[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


November 18, 2005


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


Political tsunami


The overthrow of Shimon Peres, the symbol of stagnation and anachronism in the Labour party, and the election of Amir Peretz, have thrown the Israeli political scene into a tidal wave of activity. The Labour party, facing near death, has returned to the scene as the dynamo of Israeli politics.  Some of Amir’s colleagues (known to be professional back-stabbers to more than one of their other colleagues) have been trashing Amir’s behavior since his election by calling him a dictator and accusing him of numerous political errors, but none of these have spoken on the record.  This too is a new trend for the Labour party. In the past the contestants for the leadership position had no problem to wield their knives in public and thrust them into the backs of anyone who got in their way (see: Ben Eliezer, Burg, Mitzna and even Peres-Rabin). On the record, Peretz is gaining high marks from both his colleagues and from political analysts.


Peretz’s unusual move of getting all of the Labour party Ministers to sign resignation letters and to deposit them into Peretz’s hands prior to his meeting with Sharon proved both Peretz’s leadership as well as his determination to bring a quick end to the current government. Sharon too was impressed with the way that Peretz his handling the situation – challenging Sharon’s own cunningness, Peretz has apparently succeeded in forcing an early agreed date for new elections on Sharon.  Peretz first reached agreements with all of the opposition forces on bringing down the government and reaching agreement on a date for new elections.  The fait accompli was presented to Sharon at their meeting and now it’s only a matter of finding the right date. They have both agreed that elections will be held between the end of February and the end of March 2006.


The race is off and running


Sharon is now faced with one of the most difficult choices of his long roller-coast like political career – to stay in the Likud or to leave.  The polls on the question are not particularly encouraging him to leave.  In one of the most recent polls conducted for Yediot Ahronot, if Sharon leads the Likud in the elections he will get about 35 seats, however if he forms a new party he will only get 28.  Peretz leading Labour will also get 28 seats.  The good news is that with Bibi at the steering wheel of the Likud they only get 18 seats.


Sharon will be meeting over the weekend with his closest friends and advisors to make a decision.  According to reports, the majority is leaning towards leaving the Likud.  They have no doubt that Sharon would win a first round primary in the Likud against Bibi, the problem is that the front runners in the Likud list will continue to be the trouble makers and with them in the lead, Sharon will have little or no ability to maneuver any kind of political peace process vis-ŕ-vis the Palestinians after elections. If it is true that Sharon wishes to forge forward on the peace front, the Likud is not the place for him to stay. But Sharon is equally concerned with his ability to form the new party and to raise sufficient funds to have a chance against Labour’s new growing popularity.  Attorney General Manny Mazuz has already weighed in that the fundraising dinner held in NY in August by millionaire Nina Rosenwald was illegal – if the funds go for the new party.  Seats at the dinner went for $10,000 a plate – Israeli campaign law limits contributions to some $7800 per family.


Sharon’s announcement of this decision is expected to come early next week.  If Sharon does bolt the Likud, some of the Likud political personalities will have to make the career decision of their life.  It is estimated that 10-15 Likud MK’s would leave the Likud to join Sharon. Silvan Shalom, completing a very successful visit in Tunisia including a very statesman-like series of meetings with Mahmoud Abbas and Kofi Annan suggested that if Sharon does leave the Likud, he would probably toss his candidacy in the race against Bibi, Landau, Feiglin and maybe others.


Tough race ahead


Whoever faces Peretz in the race will have to contend with the rising popularity of the Moroccan born workers’ leader from Sderot.  Mazal Mualem from Haaretz reported that the “buzz” word today amongst the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan origin is “dialena” meaning “one of our own”.  This term has not been used lightly regarding Israeli politics – David Levy had it in his early years when Menechem Begin launched his career. Now Peretz is arousing deep emotional responses from this community that has traditionally voted for the Likud and Shas and has seen Labour as the arch-evil empire. Shifting these votes from Likud and Shas to Labour could actually bring about the unthinkable possibility of a Labour victory in the elections.  Peretz exhibits the right spirit – he is not arrogant (like Barak), he is one of the people – getting stuck in a traffic jam on his way to meet Sharon, he got out of the car and walked the rest of the way – greeting people all along with hugs and handshakes – waving to the passing cars who cheered him on. He is not a peace elitists like Peres or the Meretz folks – Peretz says that he will convince the working class majority in Israel that peace is not an elitist concept but one that will bring all Israelis a better life, including those who never tasted the fruits of peace.


Internal Labour pains


Labour Minister of Interior Ofir Pines-Paz, one of the most popular and successful Labour party leaders appointed MK Amram Mitzna to take on the job of acting mayor of Yeruham after the Ministry of Interior fired the mayor for mismanagement. Mitzna jumped at the opportunity to leave the Knesset arena where he had drifted into total anonymity after resigning the post of Labour party leader. Now with a space open in the Knesset, the next on the Labour list is former Minister Salah Tarif, a felon convicted of political bribery.  This week the High Court will decide if Tarif is legally able to fulfill the position of Member of Knesset. If Tarif falls, the next on the list is former MK Sofa Landver who has already announced her intention to support right-wing extremist Avigdor Leiberman in the next elections. Could she actually take the seat from the Labour party – the answer is yes – there is no shame in Israeli politics.


Likud suffers from hemorrhoids as well


Caught on close-circuit Knesset television cameras, suspected double-voter MK Yehiel Hazan , the Likud leader of the settlers lobby in Knesset was seen walking off with some of the panels of the electronic voting system that was recently replaced by a new system. Exactly why he wanted the equipment is not clear – what could he prove from it?  What is clear is that when asked about it, he lied and then when confronted that there was film showing him taking the equipment – he lied again.  Rivlin, the speaker of the House, decided not to bring the matter to the police - he believes that would only do further damage to the image of the Knesset in the eyes of the public (and Rivlin is at the end of the day a member of the Likud). If only there was a quick and efficient healing medicine for all of these pains in the …


Saving the Negev and the Galilee


Shortly after Shimon Peres was given the portfolio from Sharon as Minister for the development of the Negev and the Galilee I had a meeting with Peres’ senior staff including his very qualified and dynamic Director-General Efrat Duvdivani. Asked for my advice, I said that the only way to succeed in the mission is to include the Arab populations of both of these areas as full and equal partners in whatever development schemes are advanced. Only by including all of the citizens in the benefits of development would the plans actually achieve real results that would significantly improve the quality of life in the whole country.  I said that Peres was given an opportunity to prove that he could do things differently and that his ideology could be turned into policy.  But Peres’ ideology must be more of the same old stuff of discrimination and blindness. The plans announced by Sharon and Peres this week for the development of the Negev apparently do not include any real participation of the Bedouins, instead, once again, according to the plan, the State will decide what is best for them and will move them around the area as little chess pieces on a large board.  Watch out for the coming Bedouin intifada. Shame on you Shimon.