[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]
May 15, 2006
This week in Israel….. behind the news with Gershon Baskin
This column is a little late getting out this week, my apologies (GB).
We have a government?
The new government was off to a very shaky start this past week. The first test of the new coalition was in getting the 2006 budget passed. According to Israeli law, the budget is supposed to be past by the end of December each year. If it is not passed then, they are allowed another three months to try to get an approved budget. This year, due to the elections, there was an additional extension awarded until the end of May. The coalition agreement between the various parties stipulated that all coalition members would vote for the first reading of the budget and then changes, according to the coalition agreement, would be made in committee before going back to the plenary for the second and final readings. The Labor party and the Government experienced their first rebellion when social activists Shelly Yechimovitch and Yoram Martziano – representing the poor neighborhoods and Nadia Hilo, representing the Arab sector, said that they could allow themselves to vote for a budget prepared by Bibi Netanyahu. They had good reason not to vote for that budget, but all three, newcomers to the Knesset, should have also understood that there are rules to coalition politics. In the end, Nadia Hilo voted with her party and Yechimovitch and Martziano didn’t show up to vote.
Questions were raised whether or not party leader, Amir Peretz allowed these new comers to rebel because he cannot or if they acted on their own. Yechimovitzh is considered one of the closed allies of Peretz and it seems unlikely that she would act on this without the approval of Peretz. The budget did of course pass the first reading and now will be debated and argued about in the Finance Committee.
Who’s in charge?
The budget fiasco was only the first of more to come. On a much more important issue, there seems to be a total lack of sync between Olmert and Peretz. The Ministry of Defense announced that 50 million NIS of withheld Palestinian tax funds collected by Israel would be released for urgent Palestinian humanitarian needs. The television news programs and been full of stories documenting the collapse of the Palestinian health system. Palestinian hospitals are completely left without medication and equipment and patients are beginning to die from illnesses that are easily dealt with, if resources are available. Peretz was surprised to find out that the PM’s office announced that no decision to use frozen Palestinian funds had been reached and the issue was removed from the agenda of the Cabinet on Sunday morning. Peretz’s office issued a statement attacking Olmert for put “spins” on issues rather than dealing with them.
Peretz is quite intent on reviewing all of the policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians that were undertaken by his predecessor and it seems that there is quite a bit of nervousness in the PM’s office about Peretz pulling the government to the left. Peretz has been pushing Olmert to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas while Olmert has removed this from his agenda as well.
On the fight against terrorism, Peretz seems to be giving in to all of the Generals by continuing the aggressive attacks against Palestinians. So far more than 5000 rounds of artillery fire have been shot at northern Gaza with no results in stopping the launching of Qassam rockets. This past week more than 10 Palestinian militants from the Islamic Jihad have been killed by the IDF with Jihad now, once again, swearing revenge. It has been reported that the Islamic Jihad has now also targeted Mahmoud Abbas for assassination.
Peretz is allowing the generals to continue with their aggressive policies mainly to build his image as a tough defense minister and also because the Palestinians have not ceased their efforts to smuggle more weapons and explosives into Gaza. The Israeli navy captured two ships in one week carrying loads of TNT and weapons headed for Gaza.
Off to Washington
Olmert will be off to meet with Bush next week. His top advisors left already to prepare the visit. Olmert’s main mission is to win approval from Bush to move ahead with the next unilateral plans for convergence. These seems to be some division in DC between State and the NSC on this issue with State pushing for some kind of engagement with Abbas while the NSC believes that Abbas cannot deliver anything, so why waste the time? With Bush at an all time low in popularity, it seems unlikely that he will do anything but embrace Olmert. While Bush and Olmert will have some very friendly photo-ops, it is unlikely that the US President will agree to Israel setting border unilaterally. But Bush is likely to support Israeli withdrawals from occupied territories. Bush will also restate his firm support for the boycott of Hamas and for Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism. Bush may encourage Olmert to at least appear that he is negotiating with Abbas, but there is unlikely to be clear demands to really do so.
From Olmert’s vantage point, it does not seem logical that he really expects Bush to give full backing to the Israeli unilateral plan. The Americans, he knows, are clear on the point that Israel should not build additional settlements in the Jerusalem areas in particular. The Americans are keeping a watchful eye on the E1 zone between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim, which Olmert says that he is committed to develop. It is also hard to image that the US will agree to Israeli annexation of Ariel, a city 25 kilometers inside of the West Bank.
Olmert is clearly not taking the possibility of negotiation with Abbas seriously. He has established a committee to plan the convergence, but he has not appointed any committee to plan a negotiating strategy. Without an American push on engagement, it is unlikely that Olmert will take seriously the possibility of entering into negotiations with Abbas. The US has minimized the political role of the Quartet which is now mainly working on the development of an alternative mechanism to support Palestinian humanitarian needs. The other members of the Quartet may realize that the humanitarian crisis is really only a manifestation of a political crisis, but they cannot take actions that go against US policies.
Widening the coalition?
The talks with Yehadut Hatorah have reached a temporary deadlock with a difference of opinion emerging between the two parts of the party. Degel Hatorah leaders, Ravitz and Gafny, have agreed to a plan that would grant 500 NIS a month to large families – their main coalition demands, while Agudat Yisrael leader, Meir Porush, has yet to sign on. Most observers believe that Olmert will have to fork out considerably more money to get the ultra-orthodox on board. There is more money available, as analysts have said that there is a 12 billion NIS tax windfall in the budget. If the government had some real decency, they would immediately fork out money to enlarge the basket of approved medications which have been left out. Continual demonstrations are being held in front of the Knesset to demand that additional life-saving medications be immediately added, but campaign season is over and very few MKs and Members of the Government seem to care about these important issues.
The talks with Meretz are frozen for the time being. This is quite curious because it is clear that Meretz will eventually support the unilateral withdrawals from the West Bank, while it is quite uncertain if the two Orthodox parties – Yehadut Hatorah and Shas will remain in the government. Minister of Justice Haim Ramon claims that they have a Jewish majority of 70 seats in support of further withdrawals, in addition to ten Arab votes. My math comes out with different numbers and I would recommend to Olmert not to count on the Arab votes if the convergence will further strengthen Hamas and weaken Abbas.
Gershon Baskin is the Co-CEO of IPCRI – the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. www.ipcri.org