Calling a truce

Once rivals, Silvan Shalom and PM Netanyahu are closing ranks to face the country’s challenges.

Silvan Shalom and Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Silvan Shalom and Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Only three years ago, it took an Oscar-nominated Hollywood producer to get Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his longtime Likud nemesis Silvan Shalom just to coexist together in the same cabinet.
Now could Shalom be Netanyahu’s best supporting actor in a drama with a happy ending? Netanyahu and Shalom had sparred bitterly for years.
Shalom ran against Netanyahu for Likud leader in 2005 and twice after that, Netanyahu advanced the party’s primary to prevent Shalom from running.
The two have not minced words in publicly condemning each other.
The crisis in their relations reached its peak in March 2009 when Netanyahu broke a sworn promise to Shalom to give him the Likud’s highest portfolio when he formed his government.
Netanyahu decided instead to make his trusted confidant Yuval Steinitz finance minister and Shalom minister of regional cooperation in an increasingly uncooperative region.
Despite efforts by several mediators who went back and forth between the nearby Knesset offices of Shalom and Netanyahu, Shalom refused to accept a ministerial appointment. Netanyahu started worrying that he would not complete the formation of his government by his self-set deadline of March 31 at 11:59 pm.
Netanyahu knew it would be foolish to appoint his government on April 1.
So he summoned an internationally respected mediator whom he and Shalom equally trusted: Israeli-born producer Arnon Milchan.
The man who produced such hits as Pretty Woman, L.A. Confidential, and Mr.
and Mrs. Smith
– the film where future couple Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie shot at each other – found a way to make Netanyahu and Shalom drop their guns.
With the vice premier title he was given, Shalom symbolically fills in for Netanyahu on half the prime minister’s trips abroad. And while Moshe Ya’alon has the same title, Shalom sits to Netanyahu’s right in cabinet meetings in the seat traditionally reserved for the government’s number two man.
Shalom received President Shimon Peres’s former Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, which the Beersheba-raised minister has used to advance key projects in the periphery, far from the center of the country but close to his heart.
But Netanyahu did not honor a central clause in the deal: He has not allowed Shalom to be part of the powerful inner security cabinet. Shalom, in turn, has not been silent or submissive.
When Netanyahu came out in favor of a Palestinian state at Bar-Ilan University in June 2009, Shalom said the prime minister’s concessions would not lead to negotiations with the Palestinians, who he said would only make more demands.
Shalom’s prediction came true when the Palestinians demanded a complete settlement freeze in the West Bank. When Netanyahu caved into pressure from US President Barack Obama and initiated a 10- month moratorium, Shalom warned that the freeze would set a bad precedent and predicted correctly that it would not result in negotiations.
More recently, Shalom went against Netanyahu from the Right again, opposing dismantling the Migron and Ulpana outposts until deals were reached between the settlers and the state.
The relationship between the two rivals started changing on September 2, when Shalom came to Jerusalem for a meeting with top Jerusalem Post editors and writers. Netanyahu invited him via a mutual friend to a fateful meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office later that same day.
Netanyahu and Shalom spoke heart to heart at the meeting about their past, their present, and their future. The prime minister made clear that he needed Shalom to help him appeal to the Likud’s traditional voters in the periphery in a general election that could take place in an atmosphere of economic austerity measures and cutbacks.
The day after the meeting, Shalom hosted a pre- Rosh Hashana toast in Or Yehuda attended by more than 1,000 Likud activists. Shalom’s speech at the event was so blatantly pro-Netanyahu that Likud central committee members said they nearly choked on their apples and honey.
Netanyahu heard about the speech, and raised eyebrows by hugging Shalom at a meeting of ministers a few days later.
In the speech, Shalom praised Netanyahu for putting preventing Iran’s nuclearization on the international agenda. He denied repeated reports about tension between Netanyahu and Obama in Yediot Aharonot, the newspaper owned by the family of his wife, socialite and talk show host Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes.
“I wake up every morning and read the newspaper, and it makes me think a war has broken out – not with Iran, Syria, Egypt or the Palestinians but with the United States,” Shalom said mockingly in the speech.
“I want you to know that our relations with US are warm, friendly, intimate, and close. We have to appreciate the efforts of the prime minister to prevent Iran from strengthening itself with nuclear weapons.”
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post this month, Shalom declined to comment about the meeting with Netanyahu but said he believed it was important to unify the ranks of the Likud due to potential challenges ahead. He said he would do everything possible to make sure the 27 MKs in the faction unite behind Netanyahu no matter what decisions get made on Iran.
“In tough times, unity matters,” he said.
Shalom said the only real dispute between Israel and the US on Iran was about the timetable for steps to prevent Iran’s nuclearization. While Israel thinks there is a need to act urgently and immediately, the US thinks there is more time.
When asked about reports of personal problems between Netanyahu and Obama, Shalom said he would not say anything that could be perceived as interfering in the upcoming US election.
“The American people have a decision to make and just like we don’t want them to interfere with us, we shouldn’t interfere with them,” Shalom said. “Support for Israel is bipartisan – it was, is, and always will be.”
Shalom supported Netanyahu’s effort to persuade the world to give Iran deadlines.
He predicted the US would not take any action against Iran before the election but he said that after the election, he would not be surprised if America got more involved in Iran, no matter who would win the race.
The vice premier said the key to preventing Iran’s nuclearization via nonmilitary means was persuading the world to put stifling sanctions on Iran’s central bank.
“I think sanctions can work like they did in South Africa and Libya,” he said. “In Iran, the economic situation is very bad and the devaluation of the currency has made it worse. The latest sanctions helped but didn’t convince Iran to stop the nuclear program.
Iran’s leaders think the nuclear program keeps the regime in power. We need to change that attitude 180 degrees and make them realize their nuclear pursuit puts their regime in jeopardy.”
Shalom complained Russia and China have harmed the effort to prevent Iran’s nuclearization for their countries’ own geopolitical reasons.
He said that two years ago, China and Iran signed one of the biggest contracts in history of NIS 30 billion for 25 years of oil and gas.
“The Russians and Chinese are afraid that the Middle East will fall entirely under American influence and the US would use that against them,” Shalom said. “Russia is afraid that if Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria falls, both Syria and Lebanon will be in American hands.”
Having a former foreign minister like Shalom available to defend Netanyahu’s diplomatic agenda could help the prime minister in the geopolitical arena and in internal Israeli politics.
An alliance between the two former rivals could also enable the advancement of key issues that they agree on but Netanyahu could not push because they were identified with Shalom.
The best example of that is Shalom’s proposal to initiate a five-day workweek in Israel by making every Sunday a day off like in the United States and the rest of the Western world.
Netanyahu appointed National Economic Council chairman Eugene Kandel to head a committee to investigate the idea in July 2011.
The committee was supposed to release its findings in October 2011, but it has dragged its feet and delayed its deadline twice. Now Kandel’s associates are talking about publishing them “immediately after the holidays” end in October 2012.
Shalom sounded worried when he spoke to the Post that Kandel’s committee was about to publish a report rejecting giving Sundays off. Since then, Shalom had an important phone conversation with Kandel that will continue in person after Rosh Hashana.
He told the editors and reporters that he believed Netanyahu was “100 percent behind the proposal” and that “he wants to support it in his heart.”
He said that before his meeting with Netanyahu, which left him further encouraged.
A green light from Netanyahu to Kandel could result in the government adopting Shalom’s proposal and starting the process of shortening the work week.
“Progress has been made,” Shalom said. “Now I think [my effort] to promote a longer weekend can continue in a better atmosphere.”
So it is possible that the new relaxed relationship between Netanyahu and Shalom could result in Israelis getting more relaxation time. And a story of a bitter political rivalry that once required the intervention of a producer from Los Angeles could have a Hollywood- style happy ending.