening of his rift with Ben-Eliezer.

If Simhon does eventually leave the cabinet to become JNF chief, and if Ben-Eliezer does not side with Barak, the Labor leader will find himself abandoned and forsaken. Well, not quite. He'll always have Matan Vilnai by his side.