Toward His Natural Base

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be shifting rightward as elections approach. In the meantime, though, he has a speech to deliver in Washington.

Typical Israeli provincialism was quick to attribute to the killing of Osama bin Laden profound implications for Israel and its international anti-terror visionary, Benjamin Netanyahu. It's not certain there's a connection between Bibi, Osama and Obama. Even before the hit, U.S. President Barack Obama was a strong leader with a good chance of being reelected. The argument that an Obama celebrating the bin Laden killing is bad news for Netanyahu is just as logical as arguing that if the operation in Pakistan had failed, a frustrated Obama would have taken it out on Netanyahu in their meeting in two weeks.

More relevant are the developments between Gaza and Ramallah. The working assumption in the Prime Minister's Bureau is that it's a done deal. A Palestinian state will be established - the question is how many countries will support it at the United Nations come September, or more accurately, which countries will Israel be able to persuade to vote against or abstain.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
Amos Biderman

The declaration of support by the Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, for the deceased bin Laden two days before the reconciliation ceremony between Hamas and Fatah gladdened the Prime Minister's Bureau more than the killing itself. Holding this card on the eve of his departure for meetings with the leaders of Britain and France, Netanyahu drew encouragement from the declaration by opposition leader Tzipi Livni against the Palestinian reconciliation.

Livni's remarks made it possible for Netanyahu to tell British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy that opposition to a Palestinian unity government cuts across political camps and is shared by about 100 MKs. But it is "a mortal blow to peace and a tremendous victory for terrorism," he added. Livni, meanwhile, said that if the new Palestinian government accepts the Quartet's terms - recognizing Israel, ceasing terrorism and adopting previous agreements - then it will be a government that can be negotiated with.

Netanyahu is still toying with the idea that Livni's Kadima party will agree to join his government before the shock and awe that looms in September. No such scenario has crossed Livni's mind. Israel's current political reality stems from Netanyahu's policies, which Kadima has objected to all along, people close to Livni say. And now he wants us to join him?

Netanyahu is due to deliver his long-awaited speech to both houses of Congress on May 24. None of his aides knows what he is planning. He probably doesn't know either. Anything less than a dramatic address will not go down well with the White House and Europe. Senior figures who have spoken with him say he is shifting rightward toward his natural base in preparation for the next election.

The revolutionary

When Amram Mitzna was asked what was his major mistake in his very brief term as Labor Party leader, he replied, "Not making the change the day after I was elected; letting the institutions manage me instead of me managing them. That won't happen this time. I intend to foment a revolution in the party."

The "institutions" are only one target. The second target is the list of Knesset candidates. Mitzna intends to set aside at least half the seats on the next list for new people, and it is he who will decide who they are and how high they appear on the roster. "I intend to create a green line for those I want on the list who would not otherwise survive the long and winding road of the primaries," he said.

Mitzna dreams of becoming a lone leader in a party that obeys him absolutely. Knowing that this will not happen, he is trying to neutralize as much as possible the influence of the shackling party bodies and reinvigorate the Knesset list with his people at the expense of serving MKs and veteran functionaries.

Twice in his two terms as party chief, Ehud Barak dreamed of setting aside places for his people on the list, but could not bring it off. More than a year ago Barak annulled the party's constitution, which is heavily tilted toward the internal institutions, but after he bolted Labor the constitution went back into force. On the way to the revolution, Mitzna will encounter Isaac Herzog, Shelly Yachimovich and Amir Peretz, none of whom will let him trample over them.

On Wednesday, Mitzna officially declared himself a candidate to lead Labor. His five years as mayor of the southern town of Yeruham on behalf of the Interior Ministry have lent him the status of leading candidate. His hair has turned white, his beard has gotten shorter.

Exactly three months ago, after a meeting he initiated with Eldad Yaniv, the founder of the National Left party, I asked Mitzna about the chances he would run again for the Labor helm. "The Labor Party cannot be rehabilitated," he said on February 6, about three weeks after the departure of Barak and his pals.

His assessment was that the eight MKs remaining in the party "will not find common ground, and will continue the internecine quarrels." Israel's political map "is crying out for a new left-wing party that is fresh and high-quality," he argued.

On Wednesday, I asked Mitzna what had changed in the meantime. "After conversations with various people on the left, and not only on the left, I concluded that something new would be unsuitable for this period," he said. "Three months ago, I was mistaken in my evaluation of the change in voters' attitudes toward Labor after Barak's departure."

What about the eight MKs?

"The eight are not eight. They are not two quartets or even four pairs. Each is a world unto himself. At the same time, I think the people who left were the ones at the forefront of the disputes. And they left. On the other hand, the fact that the party is in such dire straits and that the polls are predicting an even bleaker picture will get people to unite. I am quite optimistic."

Last time you cracked quickly. Do you think this time you'll be able to take the heat?

"This time I know what I am getting into."

Allow me to guess that we won't see you leading a sing-along when the polls close in the next election, as on election night in 2003, when Labor fell to 19 seats from 26.

"I admit that the singing then was something of a sarcastic event, but it came from the heart. I hope next time we'll have a better reason, and a less cynical one, to sing together."

Double whammy

In the past few days an echo has been reverberating from the home of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party. It is saying that the rabbi will soon invite Aryeh Deri and make him an offer he can't refuse: second place on the Shas list for the next Knesset, immediately after Eli Yishai and before Housing Minister Ariel Atias.

Deri, the party's former leader, has been out of politics since his trial, conviction and prison term for bribe-taking; he was released in 2002, but then had to postpone his political comeback because the court attributed the stigma of moral turpitude to his crime. If Deri accepts the rabbi's offer, peace and harmony will be restored in the movement and the big threat to Shas will disappear. If he refuses, Yosef will impose on him a Torah-based ban from running independently. We'll see if Deri is ready to defy the rabbi.

The idea was hatched by Shas MK Nissim Zeev, who has good reason to fear an independent party led by Deri, which would cut into Shas' votes and perhaps keep him out of the next Knesset. Interior Minister Eli Yishai, the party's current leader, has also heard about this astute idea, but declined to comment.

Recently, someone asked Deri how he would react to such an offer. Rabbi Yosef knows I will say no, he said, and that's why he won't make the offer. Deri is a frequent visitor to the rabbi's home, praying and dining there. As he said to a confidant not long ago, "The polls say I can get Shas between 15 and 17 seats. So why should I be Yishai's number two?"

In the past few months, Deri has met with many rabbis. He says he has persuaded them all that it's better to run in two parties, one Sephardi-Haredi, the other - headed by him - traditional-secular. After the elections, he promises, the two parties will work together. True, Shas will get fewer seats if he is in the arena, but what's important, Deri says, is that in the end the whole will be greater than the sum of its two parts.

Deri is ready to run at the drop of a hat, though he doesn't think there will be elections this year. His good friend Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has no plans to topple the Netanyahu coalition in 2011. When Lieberman decides otherwise, Deri will know about it even before the top people in Lieberman's party, Yisrael Beiteinu.

In mid-May, at the start of the Knesset's summer session, Yishai and Atias will submit a bill designed to make it easier to get a mortgage, contrary to the position of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and the governor of the Bank of Israel. If Netanyahu and Steinitz give them what they want, the political gain will be theirs; if the premier and the finance minister don't give in, the bill is likely to pass anyway, with the opposition's support.

Some people think Yishai and Atias want new elections this year, while the rabbi can still help in the campaign. But even if that's their wish, Yosef will not allow them to topple a sitting Israeli government, let alone a right-wing government. It's also possible that Deri will be able to persuade even Yosef, either directly or through his friend Rabbi Moshe Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader's son, that two lists in the next Knesset are better than one. The rabbi has no reason to hurry. One way or another, he's set.