Netanyahu’s Strange Debacle, Dec 2000

On 19 December, at 01.00, Mr Binyamin Netanyahu lost his chance to win power in the February (or possibly March) 2001 special elections to the prime-ministership. The trickiest politician in Israel's history was out-tricked by Ehud Barak in the most bizzare manner. Oddly enough, the “reformed” Netanyahu was defeated because of his unbelievable conceit, a familiar trait of the “old” Netanyahu. His arrogance towards his natural allies in the Shas party (17 MKs) cost him dearly. The Shas mentors at the Council of Sage decided on 18 December to vote against the bill to disperse the Knesset and to hold new general elections.

Only a month before they were the principal instigators of the first reading of the bill (carried by 77 to one vote) but a month in Israel is a very long time indeed. Recent polls have convincingly indicated that Shas was going to suffer some heavy losses in the proposed general elections, perhaps a half of its current parliamentary strength. The overwhelming majority of the Shas electorate constitutes ardent supportes of Netanyahu, and “Bibi” tried to take advantage of this by forcing Shas to vote for new general elections. He was very certain of his success on 18 December, and this led him to make a major blunder. Netanyahu announced, during his special press conference, that without a newly elected Knesset he was not going to run. This piece of unique impudence is very typical: Bibi had not even been elected as the Likud candidate, and the party chairman is still Ariel Sharon, but he was dictating terms to friends and foes alike.  This tactic backfired, actually exploded in his face. The Shas leaders made a deal with the Labour party to usher in a special law, which will enable Netanyahu to contest the February election to the PM despite the fact, that he is not an MK. Barak wanted to prove, that he was not afraid of standing against his arch-rival, the hero of every poll in recent weeks. Hence the hilarious spectre: the special Netanyahu bill became a law on 19 December by a 65 to 45 majority, and this peculiar devise, purporting to enable Bibi to run, actually prevented him from doing so. Five minutes after this, the farce was completed. The self-seeking Mks, acting out of sheer self-preservation, perpetuated them by voting 69 to 49 against dispersal.

The next move took place with breath-taking speed. The obviously relieved Sharon, who was due for a heavy defeat against Netanyahu, rapidly announced the cancellation of the internal election (Primaries) schedualed also for 19 December. Two serious candidates, Silvain Shalom and Limor Livnat, had already withdrawn in favour of Netanyahu… Since they had no time to change their minds in the wake of the surprising development (all pundits were convinced that Shas would cave-in), Sharon, who had apparently connived with Barak to execute this ploy, remained the sole Likud candaidate. His prospects of becoming Israel’s next PM, however alarming for the region and perhaps beyond the confinements of the Middle-East, are excellent.

It is impossible in this stage to determine, whether there was a conspiracy between the two generals, Sharon and Barak, to sideline Netanyahu, but some degree of collaboration is an absolute certainty. Sharon had already offered Barak in public to be the defence minister in his would-be government, in front of the jeering members of the Likud central committee, and Barak has not declined. This is a very likely scenario. Barak is trying to tempt the Jewish doves and the Israeli Arabs by initiating once again a “promising” round of talks in Washington, and his numerous allies in the media are reporting that he is prapered to make some far-reaching concession, especially over the thorny Jerusalem issue. Sharon condemns the “concessions”, but refrains from attacking Barak personally. It is obvious that  mutual recriminations during the coming campaign are natural and immaterial. But both Sharon and barak understand that a signing ceremony before the elections to the PM is virtually impossible. The new government of national unity will be able to procrastinate and water down the current Israeli proposals, and to continue Barak’s murderous liquidation operation against the military and political leaders of the intifada. Barak’s political exercise is already bearing fruit. On Tuesday 19 December Haarertz published a rare joined article by the celebrated authors A.B Yehushua and Amos Oz, the real gurus of the Zionist left. The article expresses unequivocal support for Barak, and urges the left to forgive his sins in order to ensure a future of peace for Israel. This is certain to weaken the surprisingly strong challenge by the aging Shimon Peres, to run as a third candidate on behalf of the peace camp and the “sane centre”.

The current Barak-Sharon plot is the third malevolent coup executed by the two military men, both with a strong commando background. Before the invasion of Lebanon the minister of defence Sharon, and the talented IDF officer Barak had worked together not only on the military aspects of the planned war, but also on the political details, including the ways and means to persuade the Israeli government to authorise the aggression. Barak was a young officer but even then harboured termendous political ambitions. The second conspiracy involving the duo, took place on the 28 September 2000, When Barak aided and abetted Sharon’s provocative visit to the Islamic holy shrines in Jerusalem. Despite the outcry all over the world, Barak refused to condemn the odd religious pilgrimage by the notoriously pork eater Likud leader. Barak and Sharon were instrumental in provoking the Palestinian reaction deliberately and maliciously.

It is a matter of record, that Barak did his utmost to form a government of national unity with Sharon after the bloody incident that triggred off the intifada, with two objectives in mind: to thwart Netanyahu, and to change course by establishing a permanent alliance between his fellow hawks in the Labour party and Likud. Only a joined action of Washington, and the friends of the Clinton administration within the Israeli political arena, namely Meretz and the Labour doves, undermined this manoeuvre. It stands to reason that after the heated elections the government of national unity will be setup, and one cannot rule out the possibility, that the right-wing of Labour, strongly represented in the current Knesset, will even form a new political entity with Likud.

The credible rumours that Peres will run for the PM, with the support of the Meretz faction, some Labour doves and at least 3 MKs of the almost defunct Centre party, may ensure that the Labour party will undergo a historical split. By 19 December 08/00 AM Peres had refused to refute the insistent reports. His challenge is by no means a certainty. Peres needs at least ten MKs to endorse his candidateship, and without the Meretz faction he is a non-starter. Meretz (11 MKs) is strongly divided. Its leader, Yossi Sarid (60) wants to either run himself, or to support Barak after all, like his spiritual twin Yossi Beilin. The polls, without exception, indicate that Peres will garner more votes than Barak, and is likely to confront Sharon in the second round. This appeals to the vanity of the Great Loser, who holds the dubious world record of contesting elections, both internal and national, and losing them.

Peres (77) is often compared here to the late Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), the American Democrat who lost the presidential elections to the Republicans in the US in 1952 and again in 1956.  Like Stevenson, Peres also has a reputation of an intellectual and statesman, greatly misunderstood by the parochial electorate. Peres was regarded as a would-be national leader on his way to less than graceful retirement, after he had lost the elections for the symbolic position of President early this year to a mediocraty like Moshe Katsav. His resurrection is a miracle, but could be short-lived. If the Arab parties and their public refuse to endorse his candidacy, out of their complete and highly understandable disillusionment with any labour candidate, he may withdraw. Some Labour politicians are wary of a split in the party, and even his recognised disciple, the minister of justice Yossi Beilin, had refused to back him. Peres advanced age is also a hinderance, despite his backers’s attempts to dismiss this obstacle as an irrelevancy.

The Arabs parties and the radical left still want to make an ideological point by submitting their own candidate. Time is running out, and both the Peres issue and the Arab candidate’s identity will have to be resolved by the end of December or even earlier.  Even if some Arab leaders endorse Peres, he can not dream about receiving 95 percent of the Arab vote that he had obtained in 1996 and Barak in 1999. The intifada and the brutal murder of 13 Palestinian Israelis by the police, put paid to such convenient results.

For some reason, Yasir Arafat seems to back Barak. The Palestinian desire to reach a comprehensive agreement by the 20 Junuary 2001 (the end Bill Clinton’s presidency) seems rather odd. The regime of George W Bush, and especially the appointment of Colin Powell seem more favourable to the PA (relatively speaking) that the Clinton administration. But Arafat might have sensed, that both Sharon and Barak (rather than either Sharon or Barak) are waiting for him after the Israeli elections. Hence his decision to renew the so-called peace process.

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