[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
February 24, 2006
This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin
Olmert and corruption
The press went on the attack against acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week when the news of an investigation being conducted by the State Comptroller was leaked. The whole story is based on the fact that Olmert sold his spacious and luxurious Jerusalem apartment to US Jewish “slim fast” billionaire Daniel Abrams for a grand sum of $2.7 million. At first eyebrows were raised at the price, but after checking with some Jerusalem real estate agents it was learned that it was certainly within market value. Next the press claimed that the scandal lies in the fact that Olmert does not have to vacate the apartment for several years and he is paying rent to Abrams for that period. The agreed price was $2500 a month. But the real estate agents say that is below market price and Olmert should be paying about $4,000 a month. Why would Abrams, such as successful businessman agrees to take such a loss on what is clearly an investment for him – he has no intentions of moving to Jerusalem in the near future? A few news stories focused on the fact that Abrams bought the apartment from a company registered in the Virgin Islands. Maybe Abrams should be the one to be investigated but by the US tax authorities not the Israeli State Comptroller? The whole case seems to me to be a “storm in a glass of water”. Come on guys, surely there must be something bigger and juicier to bring against Olmert? With Olmert almost sure to win the elections and to become the next Prime Minister, desperation is sinking in amongst his enemies. They are scattering around searching for dirt and so far they haven’t found anything significant. It might be there, but Olmert is so smart and sly it is surely hidden and almost impossible to find. One prominent Israeli journalist who is a strong opponent of Olmert said to me ”Olmert is so rich and has done so little real productive work in his life, there must be corruption there”. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t, I don’t know. What is clear is that the polls have not responded dramatically to the so called scandal.
The latest pre-election poll by Yedioth Ahronoth and Mina Tzemach's Dahaf Institute shows frontrunner Kadima dropping by two Knesset seats and winning 39 were elections held today. Bur Maariv’s poll shows Kadima still in front with a comfortable 40 seats. Labour remains at 20 seats according to Maariv and Likud at 15. Mina Tzemach reported that right-wing parties Likud and Israel Our Home went up by a combined three seats, while Labor went down by one seat and currently stands at 19 mandates. Tzemach says that if elections were held today, Likud would win 16 seats, Shas would win 10, and Israel Our Home, led by Avigdor Lieberman, would win 9 seats, up two from last week. Meretz is firm with 5 and heading for a possible six seats. There have been voices of concern from the Arab parties that due to the division of the Arab parties into three, the total number of seats may go down to five. As a result some very radical words are being spoken by some Arab politicians against Zionist parties. MK Barakeh from Hadash has been quoted saying that all Zionist parties should be thrown out of Arab villages. So much for coexistence.
The General’s big mouth and the apology parade
Central Command General Yair Naveh got caught this week saying what most Israelis believe. Speaking at a closed meeting with diplomats and others, Naveh said that Jordan is a state with a large majority of Palestinians and that King Abdallah II will be the last Hashemite King in Jordan (on the side - how could he have imagined that a meeting with diplomats could remain completely off-the-record?). Most Israelis share this assessment including most of the members of the Israeli government. This does not detract at all from the sincere belief that Jordan is an important ally to Israel and that the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty is of crucial strategic importance to Israel. King Abdallah receives very high grades from most Israeli politicians and generals, in fact, most of them concur that Abdallah’s leadership and achievements far surpass the expectations they had for him after the passing of King Hussein.
The immediate reaction from the Palace in Amman is that General Neveh must resign or be fired. As one of the few religious Jews in such a high position in the army and in particular looking ahead towards further disengagements in the West Bank where the Central Command General will have to face the settlers, it is unlikely that Neveh will be pressured to resign. Instead, following the parade of apologies to the King from Olmert, Tzipi Livni, and Shaul Mofaz, we can expect a visit from Naveh to the King. He will bow down and say that he was mistaken and speak about the strategic importance of Jordan to Israel, etc. etc. etc. He will then go back home and continue to believe that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a short-term venture which lacks sustainability.
With the Hamas victory in Palestine, links between the Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood movement in Jordan are growing stronger. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood movement are part and parcel of the same ideology. There is little doubt that the Hamas victory has inspired the Brotherhood and the Kingdom could in fact be looking at a period of greater instability in the near future. This is of course; something that the King is quite aware of and the Government of Jordan is increasing is ability to contend with the danger. There is a similar problem in Egypt but the Government of Egypt is a lot stronger than that of Jordan and the internal threats there are also much less.
Despite the fact that Neveh should have demonstrated more care in making such explosive statements in a public forum, he has pointed to one of the more clear and present dangers to the State of Israel (and of course to Jordan). This issue is sure to appear on the radar screens and to cause common concern throughout the region and in Washington.
On the hopeful rise to Primaries - smolmert
Bibi Netanyahu launched his campaign this week to change the internal selection process in the Likud away from the omnipotent Likud Central Committee to the Likud registered voters. It is all part of Bibi’s plan to clean up the Likud. In reality it is all part of Bibi’s attempt to wake up the electorate and to get former Likud voters who now support Kadima to come back home to the Likud. Bibi is hoping that there will be vocalopposition to his plan within the Likud so that he can present himself as the Knight of clean politics. With the Attroney General’s call to Kadima’s Tzahi Hangebi to resign because of his impending indictment for illegal appointments when he was Minister of the Environment, and the investigation of Olmert’s apartment shenanigans, Bibi is hoping that he convince the public that he represents clean government. The problem is that no one believes him. Along with Bibi’s clean politics tactic he has gone on the offensive against Olmert. Likud posters all over the country have now labeled Olmert “Smolmert” – “smol” meaning “left” in Hebrew. Kadima’s campaign is off to a sleepy beginning. In general, all over the country there are much fewer posters and bumper stickers than any election campaigns in tens of years –something which is clearly good for the environment. Apparently the lack of a visible election campaign is deeply affected by the sense that the results are already known. It has been a long time in Israel since it was so easy to predict the final outcome of the elections one month before Election Day. Of course, the race isn’t over till it’s over. External events could cause changes, but for the time being it seems quite clear that Kadima will be leading the next government in a coalition with Labour likely ot be invited to join together with one or two of the religious parties.
Qassams on the rise
One of those external events that could cause a change in the election results is the impact of a fatal Qassam attack. More than130 Qassam rockets were shot at Israel during February – an increase from 64 in January. None of those rockets had any devastating results but they remain intolerable from Israel’s point of view. Since the Palestinian elections, Israel has increased it attacks and counter attacks against Palestinian forces and armed fighters, however, it has not taken aggression against Hamas forces or activists. Hamas has continued the Tahdiya – the calm - beyond the elections even though it was supposed to have ended before elections. Israel’s policy announcement of last week regarding cutting ties with the Palestinian Authority since the swearing in of the Palestinian Parliament has begun with a sudden increase in new checkpoints throughout the West Bank and a stiffening of the permit policy for Palestinians wishing to enter Israel. Already, the West Bank has been under official closure for more than a month, and no long term permits are being issued at all. Palestinians are really feeling the pressure and the public is showing sign of great concern regarding their future. With the appointment of Ismail Haneiyeh the Hamas leader as the Prime Minister designate, times are likely to get increasingly difficult in the West Bank and Gaza. It is doubtful that the Israeli separation barrier walls and fences will leave the suffering only on the other side. We are all in for tough times.