A veteran Jewish executive of one of America’s top television stations came to Jerusalem this week on a private visit to see the country and learn about what is happening behind the scenes in Israeli politics.
If he was looking for a relaxing vacation, Israel may not have been the most obvious choice. But for drama, he could not have picked a better destination, or a better time to come.
In the past 10 days alone, there have been enough story lines to fill an entire season of a classic political drama on American television. Consider the following recent news: A senior minister was accused of sexual harassment by his former employee, just days before he was expected to announce his candidacy for president.
His associates blame friends of a rival candidate.
A former prime minister is accused of obstructing justice after his former secretary taped him asking her to not testify against him because it could harm his chances of making a political comeback.
A former army chief of staff will soon testify in a case involving a political forgery and a vendetta against him by his former boss, who was minister of defense. The general’s top aides are jailed.
A prime minister will soon face off against party members who are angry at him for years of neglecting them and may punish him by taking away his powers and giving them to a young political rebel.
The freedom of a spy serving a life sentence was offered to enable the release of murderers from prison in an effort to achieve peace.
And finally, after the prime minister’s former housekeeper files charges accusing the first lady of angry, pretentious orders in the middle of the night and racial epithets, the prime minister goes on a comedy show and professes love for his wife, who he gushingly declares the source of his strength.
With so much news, thank God Israel has built-in commercial breaks, otherwise known as Shabbat.
It is also a good thing the Knesset is on vacation, because attention-seeking MKs would have found a way to make all the above scandals even more intense.
And it is a relief that the diplomats are on strike, because how can you really explain such things? Producers of foreign news outlets in Israel prefer to have political pundits analyze the news rather than ambassadors, because diplomats have to be – well – diplomatic. So here it goes: All of the above stories are hopelessly intertwined in the tangled web that is Israeli politics. The key character in all the reports is Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
He does not play a part in all of the episodes, but his presence is clearly felt, as potential future challengers stealthily plan their efforts to unseat him.
Development of the Negev and Galilee Minister Silvan Shalom contemplated for months whether to run for president. Why? Was he worried that he wouldn’t win? No, he was sure of that.
Shalom wants to succeed Netanyahu as prime minister.
He needed to figure out whether a term as president would help or harm his effort to get the job he really wants.
After meeting with Netanyahu Thursday, and presumably obtaining his support, Shalom was hit by the sexual harassment allegations. His associates blamed the charges not on Shalom’s primary Likud rival for the presidency, MK Reuven Rivlin, but on Rivlin’s allies whose real goal is to prevent Shalom from becoming not just president but also prime minister.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was a bitter rival of Rivlin for decades, wants to return to his former post. The corruption charges that led to his ouster were all but behind him until his former secretary Shula Zaken found new evidence that could put him in jail.
The verdict in Olmert’s Holyland trial is set for Monday - although reports at press time suggested the prosecution was asking for a postponment after receiving new evidence.
Had he been cleared, he may have started his efforts to reunite the Center-Left with his first major speech after the verdict – at The Jerusalem Post Conference in New York’s Times Square a week later.
In the past, the conference was addressed by former IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who like Olmert and Shalom, saw himself as a future candidate for prime minister. But then-defense minister Ehud Barak was determined to prevent that from happening.
Some of the evidence against Ashkenazi, and allies Avi Benayahu and Erez Wiener, that has come out over the past two weeks looks, according to some reports, as if it may have come from Barak – who is the only candidate who has beaten Netanyahu in a direct election for the premiership and wants to keep it that way.
Netanyahu has not faced a serious challenge for the premiership in many years, so he has not devoted much time to maintaining his relationship with the activists inside his Likud party, a decision he now realizes was a mistake. So he has spent the last few weeks meeting Likud central committee members.
The Likud convention that was supposed to take place Monday was postponed until the end of May because members were allegedly added illegally.
The delay will give Netanyahu more time to rebuild relationships with top activists in the party ahead of a challenge from the head of the Likud central committee deputy defense minister Danny Danon, who wants to take key powers away from the party chairman and give them to himself.
The delay distances the convention from the planned release of Palestinian prisoners, a move certain to be unpopular among the hawks in the Likud central committee.
The prisoner release was taking its time, in part because Netanyahu wanted to delay the releases until after the convention.
One way to endear Netanyahu to the central committee members, despite the potential release of not only Palestinian but also Israeli Arab terrorists, is by persuading the United States to commute the sentence of Israeli agent Jonathan Pollard.
Democratic and Republican presidents were unmoved by compelling reasons to release Pollard, including the importance of the US-Israel relationship, his failing health, pleas from top current and former Israeli and American officials, and the injustice of his life sentence that far exceeds that of spies for other allies of the US.
But Pollard’s freedom may now be needed to pass the release of Israeli Arab prisoners in the cabinet, a prerequisite for the Palestinians remaining at the negotiating table.
America apparently can be persuaded to set Pollard free after nearly 30 years in prison in order to keep the peace process alive.
If Pollard’s prayers to come to Jerusalem for Passover come true, it would be a big boost for Netanyahu, who tried and failed to persuade then-US president Bill Clinton to release Pollard at the 1998 Wye River Summit.
It could also help US president Barack Obama’s supporters argue that he is more pro-Israel than Clinton.
Pollard coming home would certainly take attention away from what has happened in Netanyahu’s official residence, where former housekeeper Menachem Naftali is suing the prime minister and his wife Sara. Naftali has accused Sara of abusive behavior, and like Zaken, he may have tapes to prove it.
But the prime minister defended his wife. On the comedy show Matzav Ha’uma (State of the Nation), he defended Sara and expressed his love for the much-maligned first lady.
Netanyahu’s performance on the show displayed a Hollywood flair he might have learned when he was in Los Angeles at the beginning of the month, and met with a room full of stars at the home of producer Arnon Milchan.
The prime minister asked Leonardo Dicaprio, Keanu Reeves, Barbra Streisand and others to come to Israel and make movies.
Even if the stars stay in Hollywood, after all the drama that there has been here lately, Israel can at least export some great screenplays.