[[ Jerusalem Times : News ]]

August 12, 2005


This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin


A week of earth quakes


Earthquake Number 1 & 2 – the Poverty report and Netanyahu’s resignation


At least two major events transpired this week in Israel that in most normal situations would have made governments tumble. The annual National Insurance poverty report and the sudden resignation of “Bibi’ Netanyahu. It seems quite clear that the life-line of this government extends as long as the disengagement implementation. Once the implementation of the disengagement is completed, the days of the government are numbered. Behind every political door today in Israel backroom scrambling is already in high gear. Members of Knesset are busy calculating their opportunities and checking their alliances in order to ensure a firm position in whatever may develop. Political instability is a time when pollsters prosper – we are already being bombarded with new polls everyday.


One in three Israeli children is poor, according to the 2004 poverty report released yesterday. The report is the most severe yet prepared by the National Insurance Institute (NII).The number of poor children increased by 61,000 to 714,000 or 33.2% of the country's children, up from 30.8% in 2003. In all some 1.5 million (1,500,000!) Israelis are living under the poverty line.  Israel’s poverty line is quite a bit higher than the one in Palestine (in Israel the poverty line for a family of 5 is 5,330 NIS per month and in Palestine it is 1,350 NIS per month). Although the Israeli economy grew by 3.6% in 2004, the top 10% of the economy got richer by 9% while the lowest 10% got poorer by 5-6%. 


The annual poverty report is quite an indictment of the policies of the Finance Minister who saw it appropriate to resign one day before the report was issued. But Bibi’s resignation had nothing to do with the report – he had other reasons for deserting the government. Although Bibi is considered in financial circles locally and internationally as one of the best finance ministers Israel ever had, he never really saw himself only as finance minister.  Bibi used the Finance Ministry as his launch pad for the position of Prime Minister. When Sharon first began the construction of his government, Bibi declared that he wanted the post of Foreign Minister, but he was quickly and easily convinced that the Foreign Ministry post was not the right place to be.  He knew that as Foreign Minister, Sharon would keep him far away from Washington – US-Israel relations are always dealt with in the Prime Minister’s office.  Bibi knew that he was persona-non-grata in the capitals of the EU and that the idea of managing Israel’s relations with Asia, Africa and South America would not bring him the power that he craved for getting back to the PM’s office.

In the position of Finance Minister Bibi could actually implement a series of very necessary reforms and he would wield considerable power over all of the other Ministers of the Government. Netanyahu made a big mistake when he did not contest Sharon in the Likud primaries in 2001. According to the polls then, he probably would have won. But he didn’t run and Sharon won, bringing the Likud the highest number of seats ever. From the first moment Bibi entered the Government he had been plotting to topple Sharon.   He joined the government with the clear understanding that Sharon would support his reform policies and his budgets, and Sharon delivered on those promises.

All along, Bibi hoped that Sharon would be indicted in one of the corruption charges launched against him.  But Manny Mazus, the Attorney General, saved Sharon from those scandals and Bibi remained in the Finance Ministry. Bibi’s attention quickly moved from the Finance Ministry to internal Likud politics.  He tried to topple Sharon through the Likud referendum, but Sharon displayed his typical disdain for political interventions in his own plans.

In October 2004 Bibi tried to organize a campaign against the disengagement vote in Knesset, but his colleagues in the government abandoned him, preferring to continue to support Sharon instead. Bibi continued to use the disengagement issue against Sharon, staying in the government, but campaigning against his own share of collective responsibility by supporting the opposition to the disengagement.

Last month he voted in favor of postponing the disengagement in the Government and got his close ally, Yuval Shteinitz (the head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset) to launch a campaign for a “defensive shield” type operation in Gaza, knowing that it would lead to the end of the disengagement campaign. Bibi continued to oppose any deal with Egypt on the Philidephi road, once again using his proxy Shteinitz. Bibi understood that if Israel remained on the Philidephi road, Palestinian attacks against Israel would surely continue, even after the disengagement.  Did Bibi care that innocent Israelis

Had Bibi really wanted to prevent the disengagement he would have left the government much longer ago and join the forces of the opposition as their leader. But Bibi understood that disengagement is good for the economy and good for Israel’s international image and that the majority of Israelis have consistently supported the disengagement initiative.

Bibi is a gambler and he is betting on the disengagement not going smoothly.  If the disengagement is peaceful and the Palestinians demonstrate restraint and successfully take over Gaza, create calm and show that they can govern, his gamble will lose.  On the other hand, if the disengagement explodes, if there are casualties, if the resistance is too large to handle, if the Palestinians cannot control and govern, Bibi will use his opposition to the disengagement to fly straight into the PM’s office.

Polls of registered Likud voters this week after Bibi’s resignation showed a landslide of support for Bibi against Sharon. The results of the poll, no doubt boosted Bibi’s confidence in his gamble, but we are one week away from the beginning of disengagement and it is still an open field. The date for new primaries in the Likud has not been set and it is likely to be several months away, unless the government falls during the summer recess of the Knesset which last beyond the Jewish holidays in October. Nonetheless, the political speculations market has opened and the “big bang” scenario of a new political alliance between Sharon, Peres and Shinui leader Lapid received 38 seats against Bibi’s led Likud with 17 seats in a poll published in Yediot Ahronot newspaper. One thing is clear; there is never a boring day in Israel.

The earthquake from heaven?

Meanwhile on the disengagement front, the settlers gathered for an impassioned prayer session at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Police reports spoke of some 40,000 participants, the settlers spoke of 200,000. On Thursday night they appeared once again in Rabin Square in central Tel Aviv – some 250,000 settlers and their supporters took to the Tel Aviv streets. The leaders of the settlers called on the crowd to assemble at the Kissufim check point on Monday morning at the entrance to Gush Katif in order to physically prevent the disengagement from beginning.  The settlers are calling on the opposition to come out in full force including thousands of children (wasn’t it Israel that claimed that the Palestinians are sending their children to the frontlines?) Some 3,000 settlers and supporters have already successfully entered the Gush.  One question that must be asked is how did they get in?  Gaza is completely sealed and the army is supposed to be preventing non-authorized people from entering.  Could the settlers have some allies in the army???

It is estimated that more than half of the settlers have signed up for their compensation.  More than half of them are deeply engaged in packing their belongings. They have been notified if they remain in Gaza beyond the date set by the government they may not receive their full compensation payments.  If they do not pack their own belongings and the army has to do it, there are no guarantees that they will receive all of their belongings or that they will remain in good condition. In order to pre-empt charges of looting and stealing by soldiers, the army has prepared a sophisticated packing and inventory system including digital and video filming of the entire packing process that soldiers will conduct. Maybe some of the officers who “graduate” the disengagement will take the initiative to create a new hi-tech moving industry.

President Moshe Katzav took to the airwaves this week to publicly apologize to the settlers for forcing them to leave their homes. In am very emotional appeal to the settlers calling them heroes and pioneers, Katzav appealed to them to honor the law and not to resist the disengagement. Sharon announced that he will not apologize to the settlers and the settlers probably wouldn’t accept his apology anyway.  The settlers are waiting for a miracle and many still believe that it will come. But meteorologists are not yet predicting a new 40 day storm and if the messiah is planning a visit he sure is taking his time and keeping the settlers in suspense.

Israeli-Palestinian coordination and cooperation – a sign of the future?

Israeli Palestinian coordination of the disengagement increased once again this week with the opening of a joint Israeli-Palestinian military operations room.  The Palestinians are ready to deploy 5000 troops in full coordination with Israel. Israel is already busy implementing their plan for 5 circles of deployment extending around each settlement, around Gush Katif and the settlements in the north of Gaza, around the checkpoint and crossing, throughout the south of the country and the fifth circle deployed in other sensitive areas where civil disobedience could break out.

Doing something sensible for a change?

In a surprising development, representatives of settler farmers signed a $15 million deal in Washington on Friday morning with representatives of USAID buying the farmers' hothouses with the intention of transferring them to the Palestinians.

Some 230 Gush Katif farmers will receive $3,500 per dunam (1,000 square meters) for an empty hothouse and $4,000 per dunam for hothouses ready for planting. There are approximately 3,500 dunams of hothouses in Gush Katif. It has been reported that about 500 dumans of the hothouses have already been dismantled by settlers, so it appears that the Palestinians will be able to continue farming as soon as the settlers leave, if the army will allow the Palestinian Authority to take over immediately and if the Palestinian Authority will be wise enough to divise a plan to turn over the working hothouses to the Palestinian agricultural cooperative in Gaza that excel in producing high quality exportable fresh produce.