[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


December 15, 2005


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


Politics and bombs


Amir Peretz’s strategic advisor and campaign manager Motti Moral dropped a bomb this week when he accused Sharon and Mofaz of manipulating the security situation in order to gain public support. Moral commented that it is well known that following every targeted killing by the IDF there are terror attacks in revenge.  He commented that before the new campaign season began when Sharon and Mofaz were interested in quiet, they observed the rules of the game set down by the Palestinian factions through their Tahdia and did not exchange actively in the policy of assassinations.  During those months, there was a growing sense of security for most Israelis.  But then came election season and the security situation heated up again.  Following the Netanya terror attack by the Islamic Jihad, Israel has aggressively gone after Jihad activists and the rogue groups of the Fatah in Gaza – the so-called popular committees. Israel has hit these groups with a vengeance. Attacks from the air with coupled with artillery from the ground and massive arrest campaigns.  This, of course was followed by barrages of Qassam missiles from Gaza into Israel – one of them landing nearby the southern industrial zone of Ashkelon.  In response, Israel has now imposed a full closure on the West Bank and Gaza – with the exception of the Karni transport zone, which will remain open following the promise by Sharon to Condoleezza Rice that Israel would not shut down the main economic artery of Gaza unless it was hit directly by the Palestinians.


Israel did foil an attempt to hit Karni.  According to Israeli intelligence reports, a vehicle carrying a large amount of explosives was heading for Karni where they planned to have the car explode alongside of the dividing wall between the Gaza side and the Israeli side.  If the car had exploded there, it would have created a lot of damage, loss of life and would have put an end to any hopes for economy recovery of Gaza. Israel hit the vehicle from the air and widely distributed the film footage to television networks from around the world. I always place doubts on the accuracy of IDF reports on their own activities. I don’t really know if the vehicle was heading for Karni or for somewhere else. The thought that there are Palestinians who are willing to knowingly destroy the economy and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of people in order to foster their own distorted worldview bewilders even my imagination.


The Karni transport zone is now at its heaviest and busiest period.  The new season’s crops are on their way to Europe where they are fetching record prices. This has been the best agricultural season in Gaza since 2000.  The first shipments of strawberries produced enough income for the farmers to already recover their seasonal investments - from now on its profit for the thousands of farmers and their families in Gaza.  One of the reasons for the high profits this year is the entry of a second Israeli company into the Palestinian exporting and forwarding market to Europe.  The competition between Agrexco and the new company Flowers Direct has enable the Palestinian farmers to get better prices for their work.


In addition to the new closure Israel refuses to implement the agreement negotiated by Secretary Rice for the opening of the West Bank-Gaza passage.  The first convoys of buses were supposed to begin on Thursday – they did not.  Deputy Minister of Defense Zeev Boim announced that the agreement was a bad agreement and that Israel would not implement it.  The agreement calls for convoys of buses in three separate routes.  Boim suggested that at best Israel would operate the southern route from Erez to Tarqumieh making it very hard for people to get to the north of the West Bank with so many checkpoints along the way.  The US Government is applying heavy pressure, but as long as the Qassams are flying and suicide bombers are on the roads, American pressure will dissipate.


Palestinian security forces did warn Israel about an explosive car near the gush Etzion tunnel road last night.  The information from the PA security allowed Israel sufficient time to close the road and to explode the car safely.


The ups and downs


Weekend polls showed the first slippage in support for Kadima since the election fever began.  Kadima dropped to 39 seats after peaking at 42 last week in some polls. The weekend newspapers in Israel place the blame for the drop on Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz’s sudden desertion of the Likud after requesting the support the Likud voters for the leadership position there swearing that he would remain in the party regardless of the results of the primaries “you don’t leave home”  - he told his voters. Israeli commentators and politicians spent hours this past week remarking on the new low level of morals and standards that have reached Israel led by Mofaz’s behavior. Tens of commentators mentioned that Mofaz wouldn’t even be able to graduate a course of corporals if he demonstrated such a low level of morality. I was reminded this week that Mofaz in fact had failed officers training twice as a young soldier and was only brought back a third time after being lucky enough to take place in an ambush that turned out to be successful. The infiltrating guerillas happened to turn up right in front of Mofaz’s squad and they managed to kill all of them.  Mofaz was awarded with a third opportunity to get into the officers class and this time he passed the tests. Drucker and Shelach in their book Boomerang about Israeli decision making during the second intifada devote a lot of space to Mofaz.  One of the amazing comments they make is that Mofaz does not read books.  Perhaps knowing that the US President also doesn’t read books might may that fact a little easier to swallow (not really) - it is quite amazing that one of the most powerful people in Israel with an amazing amount of potential to cause damage and to decide the fates of people – life and death issues does not read – amazing!


The next Minister of Defense


Sharon is known for protecting and backing people who demonstrate their loyalty to him.  That perhaps explains his warm relationship with Tzahi Hanegbi despite the fact that Hangebi’s joining Kadima probably hurt the new party in the polls. Mofaz, on the other hand attacked Sharon while still running for the Likud leadership claiming that Sharon had joined with the leftists to lead Israel down a very dangerous path.  Once stabbed in the back, Sharon is known to place the very same knife in the back of where it came from.  New rumors tossed around this week suggest that Mofaz should expect to get the transport or welfare Ministerial portfolio in the next cabinet and that he should forget about returning to Defense.  Additional rumors have floated two possible names for the important position – one of them known – Avi Dichter the former Shin Bet head, and the second  - the rising star of Israeli politics – Tzipi Livni – the current Minister of Justice.  Livni in Defense would be a wind of fresh air – first of all a woman, second of all not a General, and most important, Livni represents the new generation of practical and intelligent reformed right-wingers. She has come a long way since she left her parents home where she was breast-fed Jabotinsky and Begin.  Livni has expressed in private conversations with me and even in public meetings that Israel will have to withdraw to borders that are very close to the green-line and that we will have to make compromises in Jerusalem too.  Livni will probably not get the Defense Ministry, but she will have a high level position in the next government – and that it good.


Bibi, Italy, Shalom and the rest


On Monday the Likud registered voters will go to the polls to choose their next leader.  Until this week, Bibi was way ahead, but at the same time almost 30% of Likud voters were undecided.  Now they are beginning to make up their mind and the gap between Bibi and Shalom has shrunken to just a couple of points. The wild card in this deck is how many registered Likud voters will take part in the vote.  Bibi has the hard core and his people will get out and vote.  Shalom is relying on many voters who will probably vote for Sharon in the next election and not Likud.  Many of them will ask themselves what is better for Sharon – Bibi leading the Likud or Shalom.  Some, speaking on behalf of Sharon (without Sharon being asked) have suggested that Sharon prefers Shalom because it will be easier to bring Likud into the next coalition with Shalom than with the extremist politics of Netanyahu. Other say that with Bibi leading the Likud, only the extremists will stay there and the rest of the what remains of the Likud will move over to Kadima. 


The Likud stands with about 12-13 seats in the current polls. That number will probably rise after the primaries are over.  Both Bibi and Shalom are counting on a first round victory taking more than 40% of the vote.  Super extremist Moshe Feiglin is taking between 10-15% and Yisrael Katz will probably receive around 6%.  A Bibi victory is better for moving forward on the Palestinian front because it will ensure that the Likud remains in the opposition.  Shalom has been saying that if Bibi loses he will once again desert the party for something else.  Bibi said this week that he had been offered to serve as the Finance Minister of Italy.  Today it was reported that in a hotel hallway conversation that took place in October with the Israeli Ambassador to Rome and an Italian businessman and/or a politician, the Italian suggested that the policies that Bibi had implemented in Israel would do well in Italy and that perhaps he should consider being the Minister of Finance –hardly a solid job offer.  And Bibi claims that he learned some lessons since the last time he was Prime Minister.  In those days, his nick-name in the White House was “the liar”.


More Labour pains


Ehud Barak who withdrew from the primaries contest is still stirring up murky waters for Amir Peretz. The in-fighting within Labour is certainly one of the factors that is keeping Labour down in the polls.  Every speech or idea voiced by Peretz is immediately attacked by unnamed sources from within Labour.  Peretz talented and intelligent daughter returned from London to work on the campaign as a volunteer.  Barak’s people leaked that Shani Peretz was hired as the campaign manager and that she was taking over the party headquarters and moving old people out and new people in.  Even respected newspapers like Haaretz “bought” the story. Only later in the day it became clear that the young Peretz was volunteering to do “whatever they ask me to do – from licking stamps to distributing flyers on street corners”.  Barak is still hoping that Peretz will fail, once again leading the way to a possible Barak comeback. Some of Barak’s allies have been pressuring Peretz to find a way to include Barak in the decision making bodies of the party and to guarantee him a place in the next cabinet.  Peretz, a much more astute politician than Mitzna won’t be likely to fall into Barak’s honey traps.  The further away from Labour and Peretz Barak falls, the better for Labour, Peretz and Israel.


One comment on behind the news in Palestine


For more than a week now I have been sharing with my colleagues my assessment that the Palestinian pollsters are off-base in suggesting that Hamas will get 20-30% in the Parliamentary elections in Palestine on January 25, 2006. I believe that Hamas will get between 45-55% and maybe more.  Yesterday’s round of municipal elections in the West Bank brought Hamas into a majority position in Jenin, Nablus and El-Bireh and many other smaller towns.  The splits in Fatah, the inability of Abu Mazen to control the streets, the chaos and violence of the Fatah primaries and the general sense of political decline of the PA coupled with a slim, mean and clean fighting machine – the hamas – presenting an impressive unified list of politicians, educators, lawyers, doctors, including some 8 women and no bomb engineers is leading the public to vote Hamas. I will not be surprised by a Hamas victory in January.