[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


April 29, 2006


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


Coalition coming together


The new coalition agreement is likely to be completed early next week.  The Kadima party has already signed the agreement with the Labour party and the Pensioners party.  Kadima and the Pensioners agreed to merge into one Knesset faction putting the joint list at 36 seats in the Knesset.  The meaning of the merger is that Kadima and the Pensioners will vote as one block in the Knesset.  In a surprise testimony, the Pensioners’ leader, Rafi Eitan, one of the more right-wing former Mossad officers in the history of that organization, admitted that the has changed his position and that he fully backs the political line of Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert.  Eitan also admitted that Ariel Sharon has used his services in trying to convince Gaza settlers to leave (this was reported in a former edition of this column). Eitan will serve as special minister for senior citizens and the number 2 of the list Yaacov Ben Yizri will be the new Minister of Health. A third member of the Pensioners’ list will head the Welfare Committee of the Knesset.


Labour and Kadima also signed the agreement that will place Labour leader Amir Peretz in the Ministry of Defense. Labour will also get six other Ministries including education, agriculture, tourism and two ministries without portfolios.  It is expected that Barak loyalist Shalom Simchon will get the Agriculture post and Prof. Yuli Tamir will be in the Education Ministry.  Labour new comers Avishay Braverman and Ami Ayalon may be left out of the new Cabinet.  There is a revolt underway in Labour led by Matan Vilnai and Danny Yatom against allowing Amir Peretz to decide who the Ministers will be.  Vilani and Yatom will present to the Labour Central Council on Sunday that a secret vote be held to determine how the Labour Ministers will be selected. It appears that newcomer Ami Ayalon is also busy plotting against Peretz.  He believes that he was promised by Peretz that we would become a Minister.  Ayalon has apparently forgotten that Peretz’s promises were based on the possibility that he would form the next government and not Olmert.  


The last time the Labour party joined the government under Sharon, an open vote was held to elect the Labour Ministers. Each elected member was allowed to select which ministerial posting they wanted based on who got the most votes.  This precedent is likely to be used to empower the Central Council and to take power away from Amir Peretz. On the other hand, under Rabin another precedent was introduced under which first time MK’s could not become Ministers in the government. That, if instituted, would keep Ayalon and Braverman quiet.


As stated in this column several times in the past, we will all be blessed by the departure of Shaul Mufaz from the Ministry of Defense. Hopefully Minister of Defense Peretz will also send special advisor General Amos Gilad home as well.  Gilad is responsible, perhaps more than anyone else in Israel for developing and embellishing the myth of no partnership on the Palestinian side.  Now with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas taking decisive steps to create real executive powers under him with a clear determination to negotiate peace, hopefully Amir Peretz will change the policies of the Ministry of Defense which have limited chances for developing the partnership.  Furthermore, hopefully Peretz will pressure Olmert to take seriously the avenue of engagement with the Palestinian leader before pursuing the misguided path of unilateralism.  There is a possibility that Ofir Pines will join Peretz in the Ministry as a Minister in the Ministry of Defense.  Pines is another strong believer in peace and dialogue and will add to our call for engagement with Mahmoud Abbas. Pines did a lot to advance coexistence in Israel between Jews and Arab during his short tenure in the Ministry of Interior.  The Peretz-Pines partnership is strongly welcomed.


No deputies


Under public pressure for the creation of the largest government in recent times, Olmert manipulated the potential coalition partners to do away with the position of Deputy Minister, with the exception of Yehadut Hatorah which will receive two Deputy Minister positions without Ministers.  Yehadut Hatorah, a non-Zionist party has always refused to hold Ministerial positions so as not to bear the consequences of collective responsibility of the Government and its decisions.


It seems that the hopes of Avigdor Lieberman to join the government with his Yisrael Beiteinu party have been dashed.  That is good news.  Without Lieberman in the wings, Kadima has renewed negotiations with Meretz. The addition of Yossi Beilen to the cabinet will be a significant upgrade and will increase the chances of re-engagement with the Palestinians. The Lieberman option has not been completely wiped out, but some of the issues in the new government by-laws will make it difficult for Lieberman to join, including the removal of settlements and outposts.  If that happens, it will be a clear victory for Labour.


Shas will get four seats in the government but not the coveted Ministry of Interior.  Shas will receive the Industry, Trade and Labor portfolio, a Minister in the PM’s office responsible for Religious affairs, the Ministry of Communication and a Minister without Portfolio.  It seems that the Interior Ministry portfolio is being held in reserve in case the negotiations with Lieberman resume. If Lieberman does not join, it seems that the Interior Ministry will remain in Kadima’s hands.  There are quiet voices of protest in Kadima amongst former Ministers who are beginning to understand that they will no longer hold positions of power and influence. The Ministries left in the hands of Kadima will only be known once all the other negotiations have been completed.  The most competed ministry is Finance. Shaul Mofaz has told Olmert that if he can’t be in Defense, he wants Finance.  Olmert told him that he has other plans.  Meir Shitreet, a former Finance Minister and Olmert’s close friend Avraham Hirshzon both want Finance. Whoever doesn’t get Finance of these two is likely to wind up with Interior.  It seems that Haim Ramon will be in the Justice Ministry and Shimon Peres, if he is cleared by the Attorney General on charges of illegal campaign contributions, will return to his Ministry for the development of the Galilee and the Negev.


Keep the criminals out


Criminal suspicions are still waving above the heads of several potential new ministers, including Lieberman. The police are probing new suspicions involving "personal integrity" against Lieberman, The new suspicions are not related to the earlier probe for alleged irregularities in campaign spending and illegal business dealings with Russian mafia figures. The material regarding that investigation has been transferred to the State Prosecutor's Office but without an unequivocal recommendation to indict. I will be glad if Lieberman will not be the government, but for political reasons.  At least one investigation against Lieberman has been with the police for more than seven years. There can be no justice when anyone has to suffer through a seven year investigation filled with leaks to the press.  The new Knesset must do something to put boundaries on the extent to which thepolice have freedom to public torture officials or common citizens.


Suspicions have also been raised against Shimon Peres on the issue of possible illegal campagin donations in the amount of $320,000 received from three Jewish millionaires from abroad.  Peres has been given one week by the Attorney General to answer the charges.  The case against Kadima’s Tzahi Hanegbi for illegal appointments will probably keep Hagebi out of the Government.  It has been reported that he has been offered the important position of Chairman of the Foreign Affiars and Security Committee.  It will be good to see outgoing Chair Yuval Shteinitz on the benches of the opposition and not the head of the committee.  Shteinitz has used his position to exploit his access to the media will many false claims against the Palestinians.  Hopefully, in the opposition, we will hear much less from him.


Olmert off to Washington


It has been confirmed that Olmert will be meeting with President Bush in Washington on May 23.  Olmert has sent former Sharon advisors Dov Weissglass and Shalom Turgeman to London to meet with NSC official Elliot Abrams and State Department David Welch who were attending the international meetings of donors to the Palestinians, to prepare the Washington Summit.  This meeting is of extreme importance to Olmert who would like to sign on Bush’s support for the convergence plan.  It seems very unlikely that Bush will agree to Olmert’s position of unilaterally determining Israel’s permanent borders with the Palestinians.  Olmert will be seeking to receive from Bush a letter re-enforcing US support for Israeli unilateralism.  Olmert will also be checking the extent of freedom of action that Bush will allow him in the battle against terrorism with the Palestinians. Olmert will also be working to ensure that the US will support Israel’s battle against any wavering on the three conditions to Hamas – recognition of Israel, denouncing terrorism and working according to the agreement already signed. 


Negotiations or unilateralism


In a surprise move yesterday, Hamas Foreign Minister Mahmoud Azahar announced on Al Jazeera that he is not opposed to negotiating with Israel and that Prime Minister Haneyeh can join Mahmoud Abbas in those negotiations. Azahar stressed that if the negotiations would lead to something concrete, he would not be opposed.  Azahar has been under extreme pressure during his visits in the Arab world by Arab leaders to accept the Arab League’s Peace Plan from 2002 and to recognize Israel. That pressure seems to be bearing its first fruits.


At the same time, sources have told us that Mahmoud Abbas has requested from the donor countries that held a meeting in London this week to support a new budget request for the President’s office including more than 900 new employees. This is more than concrete evidence that Abbas has created an alternative governing mechanism out of the Office of the Presidency. It is not clear how the donor’s have responded to Abbas’ request, but this should further demonstrate to the new government of Israel that there remains a partner in Ramallah.