Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Yoel Marcos/Haaretz: Likud today is the people's party

(Yoel Marcus-Haaretz).This is the first time the ministers left the cabinet meeting without knowing more than the journalists. They followed the Washington summit from afar, as we all did. They saw the warmth with which the summit stars treated each other. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's optimism, the warm handshakes between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

They noticed that this was the first time Bibi spoke of the "West Bank" instead of "Judea and Samaria" - that he called Abbas his partner in peace. The foursome that marched festively toward the journalists was reminiscent of the Beatles in that famous photo where they crossed Abbey Road.

The meeting with Abbas was amiable, as though the two were not torn by bitter controversy and a crisis in confidence. Bibi also gave U.S. President Barack Obama reasons to trust him. In the closed, one-on-one conversations in Washington, Bibi was more focused and open than in the cabinet meeting, where he announced we would have to consider "new creative solutions to complex problems."

Silvan Shalom asked in an annoyed voice when a debate would be held. "We don't know where we stand. Doing things without a debate is not right and unacceptable. I don't remember such situations," Shalom said. But he is wrong. The talks at Camp David were held without the cabinet knowing what was going on. It was so much in the dark that transportation minister Meir Amit quit three days before the agreement with Egypt was signed.

"Never show a fool half a job," someone scoffed in Menachem Begin's entourage. Amit was no fool. He simply didn't believe that Begin was capable of signing a peace agreement.

The little Bibi said at the cabinet meeting sums up the issues he has not yet hammered out for himself. The next two meetings, one in about a week and the other around September 26 - the expiry date for the construction freeze in the settlements - will be significant regarding the first critical step. It is clear the construction freeze cannot be extended without the settlers rioting. But it is also clear the freeze cannot come to an end. This is one of those areas where we need "creative" thinking.

"There isn't an iota of arrogance in Bibi now, he's aware of the greatness of the hour and the magnitude of the problems," a confidant of the prime minister said.

Obama has not changed his attitude toward Bibi because of his low popularity in the polls, as commentators suggest, but because Bibi was open with him about the moves required to solve the conflict and gave him sufficient reason to trust him. He certainly didn't slap him on the shoulder and say "it will be okay."

But life doesn't begin and end with the settlements; we should also pay attention to the positive developments in the West Bank. The Palestinians are fighting the terror hubs. Thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, denunciations of Israel are gradually being removed from the textbooks, and don't forget the creeping normalization of everyday life.

Asked if the prime minister would be ready to make compromises that would gain a majority in the cabinet, the confidant said most Likud ministers and Knesset members would stand behind Bibi. Not Silvan Shalom, Benny Begin, Tzipi Hotovely and Miri Regev, but most Likud ministers and MKs.

Likud today is the people's party, what the left-wing Mapai party was for decades. In its conduct and policy, the party reflects most of what the people desire. Many of those who voted for Likud, and even those who didn't, saw it expand from 12 to 27 Knesset seats and will want power to remain in the hands of a larger, stronger Likud, as long as the concessions to the Palestinians don't harm security.

Is Bibi showing signs of parting from the dream of a Greater Israel? Perhaps. If he is, it is both due to moderate pressure by Clinton, whom Obama charged with the task, and a feeling of a historic mission, a feeling that a crack has been opened for a move that has potential. If Bibi runs into difficulties in Likud, he has an alternative plan - to add Kadima to his government and if necessary go to elections that would finally make Likud the ruling party.

As for the question that will keep being asked - is Likud behind him - there may come a day, if he acts wisely and courageously, when Bibi will be able to say: I am Likud.