[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


August 27, 2006


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


The fight is on


The public protests against the government for the failures of the war in Lebanon are compelling but they are far from massive public outcries.  It seems that there is suspicion that the demonstrators have been infiltrated by people and movements with different political agendas and they are exploiting the current public anti-government sentiment to bring about the end of the Olmert government.  There are two main streams of messages from the demonstrators – one led by the Movement for Clean Government that is calling for the establishment of a national investigation commission appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that would have the widest mandate to investigate the political and military echelons.  The second message is coming mostly from reserve soldiers who fought in Lebanon and the families of fallen soldiers from this last war.  These people are calling for the immediate resignation of Olmert, Peretz and Chief of Staff Halutz.  It is this group that seems to have been infiltrated by right-wing activists, some of whom were very involved in the demonstrations last year against the disengagement from Gaza.  For this reason, member of left-wing parties and non-parliamentary groups like Peace Now have remained away from the demonstrations in the Rose Garden across from the Prime Minister’s office.  Nonetheless, Olmert is clearly under a lot of pressure to make a decision of what kind of committee will investigate the war and what kind of mandate it will have. 


It has been reported that Olmert has already decided that he reluctantly favors a national investigation commission to be appointed by Chief Justice Barak but he did not bring the issue to the Government for its approval.  Olmert would clearly prefer an investigation committee appointed by the Government which would give him a lot more control in determining its mandate and the publication of the findings of the investigation.  Politically, Olmert understands that he must go for the larger and wider investigation.


The polls and the politics


Public opinion polls over the last week have shown a huge decrease in support for Olmert and Kadima and even larger losses for Peretz and Labour.  In a poll conducted by Mina Tzemach from Dahaf, only 3% of Israelis said that Amir Peretz was fit to be Minister of Defense.  If elections were to be held today the Likud would gain 12 seats going from 8 to 20.  Kadima would lose 12 seats and go down to 17. The Labour party would be reduced to 11 seats from its present 19. The big winners in public opinion are mostly Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud and Avigdor Lieberman from Yisrael Beitenu.   So while it clear that Olmert and Peretz deserve to lose their jobs over the disastrous way in which the war was handled, the alternatives to them are much worse.


Perhaps the best compromise would be for Halutz to be forced to resign which he should do on his own, but if he does not, he should be forced our of his position of Chief of Staff.  It seems quite likely that Amir Peretz will be pushed out of the number 1 spot in Labour.  Current possible front runners for leading Labour are Ami Ayalon, the former head of the Shin Bet and partner with Sari Nusseibeh in the People’s Voice Campaign (http://www.mifkad.org.il/en/index.asp) and Avishay Braverman, the former World Bank economist and former President of Ben Gurion University.  Olmert seems to be in a firm position inside of Kadima for the time being.  That party is still trying to define itself and it lacks internal institutions that could challenge Olmert’s leadership at this time.


New elections are still very unlikely and Olmert can probably keep his coalition together, if he gets through the next round of budget debates and votes.  With the billions that must now be spent on repairing the damages of the war and on rebuilding the army, the social causes that so badly need funds will be put on the back shelves and that will surely create real problems for the politicians who ran on social-economic agendas.  The budget for medications is once again being cut back just two months after cancer patients won a public struggle to have additional medications added to the publicly funded lists.  Those very same medications are once again being removed.


Amir Peretz, who led the campaign for social-economic causes, is now demanding $6.5 billion for the military to rebuild, rearm, strengthen, and introduce additional technologies, particularly active-protection for tanks, and for expanding the fighting force.  The proposals for reducing the size of the army and for shortening the length of military service are back under new debate and review.  The bureaucrats in the Ministry of Finance have said that Peretz is out of his mind, there is no chance for diverting so much money into the defense budget.  Olmert and his Finance Minister Hirschson have said that they are opposed to new taxes and no one supports increasing the deficit.  It is clear that the US will not offer an additional hand-out to Israel and even though people like Shimon Peres have suggested that Israel ask Bush for extra money because of the war, it is clear that Washington has sent very clear messages to Jerusalem to not even think about asking for additional funds.


Olmert has promised the army that their budget would increase.  At this morning’s government meeting he announced the formation of a committee composed of the National Security Council, the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Defense, to determine how much more money would be added to the budget and then he will have to figure our where it will come from. 


Sex scandals galore


Minister of Justice Haim Ramon has resigned and Meir Shitreet is temporarily filling in until Ramon’s case comes before a judge.  Ramon was indicted for sexual misconduct by allegedly forcing a kiss on the mouth of a young woman soldier on her last day working in the Prime Minister’s office.  There is Ramon’s version of the kiss facing the version of the soldier.  The Attorney General indicted Ramon stating that he simply did not have the tools to determine which version of the story was correct.  There are no other direct witnesses to the events so a Court will have to make the judgment.  In the meantime, Ramon who’s political power sky-rocketed with the creation of Kadima and his close association with Olmert, came tumbling down with equal speed, now waiting to see if he will be vindicated or convicted.


President Moshe Katzav is facing much more serious charges of allegedly raping a former employee of his office. The victim has testified under oath and under polygraph and has been found to be telling the truth.  Other former women employees of Katzav have also come forth stating that they too had been sexually harassed by Katzav when he was in other positions.  If Katzav is indicted, he will have to resign from the Presidency.  At this time, it seems quite likely that the Knesset will have to elect a new President.  Some of those who have already tossed their hats into the race are MK (Labour) Collette Avital – which if she won, would become Israel’s first woman President, former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, and Former Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) who analysts say, at this time has the best chances of winning – the religious won’t vote for a women, the secularists won’t support Rabbi Lau and therefore, Rivlin, seems to have the best chances, but everything is still open.  Katzav is holding firm to his claim that he is being framed by political interests who want to make sure that he doesn’t return to politics and he refuses to resign his post.  If Katzav does resign, it is likely that the name Shimon Peres will once again appear as a candidate – is it possible that Peres could once again run for public office and lose once again?  In Israel, everything is possible and Shimon Peres has yet to win an election.




Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.  www.ipcri.org