Calling in the Maneuver Men

Last week, when Benjamin Netanyahu was on his way to Sycamore Farm for a meeting with the prime minister, in which he was supposed to give his answer to Sharon's initial invitation to come on board as foreign minister, he got a phone call from Minister Natan Sharansky.

1. The real thing

Last week, when Benjamin Netanyahu was on his way to Sycamore Farm for a meeting with the prime minister, in which he was supposed to give his answer to Sharon's initial invitation to come on board as foreign minister, he got a phone call from Minister Natan Sharansky.

The Yisrael b'Aliyah leader urged Netanyahu to accept the offer and give the Sharon government a chance to continue. Sharansky couched his appeal in what, for him, were unusually lofty terms: He argued that by accepting Sharon's offer, Netanyahu could play a historic role in fending off the pressure on Israel expected from the American administration after its attack on Saddam Hussein's regime. Further, he argued, if Netanyahu was unable to persuade Sharon to stand firm against the Americans' demands, then he could resign from the job at that point and make political hay of this turn of events in the competition for the Likud leadership.

From Netanyahu's response, Sharansky understood that he planned to turn down Sharon's proposal. But he was surprised, even delighted, by the way Netanyahu did so.

This week, Sharon and Netanyahu played an unexpectedly elegant game of political ping-pong leading up to the call for early elections. Though the outcome isn't what either would have really wanted and was a function of events that were largely out of their control, the players conducted themselves with uncharacteristic aplomb. There was none of the raucous shouting normally associated with the Likud Central Committee or any derisive attacks in the media. It was more like a polite chess match.

This was a refreshing change from the usual type of political discourse in the Likud, but it was only temporary: Just a few hours after Netanyahu was sworn in, the two men were already clashing over the date and procedures for the party's primaries. In conversations with his aides, Sharon referred to his rival as "the little problem," while Netanyahu insinuated that Sharon was trying to sabotage proper election procedures. In a bid to tire Netanyahu out, Sharon invited him to his home very late at night, while Netanyahu's people endeavored to portray their man as a young and dynamic alternative to the aging prime minister.

The idea of asking Netanyahu to serve as foreign minister was the joint brainchild of Minister Ruby Rivlin, MK Eli Cohen and Prof. Yaakov Ne'eman. The prime minister was somewhat dubious at first, but then agreed. He and his advisers did not foresee Netanyahu's clever response: acceptance, but on certain conditions. Netanyahu, in turn, was surprised by Sharon's reaction: calling for early elections while letting the offer to him stand. Sharon did this in order to prove that his offer was not merely a political trick; and Netanyahu accepted it for the same reason. Both men were trapped by the process they'd set in motion.

This absurd result was made possible because the political system was dragged into early elections over sham issues as it continues to skirt the real matter at hand: The pressing need for a decisive debate on the future of the territories.

And so we see Benjamin Ben- Eliezer trying to divert the debate with the Likud to the socioeconomic situation and the budgets allotted to the settlements while he basks in the glorious role he played in evacuating two or three illegal outposts. He is not focusing the debate with the right on the future of the territories or on Israel's fundamental need to disentangle itself from them, but on a few of the negative implications of the continuing occupation (economic problems, violations of the law at some settlements, a perversion of national priorities).

Ben-Eliezer's political strategists believe that if he behaves like a good parrot and keeps repeating the phrases they feed him - about Sharon's supposed responsibility for the nation's poverty - he'll improve his chances against Mitzna and Ramon and the public will forget his full complicity in the policies pursued by Ariel Sharon over the last eighteen months.

Netanyahu's media experts think that if he highlights his economic doctrine (which, in more normal circumstances, would have some merit), he'll be able to obscure its lack of validity given Israel's security-political situation due to its continued hold on the territories.

The publicists and advisers surrounding Sharon are convinced that if they resurrect the image they created for him in the last elections - the affable, statesmanlike grandpa who is above petty political considerations - then the public will forget his responsibility for the grave situation facing the country as a result of his unwillingness to part with the territories.

All of the players were pleased with their performances this week. People in Sharon's circle were contented with the maneuver that drew Netanyahu into the government (it's very important to them to present Netanyahu as sitting alongside, but subordinate to, the prime minister). Netanyahu's people were gratified by his display of self-possession and reserve, and took it as proof that he'd learned something from his days as prime minister. Ben-Eliezer's entourage was relishing the fact that their man had been the one to dictate the national agenda.

But these are illusory successes. The army of political advisers, advertising experts and media strategists (which, incidentally, doesn't bother to stay behind the scenes, but converges like locusts upon the pages of the newspapers to let it be known that it has its own agenda) may be relying on the public's short memory, but the harsh reality will impose itself on the politicians and compel them to face up to its underlying factors - if not in the upcoming elections, then in the next ones.

2. Retreat under fire

On Wednesday afternoon, when the Republicans' triumph in the U.S. mid-term elections was apparent, senior officials at the Foreign Ministry noted that this could have a serious impact on the American administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Up to now, there have been two prevailing opinions as to how the administration will approach the conflict once the assault on Iraq is concluded: One view posits that the White House will hasten to implement its "road map" so as to prove to the Arab world that it is not biased toward Israel; the other says that, as Bush will be heading into his re-election campaign, he will refrain from exerting heavy pressure on Israel that could rankle with pro-Israel voters.

Now that the Republicans have improved their numbers in Congress, there is a greater likelihood that the administration will opt for the first approach.

In any event, one mustn't forget how much the Sharon government contributed, albeit reluctantly, to creating a formal diplomatic infrastructure for active American involvement in settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, if and when the administration should decide to act upon it.

The outline was set in Bush's June 24 speech, which Sharon accepted "in principle." It foresees Israeli consent (once the Palestinians have met the conditions set out for them in the speech) to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state and to an end to the occupation and settlements. The payment on this pledge will eventually come due.

Moreover, the United States has also taken these concepts, especially the determination that a Palestinian state will be established, and made them a matter of consensus in the international community, as headed by the UN Security Council.

These diplomatic developments all occurred while Palestinian terrorism continued apace. So while the Sharon government did refuse to negotiate under fire, it was in fact compelled to adopt positions substantially different from its original ones. From Sharon's point of view, the "road map" that was presented to him during his last visit to Washington escalated the American approach: It negates his vision of a long-term interim agreement and states that the objective of the peace process is, among other things, "to bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967."

This week, some of the outgoing government's right-wing ministers cited Sharon's success in getting the international community to grow accustomed to the IDF's broad incursion into PA territory as his government's great accomplishment. This assessment conveniently ignores the failure of the government's policy to eliminate or at least reduce the dangers threatening the security of the country's residents. As sophisticated and powerful as the military operations may be, they cannot drain the reservoir from which the Palestinians draw their hostility toward Israel and their readiness to kill. The well of militants and suicide bombers is bottomless and will remain so as long as the occupation continues.

During Sharon's tenure as prime minister, the number of victims of terror attacks has reached an all-time high. The prime minister's forceful approach to dealing with the Palestinians, which was portrayed as an unassailable necessity, has not improved the security situation for Israelis or relieved their sense of vulnerability - because Sharon elected not to take the bull by the horns and grapple with the issue of the future of the territories.

3. Avigdor Lieberman's question

The Knesset's research and information department was recently asked to prepare a survey on population exchanges in the 20th century. The department has now produced a seven-page report detailing the instances in which population transfers between countries were carried out. The language of the Knesset report does not refer to "transfer," but to "a historical survey of population exchanges in the 20th century."

The modest little study was commissioned by MK Avigdor Lieberman (before the turbulent political developments of the past week). Lieberman says that his aim is to stick to the facts and that he wanted to be equipped with solid background data on the subject. He was very pleased with the findings, which indicated that tens of millions of people have been moved from one country to another as a way of resolving national conflicts. In the past decade alone, millions of people have been moved from country to country, particularly in the former Soviet Union.

Even in Cyprus, the people who now live in the Turkish section are not the original Turks, he says. They've gone back to their homeland. "The history of nations shows that this is a good way to resolve national conflicts. In those places where they shunned transfer, things are still a big mess," Lieberman explained a few days ago.

Professor Amnon Sela, currently at Georgetown University in Washington, disagrees. He says that, to the best of his knowledge, every forced movement of a population has brought great pain and suffering, even calamity, to those people.

This was Sela's response when the Knesset department sought out his expertise as it prepared to compile the report. He declined to cooperate with the writers of the survey and wrote to them that, under the present government and considering the present composition of the Knesset, he'd need a lot more information about the circumstances that led to this question being posed to him. Sela didn't know that the request for clarification of this issue came from MK Lieberman.

4. The right to vote

There was a lively debate in the Knesset legislative committee this week over MK Moshe Arens' proposal to amend the election laws to allow Israelis living abroad to participate in the elections. The proposal had already been brought up and rejected twice, but Arens persisted and, with the backing of Michael Eitan, chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, the proposal was given another hearing.

Advocates of the change argue that Israel should follow the example of other advanced nations that permit their citizens residing abroad to take part in elections. They asked the Interior Ministry for information on how many Israelis this would affect and, according to the data they were given, found that the new law would apply to about 100,000 people.

Arens and Eitan explained this week that the intention is not to grant the right to vote to the approximately one million yordim (emigrants) who have permanently left the country and lived outside its borders for many years, but to Israelis who have gone abroad for limited periods, for work or studies, and who still come back regularly.

The criteria for voting eligibility have not yet been set (one possibility: someone who left the country no more than three years prior to the election date, has a valid passport and resided in Israel for at least half a year in the period preceding the elections), but such an amendment would clearly have a serious impact on the results of Knesset elections.

The extent of emigration from Israel is proportionally higher then the emigration rates from most of the democratic countries that permit their citizens to vote from abroad (though Ireland has experienced a similar phenomenon). Even if Arens' initiative is based purely on the concept of civil rights, its implementation could be problematic: It would diminish the relative weight of registered Arab voters, since this sector would have virtually no representation abroad. It's also hard to imagine how the integrity of thousands of voting stations scattered around the world could be guaranteed.

In the ministerial committee's discussions, Dan Meridor objected to the proposed change, saying he feared that granting the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of Jews who do not actually live in Israel could distort the election results in the country.

Arens said this week that the current voting system discriminates against citizens that reside abroad. Michael Eitan promised that rules could be introduced to assure that there were no irregularities in the voting abroad. He's indignant over what he feels is Meridor's undue concern for the electoral influence of Israel's Arab citizens. After all, he says, government employees who work abroad currently have the right to vote.

"It's an arrangement that was introduced by Mapai because these government emissaries were its people. There's no reason not to grant the same right to people from the business sector and to all the Israelis who are abroad," Eitan said two days ago.

But the setting of early elections has upset his plans: There's no chance that the bill will be passed by the outgoing Knesset.