Even the mightiest and most destructive tornado has to subside at some point. All you have to do to weather the storm is to hold on tight and wait until it's over. Once the storm abates, you can venture outside to survey the damage. The way things are looking right now, the report issued by the Plesner Committee (on a replacement for the Tal Law, which exempts ultra-Orthodox men from military service) does not qualify as a tornado. It was no more than a tropical storm, if that.
After all the harsh criticism, the shouting and the general discord that accompanied the process of drafting a new law, history was actually made this week. For the first time in decades, the door was opened to eventually bring about the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces – regardless of whether the Tal Law replacement is passed or not. For the first time, the representatives of the haredi public understand, and even say as much, that the way things have been until now cannot continue.
But at the beginning of the week, things looked different. A week after the representatives of the National Religious Party and Yisrael Beytenu quit the committee, the unofficial representative of the haredi parties, attorney Jacob Weinroth, also announced his resignation. From that point forward it became clear that the committee was finished. It no longer represented the public, and it certainly didn't represent the coalition.
The Plesner Committee was conceived two months ago in a late-night negotiations session between Likud and Kadima (which led to Kadima joining the coalition and averting early elections at the last minute). It was agreed during that session that a committee headed by a Kadima representative would advance the legislation of a new enlistment law to replace the Tal Law (which the High Court of Justice revoked on the grounds that it was unconstitutional). The speedy negotiations that night did not spell out the committee's methods or the scope of the committee's authority. When it was established, the Likud representatives were convinced that the committee would fully cooperate with all the coalition parties, and above all with the Prime Minister's Office, but that didn't happen. It became clear very quickly that Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, who headed the committee, had his own agenda, and that trivial things like coordination and consensus didn't concern him.
After Weinroth quit, Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu decided that the potentially historic committee was done. He felt that at that point the committee represented only one party at best, and only one man at worst. The general assumption among senior associates of the prime minister was that Kadima, which is currently in a terrible political position (with polls predicting that it would get only a handful of seats in an election, if any), would agree to just about anything to avoid early elections.
The bombshell was dropped on Monday, moments before Kadima began the faction meeting at which its Chairman Shaul Mofaz was set to announce that the Plesner Committee would continue its work despite Weinroth's resignation. Just as the reporters and photographers were setting up in the meeting hall, and Mofaz was preparing in the adjacent room, Mofaz's bureau chief arrived with a mobile phone in his hand. "It's the prime minister," he said. "He wants to talk to you."
Kadima faction head Dalia Itzik suggested that they speak on a land line in her office, and everyone left the room, leaving Mofaz alone. Netanyahu then told Mofaz that he intended to announce the dispersal of the Plesner Committee, which had already essentially collapsed. The committee no longer represents the public or the Knesset, Netanyahu told Mofaz.
Mofaz disagreed. It would be a horrible mistake, he insisted. Let Plesner complete the task, he begged. The conversation ended 20 minutes later, without an agreement.
A terrible insult
Mofaz arrived at his faction meeting and announced, in front of television cameras, that the Plesner Committee was the only body that could bring about haredi enlistment and equality in the sharing of the national burden. Minutes later, the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement announcing the dissolution of the Plesner Committee.
I cannot overstate how insulted Mofaz felt. Quitting the coalition seemed inevitable. Behind closed doors Mofaz said some terrible things about Netanyahu. Many of his advisers urged him to sever his ties with Netanyahu immediately. But despite his sense of betrayal, Mofaz hesitated. He had already elicited harsh criticism for hastily joining the coalition two months ago. He had no intention of embarking on another hasty move.
On Tuesday, things only got worse. Not only did Mofaz's and Netanyahu's bureaus remain totally disconnected from each other, the tension grew more severe. It seemed as though neither party could climb off the ledge they were on without breaking several limbs. Mofaz's associates were already talking about quitting the coalition by the end of the week. Netanyahu's office made it known that the prime minister didn't really care if Kadima stayed or went.
But by the afternoon, everything had changed again. Two new players were introduced into the game: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had just returned from a visit to the U.S., and Natan Eshel, the former PMO chief who resigned over alleged inappropriate behavior, and who has become Netanyahu's unofficial crisis manager. These two started talking to everyone – Mofaz, Plesner, the haredi parties – feverishly trying to find a common thread that could lower the flames.
As negotiations started being held behind the scenes, Plesner – still in crisis mode and still angry with Netanyahu for destroying his committee – was determined to submit his committee's conclusions. But when Netanyahu dispersed the committee, it was left without any resources: The committee's director went home, as did all the experts who served on it. The representatives of the Finance Ministry and the IDF didn't bother showing up. The committee didn't even have computers, or office supplies or a stenographer. Everything was taken away.
Faced with no other choice, Plesner convened his parliamentary aides and Kadima faction director attorney Sahar Pinto at his office, and together, working all night, they compiled the committee's conclusions into a report. On Wednesday, bleary eyed, they submitted the report. Plesner was the report's only signatory.
Mofaz knew that all his options were bad ones. Quitting the coalition would be bad for him. Compromising would also be bad for him. Kadima is doing extremely poorly in the polls. No one knows which option has the most rehabilitation potential, if such potential even exists.
Meanwhile, as Mofaz was wallowing in his misfortune, two Kadima MKs – Shlomo Molla and Nino Abesadze — announced the start of a rebellion. Former Kadima MK Haim Ramon, on a mission for former Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni, began shuttling from one television studio to the next threatening to establish a new party on Kadima's ruins.
By nightfall it seemed that the decision had been made: Kadima would quit the coalition. But three phone calls changed the entire picture once again. One after another, probably having coordinated with one another, Kadima MKs Dalia Itzik, Tzahi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter called Mofaz and warned him against taking "irresponsible" steps, and certainly not without consulting with them first. Some of them even raised their voices. Listen, and listen good, they said to him, we stuck with you when you went crawling to Netanyahu's coalition; we protected you and supported you. So don't even think about doing something without coordinating with us. You're afraid of the possibility of the party splitting if you stay in the coalition? Know this: If you quit now, unilaterally, we will definitely split the party.
The MKs explained to Mofaz that his actions could not be based on his wounded pride, but had to be based on logic. Think about it, they said to him, if there was no dispute with Netanyahu, the Plesner law would have been perceived as a Likud achievement. Kadima would have been seen as a supporting act. Now, after the blowout, the entire achievement will be attributed solely to Kadima.
In private conversations, Kadima officials have been saying that it was a huge mistake to appoint Plesner to head the committee. Not because he was not qualified – on the contrary – but because he doesn't understand politics. And Mofaz, they have been saying, understands politics even less. How did these two fail to notice that while they were pushing ahead, no one was following them?
It turns out that Plesner actually did consider the political aspects of his position. He even had a secret political adviser who accompanied the committee from its first day: one Ehud Olmert.
It seems that Olmert's schedule is very packed these days. He divides his time between holding frequent meetings with the chairman of the Plesner Committee to dispense his advice while also sharing his insights with the darling of the Olmert family, politician Yair Lapid. During the rest of the time, Olmert has to frequent the courthouse where he is fighting to prove his innocence in a long list of grave corruption trials.
Olmert is turning out to be a very bad adviser. After wrongly advising Lapid to quit his job at Channel 2 and enter politics way too early, in most people's opinions, his advice to Plesner turned out to be no less detrimental. Olmert is the one who pushed Plesner not to include Arab citizens in his conclusions, prompting the Yisrael Beytenu and the National Religious Party representatives to quit the committee and drawing decisive opposition from the Likud representative.
Olmert also coached Plesner on how to conduct himself in the media. This created an absurd situation: Olmert, who as prime minister gave the ultra-Orthodox the most extensive benefits of all time (he increased the stipends they receive for each child and he agreed to allow them not to teach core subjects in schools, among other things), is now acting behind the scenes to limit the ultra-Orthodox sector's freedom, all the while pulling the strings of the committee established by Netanyahu's coalition.
Though things cooled down a bit toward the weekend, it is still not clear how the law will pass when only the Likud, Kadima and Barak's Independence party are expected to vote in favor. All together these three parties have 60 MKs. If you add the National Religious Party you get to 63 – an ostensible majority. But this math fails to take into consideration the Kadima rebels, and no one knows how many rebels there actually are.
The rebels, loyal to Livni in the past and in the present, don't know what to do. Kadima's deterioration in the polls is prompting them to quit the party, but Livni's unclear intentions are keeping them within Kadima's ranks for now. Now Ramon is trying to wedge himself into the resulting vacuum.
Ramon's glass house
Ramon is considered a political wizard, unjustifiably, mainly because he takes credit for other people's political maneuvers. That is what he did when Kadima was first established. He had nothing to do with the inception of the party, despite tall tales in which he tried to present himself as the brains behind the operation.
This week Ramon showed up on the scene with his used wares, purporting to establish a new centrist party. Even two months ago Ramon was peddling this idea in one television studio after another, working at full force to split Kadima and prepare the ground for a new Knesset list.
This week, in the midst of a hysterical media blitz that he orchestrated, he vigorously criticized Netanyahu during one of his interviews. Look at how he botched the takeover of the Mavi Marmara (the Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship aboard which Israeli commandos clashed with Turkish activists, killing nine), Ramon said to this interviewer. You could have orchestrated a better takeover yourself, he said to her with his booming voice, frothing at the mouth.
Ramon has a lot of experience with security incidents. During his terms as a senior minister in various administrations he was privy to top-secret discussions. As a cabinet member and as a vice prime minister he had access to very sensitive information on more than one occasion. Before he preaches to the public about the failures of the Marmara debacle, he would be wise to recall how he conducted himself during a slightly more complex security-related incident. An incident whose military and diplomatic implications were slightly more far-reaching than what had happened aboard that Turkish ship.
This coming Thursday, July 12, will mark six years to the day since the most serious security-related mishap along Israel's northern border in the last 10 years. Eight Israeli soldiers were killed in a Hezbollah ambush and two additional soldiers were kidnapped, while northern communities were bombarded with shells and rockets. The IDF entered southern Lebanon for the first time since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon six years earlier. In southern Lebanon, the IDF sustained more casualties when shoulder-fired missiles hit Israeli tanks and other military vehicles.
Then Prime Minister Olmert convened an emergency meeting. The media followed the events with live coverage. There was talk of an extensive emergency military draft. The public was distraught. Ramon, one of the senior cabinet ministers at the time, also attended the emergency meeting, where the decision was made to launch the Second Lebanon War. A moment prior to that meeting, at the Prime Minister's Office, Ramon decided that this very moment was the right time to, how shall I put it delicately, express his affection for one of the women soldiers who was serving at the PMO.
This is how the court described what happened that day: "There is no dispute over the fact that this day was very tense. Many people came and went in and out of the Prime Minister's Office." But the tension-filled atmosphere apparently didn't affect Ramon: "A lighthearted conversation filled with giggles started between the two [Ramon and the woman soldier] that may have deviated slightly from the acceptable but did not involve much more than mundane topics ... at a certain point in the conversation, the defendant [Ramon] grabbed her by the cheek and said, 'Oh, you're so sweet' ... at that moment, surprisingly, and with no prior notice or consent, the defendant grabbed her chin in his hand, kissed her lips and inserted his tongue into her mouth. She was shocked, recoiled backward, looked into his eyes with astonishment and left the room ... She then went into shock, her entire body shaking."
This is how the court described the events. Immediately afterward, Ramon discussed launching a war. I wonder how he would have handled the Marmara.