[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
April 7, 2006
This week in Israel….. Behind the news with Gershon Baskin
I was out of the country most of this week attending the Fourth Assembly of the World Movement for Democracy held in Istanbul. Together with about 700 democracy advocates from 120 countries, Hanna Siniora and I represented IPCRI in this quite remarkable gathering of activists and NGO leaders from around the world. The World Movement for Democracy (http://www.wmd.org/) brings together an amazing group of individuals who in many parts of the world take great risks and make great personal sacrifices to fight for the cause of freedom. This is the second Assembly of the World Movement that I have attended, at the last one two years ago in Durban South Africa IPCRI was awarded the Democracy Courage Tribute marking IPCRI’s work towards peace and justice between Israelis and Palestinians. This year’s tributes were awarded to the courageous freedom fights from Vietnam, Uzbekistan, Nepal and the Crimean Tartars. It is an honor for IPCRI to be counted amongst these brave people.
The main story of this past week has been the beginning of the scrambling of the various political actors in Israel towards the forming of the next coalition government. On Thursday, President Moshe Katzav formally appointed Kadima leader Ehud Olmert as the Prime Minister Designate. Olmert now has a first period of 28 days to form the coalition of at least 61 members of the newly elected Knesset. In last week’s column I warned not to take all of the news reports concerning coalition negotiations seriously, as most of the announcements published and leaked by the political parties are “spins” that are an integral part of the negotiating process. The best evidence of this are the early announcements that Labour would not be part of the coalition until it became known that Olmert and Amir Peretz held a secret meeting to conclude that Labour would be the main second party in the next government. Now the spins concern the other partners and the appointment of Ministers.
Kadima seems committed to holding onto the Finance Ministry and in exchange is willing to give up the Ministry of Defense to Labour. If this is true, it is very good news because it removes the chances that Shaul Mofaz will return to that Ministry. Mofaz has been one of the primary advocates of making the Palestinian public pay the prices of continued violence and has in fact fed into the prolonging of the conflict. Mofaz’s collective punishment policies have never produced the desired results, quite the opposite is clearly the truth. Palestinians have grown more and more convinced that Israel is not interested in peace and only seeks to make the Palestinian public suffer.
In the initial reports that Labour would take the Defense Ministry it was suggested that Labour leader Amir Peretz would become the next Minister of Defense. Peretz has only very limited military experience finishing his military career many years ago in the rank of Lieutenant. This would be the first time since Moshe Arens that a non-military person is heading the Defense Ministry. Peretz’s declarations that he believes that there is a Palestinian partner for negotiations and his commitment to pursue a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians is good news. Peretz was always an active member of the peace camp in Israel and his campaign meeting with Mahmoud Abbas bodes well for the future. The Minister of Defense, more than any other Minister of government, determines the nature of Israeli-Palestinian relations on a daily basis. Peretz’s leadership in the Ministry of Defense might actually open up new chances for the renewal of an Israeli-Palestinian political process. Peretz could also have great influence on the economic-social agenda from the Ministry of Defense which enjoys, by far, the largest share of the national budget. Cuts in the Defense budget would enable reallocation of funds to support economic and social development, and presumably as a non-military person, Peretz would be more willing to consider cutting more of the fat out of the military budget.
It seems likely that the Finance Ministry will go to Olmert’s close friend and confidant Avraham Hirshson and that Mofaz might find himself in the position of Minister of Tourism. That is an interesting position for Mofaz complicated by the fact that there are several countries that he may be reluctant to travel to because of possible law suits against him for war crimes.
The fight is on for the position of Minister of Education between Kadima’s Prof. Uriel Reichman and Labour’s Prof. Yuli Tamir. Shas has stated that if Reichman is appointed Minister of Education they will not join the government (Reichman was one of the founders of the anti-religious Shinui party) unless Olmert provides them with guarantees that the Shas schools will not be under the responsibility of Reichman. Uriel Reichman left his position of President of the Interdisciplinary College of Herzliyeh which he founded in order to become Minister of Education. If he does not receive that position, he has stated that he will leave the Knesset and return to academia. Yuli Tamir would be a great Minister of Education and I hope that she will get the post.
It seems that Olmert is trying to form his coalition with the following parties: Kadima (29 seats), Labour (19), Shas (12), Yisrael Beitenu (11), Yehadut Hatorah – United Torah party (6) and the pensioners (7) totally a grand coalition of 84 members. In this case, the key for Ministers would be about 1 Minister for each 4 seats. Kadima will take 7-8 seats, it will give Labour 5 Ministers, Shas will probably get 3 Minister, Yisrael Beitenu – 3 Ministers, United Torah will not have Ministers but will have at least 2 Deputy Ministers acting as Ministers and the head of the important Finance Committee of the Knesset, the pensioners will settle for 1-2 Ministers.
Olmert will select the Kadima Ministers – here we are looking at Tzipi Livni in the Foreign Ministry, Hirshson in Finance, other likely Ministers of Avi Dichter, Meir Shitreet, Haim Ramon, Shimon Peres, Shaul Mofaz, and Ronnie Baron . This will leave people like Tzahi Hanegbi, Dalia Itzik, Uriel Reichman, Gideon Ezra and Zeev Boim outside of the next government. Labour will have even a harder time, but there the Labour Party Conference will select the Ministers. There will be at least 12 people competing for the 5-6 Ministerial portfolios including: Yitzhak Herzog, Ofir Pines, Avishai Braverman, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, Yuli Tamir, Ami Ayalon, Ephraim Sneh, and Matan Vilnai. There are others who would like to be Ministers but are unlikely to get the party’s backing.
It seems that Olmert is likely to leave Meretz out of the government along with the Likud and the Arab parties. Olmert, it appears, is basing his strategy on Kadima in the center with Labour on the left and Yisrael Beitenu on the right. The religious parties inclusion is based on appearing to be a government of “all of the people”. As Olmert’s convergence plan for more unilateral disengagements is not going to be enacted over the next year, Olmert will have this year to address economic-social concerns while building himself as the new leader of Israel. Olmert will begin his negotiations with President Bush on the convergence plan before he presents it to the Israeli government. This will also give the Labour party a chance to try to push forward its agenda for a new political process with the Palestinians. When and if Olmert presents his unilateral plans to the government, and if at that time Yisrael Beitenu or others leave the government, he will be able to bring Meretz into the government knowing that he can also depend on the support of the ten Arab MK’s to raise their hands in support of Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank.
Gaza, Qassams and air raids
The Qassam and mortar attacks from Gaza are once again on the rise. Now, between 30-40 rockets are being fired into Israel each week from Gaza. The IDF is completely frustrated by the lack of ability to prevent the attacks. The IDF has been given the green light from Olmert and Mofaz to step up their artillery attacks, now hitting populated areas in Gaza as well as the vacant lots from which the rockets have been shot. The army knows that it is very limited in its ability to deal with this problem without the Palestinian Authority taking action on its side of the border. PA Foreign Minister Mahmoud a Zahar has suggested a new ceasefire arrangement, conditioned only on Israel agreeing to a ceasefire as well. There is a political battle being waged within the PA now for control of the security forces. Palestinian President Abbas has announced that the security forces would come under the direct authority of the National Security Council which he heads and that the former commander of the Preventive Security Forces Abu Shbak will now command all of the security forces. PA Prime Minister Hanieyeh has stated that all of the PA security forces must come under his command. Whoever ends up being in charge of the security forces would be wise not to underestimate the IDF’s frustration with the continuing of the barrage of Qassam attacks. The IDF’s last resort is a ground operation in Gaza that would very likely result with large scale Palestinian casualties (Israel would also experience casualties but at a smaller scale). This should be avoided and it would be wise for both Abbas and Hanieyeh to decide to put an end to the Qassam attacks from Gaza before it is too late. (This is not a threat but an assessment of what is likely to come).
Building Joint Interests
The agricultural cooperative of Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza has initiated a meeting of Israeli and Palestinian agro-business concerns. IPCRI is sponsoring the meeting this week, taking place in Istanbul. Twenty-six participants representing agro-business interests in Gaza and Israel are spending this weekend in Turkey trying to strengthen cooperation and joint business interests between them. Lacking in funds to support this initiative, the Israeli business concerns funded themselves and one Palestinian participant from each company and growers association. This is a very positive step forward and we hope that the meeting will produce profitable results for all of the participants.