The timing amazed those close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even if it could not be said that anyone was surprised.
Just as the political crisis resulting from the personal feud between Netanyahu and Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett peaked, the U.S. State Department publicized the details of the framework peace document via New York Times commentator Thomas Friedman, considered a mouthpiece for the Obama administration.
The document is tough on Israeli eyes. It speaks of dividing Jerusalem, the 1967 borders, and evacuating settlements in Judea and Samaria. It seems that the Americans could find no more convenient time for the leak than this week, when the coalition looked more lame than ever, when the prime minister was forced to threaten a high-ranking minister, the head of a right-wing party, with dismissal, after the minister criticized him sharply for his policies.
Sources in Jerusalem said that if they did not know the players, they would think it inconceivable that the Americans would meddle so blatantly in Israeli politics, and that it had to be a coincidence. But they do know the players, and it was undoubtedly no coincidence; the Americans involved in the talks, both in Washington and in Israel, are meddling quite a bit, and not for the first time.
Officials in the political establishment believe that the affair -- in which Netanyahu and Bennett went head to head in an emotional, uninhibited battle -- stemmed from Bennett's distress over his diminished standing in the polls and the heavy pressure being put on him by right-wing officials and his party's rabbis.
At this stage, the polls reflect Bennett's standing more or less accurately. For months, his party has hardly counted him at all. Habayit Hayehudi's Knesset members have been criticizing him sharply in private for quite some time, and some of them have even done so in public, under their own names.
Last week, Bennett boasted about the well-developed democracy in his party while calling Yesh Atid a dictatorship. But he knows perfectly well that the well-known democracy of the National Religious Party could come back to bite him, as it did to many others, from Yitzhak Levy to Effi Eitam to Daniel Hershkowitz.
For all practical purposes, the polls are the only thing saving Bennett from a putsch. When he started losing altitude (a poll from last week showed only eight seats for Habayit Hayehudi), he started becoming upset. In meetings with his close associates, they discussed the need to make him into the right wing's leader, particularly in light of the assessment that Israel is facing a period that is going to be quite difficult politically.
Over the past few weeks, Bennett had a few opportunities to take a firm right-wing stance, but none of those opportunities received the prominence he expected. The opposite happened: Just when he tried to set red lines for keeping Habayit Hayehudi in the coalition, the members of his faction criticized him for taking too soft a position.
In addition to all that, the old reports that he had agreed to the prisoner release deal, together with the new reports that he told Netanyahu that he intended to remain in the government even if Netanyahu adopted the American document as long as he did not bring it up for the government's approval, only added to the pressure he was under from the right wing.
With several groups of activists and rabbis having formed against him, and members of the right-wing segment of the Likud gone to the right of him long ago, Bennett got a chance to rehabilitate his standing this week. It happened when the Associated Press quoted an anonymous source from Netanyahu's bureau as supporting Israel's demand to leave the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria under Arab rule as part of a peace treaty.
In a flash, Bennett came out against the declaration without checking to see whether it had even been uttered and for what purpose. Along the way, his ideological attack on the initiative turned into a personal attack against Netanyahu when he said that the proposal reflected an "irrationality of values."
Things went downhill from there. Officials in Netanyahu's bureau expressed amazement as to why Bennett stayed stuck to his seat, and spread hints that the government could survive without Habayit Hayehudi. They called Bennett "insolent" and "subversive," and hinted that he would soon be summoned for a personal reprimand from the prime minister.
When the threatening headlines from Netanyahu's bureau came out on the front pages of the newspapers, Bennett was participating in the Knesset's visit to Poland marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day, stuck for seven hours on a plane that did not take off.
Delegation members said that when Bennett woke up in the morning and found out about the newspaper headlines, he became clearly upset. He whispered a great deal with his advisers and with faction chairwoman Ayelet Shaked, a close associate of his. The decision that was made after the consultations was: We go on. Netanyahu was not being serious, they believed. He would not risk the coalition over a personal grudge. They were wrong.
Stuck to his seat
When Bennett came back to Israel that evening, he gave a speech at the Institute for National Security Studies that was just as aggressive as his first response to the plan to keep Jewish communities under Arab rule. He used an even sharper tone against the prime minister.
Netanyahu himself, who spoke shortly afterward on the same stage, did not mention Bennett's statements at all in his speech. The attack came a day later, with a sharply worded message to Bennett's bureau: Apologize or face dismissal.
Bennett firmly refused to surrender to Netanyahu's dictates. Officials in the Prime Minister's Office said that Netanyahu was determined to carry out his threat unless Bennett apologized. He could argue about ideological positions, but a minister could not speak that way about the prime minister and keep his job. Bennett tried to explain that he had never attempted to harm Netanyahu personally. If that is so, the officials said, let him say so publicly.
Housing and Construction Minister Uri Ariel (Habayit Hayehudi) sprang into action as mediator. He agreed with Netanyahu that a minister should not speak that way, and tried to persuade Bennett to apologize or issue a clarification.
Bennett became scared. He realized that while his party backed him up ideologically, it was distancing itself from him over the way he was running things. He was also anxious about another matter: He realized that his image was slowly eroding. Instead of being seen as a former commando and high-tech entrepreneur, a Facebook personality and ideologue, admired by the young for telling the truth as he saw it, he was quickly turning into an old-style NRP wheeler-dealer permanently glued to his cabinet seat.
Before the 2005 disengagement, Zvulun Orlev took harsh criticism from members of the national religious community for postponing his resignation from the government until the moment before the bulldozers roared into Gush Katif and turned it into rubble. Bennett saw this week how officials in the Prime Minister's Office were making him into another Orlev, portraying him as clinging to his cabinet seat, unwilling to leave it. If the government is so dangerous and the prime minister so irresponsible, what are you still doing in the government, asked Netanyahu's officials.
To put it simply: Either say that Netanyahu is all right after all -- or get out.
Many people in the Likud were afraid that Netanyahu was taking the conflict too far, that his profound hatred for Bennett was turning him away from cool-headed, calculated political considerations, and that the coalition could fall apart -- which would be completely contrary to the clear political interests of Netanyahu and the Likud.
This is not the first time that Netanyahu has attacked Bennett and made him pay a political price. During the elections campaign, he attacked Bennett sharply over his support for disobeying orders, himself leading the public to take a great deal of interest in Bennett and his party. After the elections, Netanyahu refused to meet with Bennett, aiding the alliance with Lapid that played a major part in pushing the ultra-Orthodox parties out of the government -- a move that was clearly against Netanyahu's interests.
Despite the threat that Habayit Hayehudi can be replaced, Netanyahu needs Habayit Hayehudi in the government. As long as Uri Ariel and Orit Struck are in the government, Danny Danon and Tzipi Hotovely are calmer. He is getting evidence of that this week. Instead of getting his party's support during the face-off with Bennett, members of the Likud's right-wing segment stepped up their moves against him. Tzipi Hotovely contacted the faction members this week with a proposal to hold an assembly demanding the rejection of the American paper. Netanyahu could make do if Habayit Hayehudi were in the opposition, but if close to half of the Likud faction should join them, that would make for a chaotic situation that would be difficult to bring under control.
A president is born
The big novelty in the race to Israel's presidency is Silvan Shalom's throwing his hat into the ring. After vigorous denials, announcing that he would not be running and that he had no idea where the idea even came from, this week Shalom began intensive talks to look into the feasibility of running. He has already met with officials in the haredi parties and begun talks with his friends in the Likud. During the meetings, Shalom put the cards on the table: He is definitely considering running and asking for support.
It is not a simple task. The battle will be a long one, and many sudden changes are expected. Many people in the Likud have already promised Rivlin their support. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who said in the last elections that the members of Shas must support Peres, said in the same sentence that next time, Shas would go with Rivlin.
In the meantime, Yosef passed away, and if we add Deri's weak behavior to the mix, we can guess that the faction will divide into as many as three parts. One part will vote for Rivlin, the second for Shalom and the third for Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. The Likud may also split its vote between Rivlin and Shalom. So it should be added that in Yesh Atid, Lapid has already announced that party members will be free to vote as they choose.
Ben-Eliezer, also known as Fuad, remains optimistic and is also meeting with Knesset members every day. His dream almost came true this week, when the crisis between Habayit Hayehudi and the Likud could have led to changes in the government and the entry of Labor, which would have improved his standing in the race quite a bit.
Meanwhile, relations between the two candidates, Rivlin and Shalom, have worsened. Rivlin sees Shalom as ungrateful.
"I made sure that he would remain a high-ranking minister in the government after his terrible rift with Netanyahu," he said in closed meetings. He feels that Shalom wants to be president only to use the office as a springboard to the premiership. Anyone who might think about supporting him, mainly among the ranks of the Likud, he says, ought to think a step ahead and ask himself if he would like to see him as prime minister.
Together with his ability to be accepted by Knesset members from many factions -- from Netanyahu and Lieberman to MKs of Shas and United Torah Judaism -- Shalom's strong card is the series of positions that will become available if he should be elected. Once he appoints Carmel Shama-Hacohen ambassador, Lieberman will get to see his close associate, MK Alex Miller, enter the Knesset. Shalom is energy and water resources minister, and also the minister for regional development and the development of the Negev and Galilee. His election to the presidency will lead to a large-scale round of appointments and upgrades for Knesset members and deputy ministers.
The surprising candidate in the race, Professor Dan Shechtman, is not at all upset about the commentaries that criticized him for running, saying he was disconnected from political reality and that his candidacy could turn out to be the curiosity of the elections campaign. Shechtman is taking the race very seriously indeed, and does not shrink from the traveling and long lobbying campaign that will be part of the campaign.
In personal letters that his academic assistant sent out to dozens of Knesset members, Shechtman asked for meetings with the MKs to promote his candidacy.
"As you have no doubt heard," he wrote to the Knesset members, "I have presented my candidacy for the presidency, and I would be happy to have a private meeting with you in which I will try to win your support."