Too Many Mistakes, Too Little Time

Netanyahu finally figured it out: By lining up behind the initiative to move up the Likud primaries, he committed a gross error.

Benjamin Netanyahu hasn't been talking much these last two weeks. He hadn't granted an interview, until yesterday, and hasn't been making the rounds of the studios.

Ever since that press conference, his "Ground Zero," he had practically disappeared. Netanyahu knows how to keep a low profile when the need arises. He has withdrawn to a little room on the 10th floor of the office tower above the Ramat Aviv mall. There he meets with members of the Likud Party Central Committee, who come in groups and individually. There he talks with them on the phone, trying to persuade them that Ariel Sharon is pulling the wool over their eyes. From there he launches sorties at sundown to semi-underground, closed-to-the-media gatherings. Silence has been kind to him.

When he doesn't say anything, he doesn't make mistakes. When he does not appear in public, he is less vulnerable.

Now, it seems that even Netanyahu understands that the press conference in late August was a mistake, and that by lining up behind the initiative to move up the primaries, he committed a gross mistake. Too many mistakes in too little time. Party activists who have visited him in his office detect bitterness in his voice. Despite his abundant experience, he is astounded at how the media ganged up on him, at the joy they feel at his misfortune. He is aware that the fight over the date of the primaries in the central committee, which convenes on September 25 and 26, will be close.

Sharon and his people succeeded in tipping the balance by throwing the matter of self-interest into the arena: Moving up the primaries would be suicide, hara-kiri. It would prematurely pull the plug on the government. A ruling party simply does not lop a full year off of its own term "because of someone's lunatic ambitions."

The buzz in the field is opposed to early primaries. Even major activists and influential figures in the party who are identified with Netanyahu are saying they will vote nay on September 26. In the past few days, Netanyahu has adopted a new tactic to counter this trend: He has discarded his previous argument, according to which moving up the primaries would not necessarily lead to an earlier general election. It is obvious to all that it would. Now he is trying to persuade party activists that early primaries would actually benefit those with vested interests, the patrons of the Likud government.

If we moved the primaries ahead to late November, he is now saying, Sharon would be compelled to set up his new party already in October. But that would mean three or four months until the general elections. During this period of time, Sharon and his party would be worn down and would fall to pieces. The Likud would profit, because the more Sharon's splinter party is worn down, the less able it would be to steal Knesset seats from the mother party, the Likud.

If the primaries were pushed back to February-March, Sharon would have ample time to clandestinely prepare his new party and then take the wraps off it at the least minute, two months before the election. The longer the splinter party has to go into decline, Netanyahu is telling party activists, the better it will be for the Likud. An early decision is good for Likud, not the opposite. Don't let Sharon work quietly in the background on this party and then suddenly pop up in February 2006, while Uzi Landau and I are busy running. Force him to show his hand now. Vanquish him now, so that he will have to walk with the sun burning down on his head as long as possible.

A Sharon party is materializing before Netanyahu's very eyes. People are telling him that they've been approached by Sharon's confidants with offers to join the new adventure. He is seeing how the well-oiled money machine is working for the prime minister, without anyone bothering to investigate the source of the money.

They are still coddling Sharon, Netanyahu feels. They excuse any and all misbehavior. Sharon is refusing to commit to staying in the Likud, but no one is saying a thing. If George Bush were running in primaries in 1999 and would not have been willing to declare that he would stay in the Republican Party if he lost, you can only guess what they would have done to him.

Netanyahu is certain that Sharon will not run against him in the primaries, even if he wins in the central committee at the end of the month, just as he is certain that Sharon will move on to additional disengagement if reelected. A mutual friend of his and Sharon, named Meir Haviv, who is a French citizen, once told him a story: About 15 years ago, Sharon visited Paris. He was ostracized at the time, an untouchable; no one would agree to meet him. Haviv came to the airport to give a little attention to the aging politician. He did his best to comfort Sharon, but Sharon told him: I know that if I would concede parts of the Land of Israel, they would be rolling out the red carpets here, but don't worry, I will not surrender.

This story is the source of Netanyahu's expression, which he employed earlier this week at a gathering of supporters in Tel Aviv, in regard to the motivation behind Sharon's disengagement initiative: "Land for red carpets" (the expression works better in Hebrew).

Causing an upheaval Two senior, but really senior, cabinet ministers, one of whom is close to Sharon, assessed this week in private conversations that there is no chance of Sharon running in the Likud primaries. They concur with Netanyahu's evaluation that the prime minister is simply trying to buy himself time. If the central committee decides not to move up the primaries, he would gain an extension of six months or so (assuming that the Labor Party, which elects its leader on November 8, will be in no rush to leave him).

A high-ranking Likud official told Sharon a few days ago that there are people who do everything right and don't get what they want, and there are people whose entire path is paved with mistakes, and they get what they want. Sharon understood. Until now he hasn't made mistakes. He has succeeded in generating an upheaval in the consciousness of the central committee and among the general party membership. Netanyahu still has an advantage over him in these two bodies, but the feeling among nearly all members of the Likud Knesset faction is that in the first contest between the two, in the central committee, Sharon could win.

On the other hand, there may be something deceptive here: The MKs and the ministers who drag themselves night after night to the endless round of bar-mitzvahs and weddings to which they have been invited by central committee members, meet the regular mix of guests mayors, major activists, heads of groups, vote contractors - all people who by definition have little interest in shortening the life of the government, even if they despise Sharon and the disengagement.

Who doesn't come to these occasions? The silent majority. The ideologues, who would prefer a party of 20 seats without Sharon over 40 seats with him, the "Feiglins," the folks from Gaza and the West Bank, the founders of the settlers' movement. They are sitting at home with their tea and cookies, plotting revenge on Sharon. How many of them will come out to vote on the 26th? Nobody knows. There are even a few people in Sharon's close circle who would actually like to lose. For them, it's time to get it over with.

Enough is enough. If they were central committee members, they would vote against Sharon. Some people in the Likud think that Sharon feels the same way, but they are wrong: On the eve of his trip to the UN, Sharon invested much effort in talking and meeting with members of the central committee. He personally called dozens of them and asked them not to vote to shorten his term as prime minister.

One of these persons is Arnon Minis. A young fellow from a moshav in the Sharon region, not especially well-known, who doesn't have any "troops" at his disposal. Yes, he is a deputy chair of Likud Youth, but the chairman of Likud Youth has many deputies. Nevertheless, he received a phone call from Sharon last Friday. Minis, an opponent of disengagement, assured Sharon he would vote with him. He believes Sharon when he says he will protect the settlement blocs. Minis refused to take a phone call from Netanyahu.

Peres' No. 1 soldier Just watch and you'll see that he is withdrawing, Shimon Peres told Dalia Itzik at the beginning of the Labor Party Central Committee meeting on Sunday. What are you talking about, Itzik said. Of course, he's withdrawing. No, he isn't, railed Peres, sinking bit by bit into depression. No, he isn't. He'll say that he is staying in it until the end. Enough, stop already, Itzik scolded Peres threateningly, as only she can.

And then, as agreed and as promised, Ehud Barak climbed onto the stage and announced not only his withdrawal from the race, but also his full and unqualified support for the minister of regional cooperation for the "loser." As Barak was calling on the other contenders to line up behind Peres, Peres propped up his head in his left hand and fixed a long, serious look on Barak. As if expecting that at the last second he would change his mind.

Six months late, Barak took his first step back to the leadership of the Labor Party this week. Everything he's done until now is null and void. The ravenous hunger, the lustfulness, the feeling of greatness that characterized him early in the race have been supplanted by a quiet recognition and internalization of his liabilities. If the keyboard would not react by going up in flames, one might have even written the word "humility." But we needn't be carried away. Barak proved that he is not a lost case. He understood that he has to submit to a long and tortuous apprenticeship process, as an ordinary minister in one of the next governments or as an opposition MK, perhaps as a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the next Knesset, before attempting to scale the heights again.

Amir Peretz took his place on the megalomania chain. His speech in this week's Labor central committee was a bit funny and a bit frightening, a bit bizarre and a bit troubling. He is intoxicated with himself. He believes that the post of Histadrut labor foundation chairman made him a suitable candidate for the premiership. Just as he believes that the problematic census that he commissioned is a stamp of approval for him to serve as chairman of the Labor Party and its candidate for prime minister.

Leave me to handle Peretz, Barak told Peres at one juncture. The two, Ehud and Shimon, meet regularly. Their last meeting was on Tuesday. Barak arrived all armed for battle, bearing all manner of advice to help Peres win how to take out the rest of the contenders, how a Peres campaign should be waged.

Aides to Peres are astonished. In the tired, frayed Peres HQ, Barak is now the most energetic, most combative activist. The No. 1 soldier. Haim Ramon is extremely wary, Itzik refuses to be appointed head of the team, and Peres himself is busy with his peace-shmeace business, jetting around the world, giving interviews to foreign newspapers, meeting with diplomats. He's an awful campaigner, says one aide despairingly. I wouldn't be surprised if he lost to Peretz.