Jerusalem Times

 

[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]

 

December 30, 2005

 

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

 

 

 

The Sky is the limit

 

Friday’s polls in all of the newspapers continue to show a rise in support of the public for Sharon’s Kadima party.  Kadima stands at 40-42 seats while Labour has dropped below the 20 seat mark; Likud has gained 1-2 seats and now stands at 16.  Meretz is moving between 5-6 seats while it is not clear if Shinui will pass the 2.5% threshold.  The media in Israel this week spent a lot of time criticizing Labour’s leader Amir Peretz in what seemed to be an orchestrated campaign against him.  One of the leading stars in the campaign was Ehud Barak who seems to be interviewed more now than when he was Prime Minister. Barak refused to stand for elections in the Labour primaries to be held in the second week of January.  Barak still insists that the membership drive launched by Peretz distorted the party make-up by bringing in people who have no intention to vote Labour.  While still criticizing the party’s membership, Barak has more than hinted that he is waiting for Amir Peretz to fix the number two slot for him on the ballot in the same way that Bibi did for Silvan Shalom. Barak put it in more than clear terms: “When I understood (as leader of Labour) that I needed Peres and David Levy to beat Bibi, in a matter of days I knew how to ensure their place next to me…Bibi did the same thing for Silvan Shalom one day after beating him”.  Barak also insists that Peretz must do the same for Shimon Peres.  The analysts in Israel believe that when Shimon Peres deserted Labour he took with him 5-6 seats to Kadima.

 

Peretz will not invite Barak to join the team as long as Labour is slipping in the polls.  Peretz is convinced that after the primaries are over and the party is focused on winning the elections, his numbers will move ahead.  If he were to bring in Barak now and then there was an upwards shift, everyone would give the credit to Barak.  According to Peretz’s people, Barak is not worth very much electorally and why give him the credit that they believe will come due in the coming weeks without Barak on board.

 

Much of the criticism against Peretz has been the single focus of the campaign on social and political issues.  Alon Pinkas, the former Consul-General in New York and a former Barak loyalist, said that a party that seeks to rule the country cannot run its whole campaign on the issue of raising the minimal wage.  Pinkas is now part of a team in Labour that is working on the political-security agenda.  The team, in addition to Pinkas includes Dave Kimche, Uzi Bar-Am, Dalia Rabin and Avi Primor is focusing the agenda on permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians, and no interim agreement.  The Labour party’s political-security committee believes that they must present an alternative to Sharon’s unilateralism, which they claim; despite Sharon’s denials, is what is on Kadima’s agenda.  The Labour party team has come up with the idea of a long-term lease agreement for settlement blocs – like the old UK-China agreement on Hong Kong.  The terms of the lease agreement could be for money or for land swaps.

 

Meanwhile, Sharon has been pushing asides his medical problems which took many hours of the media’s attention again this week. The press conference at the beginning of the week with Sharon’s doctors disclosed the need of a minor heart procedure that Sharon will undergo in the coming weeks.  The most important issue raised by the medical stories is that the Attorney General is now looking into the Basic Law on the Government in order to set criteria for determining when the Prime Minister is not fit to serve.  The law is somewhat ambiguous on this matter, reminding us of the many months that Menechem Begin spent behind closed doors before he himself declared that he could no longer rule.

 

Peres, Peres, Peres

 

A main concern in Kadima is not who will get the number two slot in the party, but who will be named the first deputy Prime Minister designated to serve if Sharon is unfit to serve. According to the law, for the first 100 days after the Prime Minister is unfit to serve, the first deputy appointed to replace him serves as acting Prime Minister.  After that, the government elects from the Knesset a member to serve as Prime Minister and then seeks the confidence of the Knesset. If there is a vote of no-confidence in the new Prime Minister, then new elections are held.  It is therefore essential to Shimon Peres to get a real slot on the Knesset list of Kadima and for Sharon to appoint him as first deputy PM, regardless of that slot he holds on the list.  Ehud Olmert who holds the first Deputy PM position today was quite low down on the Likud list in the last elections.  Peres knows that there is no better way to sit in the PM’s chair than by getting there through default.  If he is not a MK he has no chance of ever becoming Prime Minister again. 

 

But Peres, Ramon and Dalia Itzik have a legal hurdle to confront.  According to the rules, if they desert their party to join another with less than 1/3 of the faction, they cannot run in the next elections with the new party.  There is probably some loop-hole in the law that some lawyers have found about deserting after the new elections have been called for and not in mid-term that might allow them to run.  In the interim, before there is a clear legal decision on the issue,  the new web page of Kadima (http://www.kadimasharon.co.il/11-he/Homepage.aspx  - in Hebrew) does not yet include the three former Labour Ministers.  Some Labourites still believe that if Peretz were to call Shimon Peres to return to Labour and to grant him the number 2 slot that he would return.  Peres is capable of anything to ensure that he will have a seat in the next government and if Peretz calls on Shimon to come home and save the party, he might actually do it.

 

Qassams and blue skies

 

Palestinians from various factions continue to launch Qassam rockets into Israel from the areas that Israel withdrew from month four months ago. Since the disengagement some 250 Qassams have hit inside of Israel.  The damage has been negligible from the attacks, yet no government in the world can tolerate having their neighbor bombard their citizens with rockets without a determined response.  The Israeli government initially waited for the Palestinian security forces to prevent the attacks, but in the view of the IDF, the PA has not taken any real action to prevent them.  Many experts in Israel expected Sharon to give the orders for a ground operation, sending troops into the areas where the rockets are being launched from.  Sharon’s spokespeople stated that we did not leave Gaza in order to return.  In my estimation, a ground operation is a strategic reserve that has to be left for them time when there might be human casualties from the Qassams. It is also well known that previous ground operations had very little real effect on stopping the Qassams and had great political, economic and human costs to them. The IDF came up with Operation Bule Skies as their new strategy.  The operation is first taking place in the north of Gaza.  Flyers were sent over northern Gaza by Israeli helicopters informing the public that a sterile strip of land in the north of Gaza, basically covering the areas of the former settlements there would be created every evening by artillery fire.  Anyone penetrating that area would be at direct risk of being hit.  In addition, unmanned aircraft are constantly patrolling the skies above that area with the tactical capacity of hitting anyone there. The first two nights of the operation, from Israel’s standpoint, so far have been successful and no Qassams were launched. 

 

Sderot Mayor Eli Moyal, running in the Likud primaries for a seat in the next Knesset complained that the IDF is not taking the same action against the Qassams that fall in his town.  The rockets that hit Ashkelon were fired from the vacated settlements in the north.  The rockets that hit Sderot are fired from the heavily populated areas of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia.  It is virtually impossible for the IDF to implement the Blue Skies policy in those areas without risking a high civilian casualty rate.  Residents of Sderot have said that if they can’t sleep at night then the people of Beit Hanoun shouldn’t sleep at night either.  Anger is certainly on the rise.  People have very short memories.  The fact is that far fewer Qassams and mortars have been launched post disengagement than prior to the disengagement.  Prior to the disengagement there were also more targets for the attacks with every settlement under fire.  Nonetheless, not a single rocket can be tolerated and as long as the PA is incapable or unwilling to prevent the attacks the IDF will have to find responses such as what is now being tried.

 

There is no doubt that the rockets and mortars present a strategic challenge to Israel. There are those who firmly believe that once the separation barrier in the West Bank is completed, the next round of Israeli-Palestinian violence will be a “ballistic intifada” with rockets falling in the center of Israel from locations in the West Bank.  The costs involved in finding technological solutions to low grade ballistic rockets and missiles like Qassam and Katyushas are much higher than the billions that have already been spent on the Arrow project which has the capabilities of shooting down longer range ballistic missiles like scuds.

 

Interesting future compromises

 

One of Israel’s leading pollsters, Dr. Mina Tzemach of Dahaf, published a poll commissioned by the right-wing Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, directed by Bibi’s former advisor and former Ambassador to the UN Dr. Dore Gold.  53% of the public say that as part of a peace agreement with the Palestinians they are willing to transfer control over the Temple Mount to an international body, as long as Israel maintains control over the Western Wall.  This is quite remarkable considering that the issue is not even on the agenda and no negotiations over Jerusalem’s future are on the horizon.  Similar numbers of Israelis support transferring sovereignty over Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem to Palestinian control – in the framework of a peace agreement.  Strikingly amazing in the poll was that some 80% of Israelis stated that they opposed ceding the Jordan valley to the Palestinians and that the area must remain a buffer between Israel, Palestine and Jordan.  This seems to be a rather outdated opinion not reflecting the major strategic changes on Israel’s eastern front, including the strong peace agreement with Jordan and the fall of Saddam in Iraq.  The public’s response seems to indicate a need to redress this issue in public debate.

 

I have been told by someone very close to Sharon that once a month King Abdallah phones Sharon and reminds him that there should never be Palestinian control over the Jordan River border and that both the security of Israel and the security of Jordan are dependent on the current security arrangements along the River.  I have never found a Jordanian source that can substantiate this position.  On the other hand, every Palestinian I ask about this issue has no problem accepting the idea that the Jordanian King’s monthly phone calls are factual.

 

 

 

Support for Kadima – a referendum on Sharon as leader?

 

The poll also indicated that a large majority of Israelis believe that the disengagement from Gaza was the right thing to do, but less than 20% support similar moves in the West Bank.  This is a very strange result considering the wide public support for Sharon and his Kadima party.  The assumption has been that the public widely supports the idea of future unilateral disengagements.  All polls have indicated that the public would prefer a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians but they also indicate that the public does not believe that a partner on the Palestinian side really exists.  Without a partner, the public believes that once the separation barrier is completed, Israel must remove the isolated settlements east of the barriers into settlement clusters west of the barrier and then the troops should be moved as well. 

 

For the Palestinians, the main question then becomes whether or not Israel would then transfer the vacated areas to Palestinian control or to continue to control them as it does in the Jenin area after removing four settlements there.

 

It has been suggested that the wide public support for Kadima is a kind of referendum for Sharon - his leadership and his achievements – mainly in crushing the intifada and the disengagement from Gaza.  The Israeli public believes that the sharp drop in Israeli casualties in 2005 is a result of the strong arm of Sharon in dealing with Palestinian terror.  The public does not credit Abu Mazen and the internal ceasefire between Palestinian forces with this achievement. Instead, the Israeli public believes that the targeted killing policy enforced by former Shin Bet chief and now Kadima candidate Avi Dichter was the main factor that brought an end or a break to the intifada.

 

 

The Palestinian shadow leadership

 

A very interesting seminar took place this week at the Jerusalem Van Leer institute.  Most of the speakers and many of the participants in the audience were former senior military and security officials, mostly from the intelligence community.  There were former officials from the military intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet in the audience and on the panel.  The subject of the seminar was the post disengagement realities and what’s next?  Most of the panelists seemed to indicate the assessment that Hamas will win the Palestinian elections.  The debate focused on Israeli responses to such a victory.  One interesting thought offered by former Brig. General Shalom Harari was that in case of a Hamas victory, Hamas would probably not choose to hold the positions of Prime Minister and Minister of Interior (dealing with security issues) and that Abu Mazen would be able to appoint his own people.  One scenario raised by at least two of the speakers was that Marwan Barghouthi, number one on the unified fatah list,  serving five life-time sentences for murder would be selected for Prime Minister and that Israel would release him from prison and eventually negotiate with him. 

 

At the time of elections for PA President in January 2005, I asked four different Likud ministers about the possibility of eventually releasing Marwan Barghouthi.  All four of them responded then “it is not a question of “if” but of “when”.  The interesting thing about Barghouthi’s conviction is that he was charged with and convicted of murder, but no where in the conviction or the evidence do they ever actually prove that he himself killed anyone. The most direct evidence presented is a pistol that Barghouthi gave, according to the conviction, to a tanzim activist who killed a Greek Orthodox Priest on the Maaleh Adumin – Jerusalem road, apparently mistaking the driver for an Israeli.  No where in the conviction is Barghouthi actually proven to have “blood on his hands” although he is convicted of murder.  This kind of Talmudic argument might be the kind of claims brought up if and when someone proposes Barghouthi’s release from prison.  One former senior intelligence official commented, off the record, that with all of this talk about Barghouthi’s release, there must be something cooking in the backrooms.