Waiting for the Kadima Coup De Grace

Prime Minister Netanyahu is still trying to break up Tzipi Livni's party. Could it be, worry Likud colleagues, that he's aiming to bolster his coalition before renewing talks with the Palestinians, while sparking a ruckus in his party's right wing?

The continued refusal by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to jump-start negotiations with Israel has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly an entire year of political and coalitional peace of mind. Abbas essentially extended the traditional 100-day period of grace to 300 days. He relieved the Netanyahu government of the need to prove its seriousness about the peace process; he did not put to the test the discrepancies among the differing diplomatic positions taken by the coalition partners; and he did not compel the prime minister to confront the issues that brought down his predecessors.

Now, every day brings another report about a diplomatic plan, about basic guidelines for entering negotiations, about agreements and understandings. The Likud ministers get most of their information about such developments from the media.

"I haven't changed my views," the prime minister declared at their weekly meeting on Sunday.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz complained about the Palestinians' refusal to negotiate, even though "we agreed to two states for two peoples."

"No!" Benny Begin interjected. "The prime minister agreed. We didn't."

"When the prime minister says something, it obligates us, too," Steinitz protested.

"No," said Begin. "We respect him very much, but there's a difference."

Yuli Edelstein, Moshe Kahlon and Limor Livnat asked Netanyahu to clarify what exactly the conditions are for entering talks.

"Some people wanted the final result of the negotiations to be set at the beginning. That's not how it's going to be," Netanyahu replied. "We did not agree to say that we would divide Jerusalem and that we would return to the 1967 lines."

Yet three days later, the Egyptian Al Gomhuria newspaper reported that this was exactly what Netanyahu told President Hosni Mubarak.

"Clearly, the prime minister is not presenting the true picture," said one minister this week. "It doesn't add up that after nearly a year of Abbas refusing to exchange a word with Netanyahu, suddenly he [Abbas] is not so opposed to talking. Apparently, there has been some significant change on our side."

Nor can the worried Likud ministers ignore the efforts the prime minister has been making to try to break up Kadima. Perhaps he is trying to bolster his coalition with seven more MKs ahead of some potential turmoil in his party's right wing?

Just last Sunday, Netanyahu had secret talks in his office regarding continued efforts to split the party up. He's not resting for a moment, and persistent rumors say the seventh MK who would be necessary to bring about the coup de grace has been identified. It's said that he is apparently a former minister, who expects to obtain a respectable cabinet post , and also that the group of defectors is just waiting for the right timing.

Hotovely vs. Deri

In his latest book, "Hitpakhut" ("Disillusionment," Zmora-Bitan publishers), journalist Dan Margalit describes what went on behind the scenes of his Channel 10 program "Council of Sages." Aryeh Deri, a panelist on the program, could not abide the presence of fellow panelist, and current Likud MK, Tzipi Hotovely. She called him "Mr. Deri" instead of "Rabbi Deri," and once apparently cited some verse from the Hebrew Bible more accurately than he did. Deri, along with both the late Tommy Lapid and Amnon Dankner, pressed Margalit to kick her off the show. Margalit refused. In the end, Deri was the one to remove himself from the forum.

This week Hotovely submitted a bill that would permanently ban an elected official who is convicted of committing an offense involving moral turpitude during his or her tenure as MK or minister - and who served at least one year in prison - from returning to political life. Her legislation constitutes an amendment to the Basic Law: The Knesset, which mandates a seven-year cooling-off period from the end of the prison sentence. Basically, this could be called the "Deri Law" (although some in the Knesset refer to it as the "Yishai Law," after Eli Yishai). Avraham Hirschson and Shlomo Benizri are serving long sentences, so for them, a political comeback is not a realistic prospect. But Deri fully intends to return to the Knesset, and proclaims : "I'm running in the elections! With or without Shas."

If Hotovely's bill passes, Deri will have to forever abandon the comeback dream. Is this a case of sweet, albeit belated, revenge?

"It's not a personal thing at all!" scoffs Hotovely. "Deri took part in three or four shows during three whole TV seasons. It's really nothing personal against him."

Why is the proposed law retroactive? Why shouldn't it just apply to anyone who is convicted after it goes into effect, we ask.

Hotovely: "I don't see it as retroactive. I was thinking of people like Hirschson, Benizri, [Ehud] Olmert, Deri ... It isn't right for people who derived their public standing from the political establishment to return to it after being convicted for ethical offenses. But pardon me for saying Olmert; he hasn't been convicted yet."

Hotovely got Shelly Yachimovich of Labor, Marina Solodkin of Kadima and Yariv Levin of Likud to co-sign on the bill. One of the three said this week that s/he had no recollection of the tension between Hotovely and Deri, and had no problem forgoing the bill's retroactive element.

For its part, the Shas faction says that none of its members participated in preparing the legislation, "and we will discuss our position when the bill is brought before the Knesset."

Tilting the balance

In the next Knesset, as head of a more or less middle-sized faction - whether it's called Shas or something else - Deri could take a big bite out of the traditional right wing and tilt the scale toward a center-left candidate for prime minister; or, at the very least, he could make life more difficult for a right-wing candidate. In the present Knesset, the right-wing/ultra-Orthodox bloc comprises 65 MKs, and the center-left bloc has 55. Even if Deri returns as head of a faction of just six or seven MKs, it could seriously upset this balance.

For now, Eli Yishai and Shas are in Netanyahu's pocket: As long as Yishai leads the party, the prime minister will continue in his post in the 19th Knesset as well. But not if Deri is in the picture. On the diplomatic front, he is far more moderate than Yishai. Furthermore, there is no bad blood between Deri and Tzipi Livni (assuming she continues to head Kadima), as there is between her and Yishai.

Of course, we mustn't forget about Haim Ramon, head of the Kadima council, close friend of Deri and close adviser to Livni: Ramon will have an important role in influencing Deri's parliamentary maneuvers in the next Knesset, which is why he is so keen to see him return to the political playing field.

In private conversations this week, in light of the activities of Hotovely and company, Deri predicted that their bill would be shelved, despite the Likud's clear interest in passing it. Shas will not be able to support the bill, he figured. United Torah Judaism is also opposed, and according to the coalition agreement, a Basic Law cannot be amended without the consent of all parts of the coalition. Deri also feels certain that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef - with whom he dines every Shabbat - will not permit Shas to support a law that would block Deri's return to politics.

Deri scoffs at what he sees as Yishai's groveling before Netanyahu, and vows that things will be different when he's in charge of Shas - even though Deri supports some of Netanyahu's recent moves, which he believes show a shift toward greater moderation. At every opportunity, Deri reminds his listeners of Rabbi Yosef's moderate diplomatic stance. When Deri is back in the picture, he implies, that approach will also be back - big-time. He doesn't think Hotovely was using her bill to take revenge on him, and he was amused by Shas' reaction to it. "It's very nice that Shas is going to discuss the bill on its merits," Deri told his friends.

Mofaz as missile

On Monday afternoon, Shaul Mofaz shot like a ballistic missile from the Kadima faction room in the Knesset straight to a spontaneous press briefing that he convened in the building's old wing. He launched into a furious diatribe: "At every decision-making juncture, Livni has made the wrong decision ... The country is suffering because Kadima is not in the government ... I see all the damage she is causing to the country, to the party, to us, and I cannot sit by quietly ... She failed twice and couldn't put together a government ... What has Kadima done for the national agenda since we've been in the opposition? What is Tzipi Livni's agenda, aside from going on about Annapolis?"

"Outbursts? What outbursts?" Mofaz said afterward. "Upset? I wasn't upset. I was forceful [because] 17 MKs from Kadima who talked with people from Likud in recent weeks basically expressed no confidence in her. The primary must be moved up. I look at the way this faction, which should be the governing faction, has functioned for the past nine months and I say that it has to change."

A casual observer is liable to conclude that Mofaz is losing control of himself, because of a burning hatred and a desire for revenge. This is true up to a point, but he is also more clever and more calculating than that. He has a precise objective in mind: competing in a new leadership race, in early summer, based on his feeling that, among the current ranks of registered Kadima voters - who number about 80,000 - he has the edge. He wants a primary now, while Livni is weak. With the next election still far away, Kadima's voters won't be influenced like they were last time, when the primary was held just before the general vote, by polls saying which candidate would bring the party more Knesset seats.

The key factor this time, Mofaz believes, is what happens out in the field: which of the two contestants has a stronger presence in the party branches. Mofaz is well aware that if he waits a year or two, as the Kadima constitution stipulates, he is liable to find Olmert or Tzachi Hanegbi in the picture - or the public may just be completely fed up with both him and Livni by then.

The moment of truth will come this summer: on the Iranian issue, on the diplomatic front, on the legal front in terms of the investigation of Avigdor Lieberman. Kadima may even join the government - and the person heading it will be the party's senior minister in Netanyahu's government. All will come to a head in June or July.

What will you do, Mofaz was asked this week, if your call for an early primary is rejected? He shuffled the papers in front of him. "I'll give you the same answer I used to give when I was chief of staff and defense minister and was asked what I would do in this or that scenario," he said. "I'll conduct an assessment of the situation."