Yossi Verter
Haaretz (Opinion)
April 23, 2010 - 12:00am

Our leaders celebrated Independence Day by singing and giving speeches. But the morning after, they awoke to discover that not a single problem had disappeared amid the smoke of the ubiquitous barbecues.

On the eve of Israel's 62nd birthday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to give an interview to a foreign media outlet, ABC-TV, and was asked once again about the demands of U.S. President Barack Obama to stop construction in East Jerusalem. And, if we can judge by what he said in that interview about construction in Jerusalem, and by what The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday, Netanyahu has made his choice. He will be keeping his current coalition - with Yisrael Beiteinu, Shas and Likud. He is better off losing Labor and distributing its portfolios to defectors from Kadima than he would be disengaging from his natural allies, Avigdor Lieberman and Eli Yishai, and becoming hostage to Tzipi Livni. "I am not about to place myself in the hands of Kadima," he says, appalled, to anyone who is pressing him to take the plunge.

As of this writing - Thursday morning - Israel had not officially replied to the United States. However, a member of Netanyahu's circle this week said that Obama and his staff already have a clear idea of the direction things will take. According to this source, vigorous contacts have been underway in the past few weeks between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the White House over Washington's demands. A report on Thursday claimed that an Obama envoy is in Israel and is holding intensive talks with Netanyahu's top aides, Yitzhak Molcho and Ron Dermer.

If so, I asked the source, perhaps this is what motivated former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, an adviser to Obama's envoy George Mitchell, to write an article critical of Israel and then to grant a quite brutal, albeit instructive, interview to Army Radio on Wednesday?

"Maybe," the source replied, "but the day before that, an official no less important than Indyk - I am referring to Rahm Emanuel - gave an interview and said exactly the opposite, in both style and substance, about the relations between the two countries and the two leaders."

The Americans are sophisticated enough to play the good cop-bad cop game. In the end, it will be Netanyahu who feels the blow of the truncheon on his head.

Vested interests

A difficult party-political test awaits Netanyahu next Thursday at the Likud Party Central Committee vote. If he is victorious, he will ensure himself long-term, smooth sailing within the party. When Ariel Sharon confronted a similar situation a few years ago, on the eve of the Gaza disengagement, he decided that enough was enough, left Likud in a huff and formed Kadima. Netanyahu, as far as is known, has no such plans.

Specifically, Netanyahu is asking committee members to agree to amend the article in the party's constitution stipulating that internal elections for its institutions must be held by the end of this month. Such elections could tilt the balance of power in Likud in favor of the right and the extreme right, led by Moshe Feiglin and his followers. The prime minister wants to delay any such calamity for two more years - in other words, indefinitely, because the constitution also stipulates that no internal changes will be made in Likud during an election year. Netanyahu's argument in favor of delay is that "at this time" it is wrong for the party to be thrown into a maelstrom.

In a meeting of Likud cabinet ministers at the beginning of the week, Netanyahu declared that this amendment is important to him and that he expects the ministers to rally round. He asked his confidant, Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon, who is also the chairman of the central committee, to assess the situation. Kahlon's survey implied that the High Court of Justice, by agreeing to Netanyahu's request to hold the vote, had in effect authorized the amendment he is seeking. However, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, who does not support the deferment of the internal elections, noted: "The High Court did not express an opinion on the subject. The court said the vote could go ahead, that's all."

"We will soon give the floor to those with vested interests," Kahlon scolded Erdan, who wants to compete for the post of head of the Likud secretariat against the incumbent, Yisrael Katz, the transportation minister. But if the elections are postponed there will be no such contest. "I understand that apart from me, everyone here is acting out of pure objectivity," Erdan noted drily.

Kahlon, too, has good reason to delay the internal elections indefinitely. If this happens, he will remain committee chairman. In any event, Erdan does not intend to oppose Netanyahu, at least on this issue. But in the end, everyone who will cast a vote in one of the 30 polling stations across the country on Thursday has a personal interest in this story. Not even the most knowledgeable people have any idea what will happen.

Netanyahu needs a two-thirds majority in the vote in order to amend the constitution. A week ago, the Prime Minister's Bureau polled members of the central committee. The result was unequivocal: 75 percent of respondents supported the prime minister's proposal.

But the poll, as even those close to Netanyahu admit, is not worth the money someone paid for it. Committee members tend to lie in such polls, whether because they fear the long arm of the governing party, or because they are connected to one group or another. And when you call a committee member to ask what he thinks, you never know whether what he says is worth one vote or 10 or 30, because some of the members are heads of groups, and what they say, goes.

"It's true that the poll tells us nothing," a Netanyahu aide admitted. "You can't bank on it."

Some of those polled had the temerity to say that they would vote against the premier's proposal. They received calls from his aides, who had been given exact lists. That is the name of the game.

Floor-level jokes

For a prime-time hour on Channel 2 after the end of Independence Day, President Shimon Peres turned himself - and, worse, the establishment he symbolizes - into a goofy vaudeville show.

His encounter with entertainer Eli Yatzpan would have been tolerable, if it had just been a one-on-one conversation. Peres possesses sufficient self-deprecating humor to emerge in one piece even from Yatzpan's floor-level jokes. But Yatzpan was also given free range to rampage through the President's Residence, harass the president's guests, butt into Peres' meetings and make off with food from trays borne by frightened waitresses.

It would be interesting to know what the head of the Swedish central bank said when he got home. He, along with his Israeli counterpart, Prof. Stanley Fischer, was filmed visiting Peres the day Yatzpan landed. Did the foreign guest realize it was a weirdo entertainer who stood next to the president and spoke gibberish? And then there was the affable interviewer from Switzerland, who was taken aback when Yatzpan seated himself in Peres' chair as soon as Peres got up after the interview, and then badgered him in some unknown language.

Equally embarrassing was the hazing of the Brazilian president's honor guard. It was Yatzpan who reviewed the parade. Why in the world did Peres need this? To be loved? He's already loved. To win votes? He will never run for office again. He will conclude his term as president at the age of 91.

This television farce suited someone who was fishing for votes. That's not Peres. He inflicted this debacle on himself and the presidency for no reason.

A seat too far

For once, the weather was on the side of the people who lit the torches on Mount Herzl on the eve of Independence Day. Every year they sit for almost two hours in the stands, wrapped in coats and scarves, shivering in the Jerusalem cold.

Sitting in the front row, as always, was the Knesset speaker, flanked by two officers. The question of who would occupy the row behind him became an arm-wrestling contest for a few days between Speaker Reuven Rivlin and the Prime Minister's Office, over where opposition leader Tzipi Livni would sit.

The Prime Minister's Office and the Government Information Center, which organizes the ceremony, decided that Livni would sit in the second row, behind the cabinet ministers, the prime minister's family, the president of the Supreme Court and five members of Rivlin's family. When Rivlin received the seating arrangements, he decided that Livni and her husband should sit with the ministers and their spouses, Netanyahu's son and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch and her husband.

Rivlin's aides then asked the responsible official in the Prime Minister's Office to upgrade the Livnis to the front row. He refused. Vehemently. Rivlin's office requested again, and got the same answer. The day before the ceremony, the speaker informed the organizers that placing the opposition leader in a less prestigious location was an affront to democracy and to the status of the Knesset. Accordingly, he said, he had decided that the Livnis were part of his family and he would seat them in the places reserved for his daughter and his grandson. The prime minister's aides gritted their teeth, but there was nothing they could do: The seats allocated to the speaker are his to dispense as he sees fit.

The Prime Minister's Office is certain that the only reason Rivlin went out of his way for Livni is that he intends to run for president, a position chosen by Knesset vote. Rivlin's aides reject this interpretation. Anyone who knows Rivlin knows that he is not so naive as to think that Livni will back his candidacy for president because of this marginal episode. And anyway, when it comes to the issue of the presidency, he trusts Tzipi about as much as he trusts Bibi.


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