[[Jerusalem Times: Opinion]]


September 3, 2006


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


Committees of investigation


The verdict has yet to come in on who and how the war in the Lebanon will be investigated.  Prime Minister Olmert announced that a Governmental Investigation Committee headed by former Mossad Chief Nahum Admoni would conduct a full investigation.  The Admoni committee would be charged with looking into the functioning of the political and the military decision making echelons as well as the actual functioning of the army throughout the war.  Minister of Defense Peretz had announced two weeks ago that a committee headed by former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shakhak would investigate the functioning of the army.  Now Shakhak has announced the suspension of his committee as it seems that it has little credibility and because the Admoni committee is supposed to do the same thing.


Now Peretz, under pressure from Labour Party members and MK’s has announced his support for the State National Investigation Committee to be headed by and appointed by a Supreme Court Justice.  Peretz probably agreed to this format because he knows that there is a strong majority in the government against it and this way he can come out looking more credible than Prime Minister Olmert.  Both gentlemen have serious credibility problems. 


The civilian protests and strikes for the State National Investigation Committee and for the immediate ousting of Olmert, Peretz and Halutz are losing steam and will probably wind down in the next week or two.  It is hard to explain why the public seems so apathetic.  In my estimation is more a matter of being fed up and in losing faith in government than being apathetic.  The public cares, it just believes that in the end of the day, politicians will not have to pay for their errors, so what’s the point?


Governmental reform and Labour pains


More and more politicians have begun speaking once again in favor of real governmental reform. The system just doesn’t seem to work.  The calls are cutting across party lines  - there are people on the left and the right of the political spectrum who no longer believe that we can continue to have a system of government that requires us to go to new elections every two years.  The loudest calls are coming from people like Avigdor Leiberman who advocate a full Presidential system in which the President would be elected for a five year term of office.  The Parliament would legislate and oversee the work of the Executive Branch – very much modeling the US system, but with one house instead of two. Kadima Minister of Interior Ronnie Baron is also advocating serious reforms, without going into the details that Leiberman has expressed.  It is quite clear that Israel’s system of government is quite unstable as a result of the real conflicts within the society and the issues that the government must deal with.  The upcoming budget debates will further fragment the political system and make the passing of the next budget quite complex and perhaps even impossible.


Where’s the money?


Olmert and Peretz are somewhat linked together because of the war and its outcome, but in the upcoming budget debates, Peretz will have to set himself in opposition to Olmert in order to try to reclaim his leadership position in Labour.  It will be quite difficult for him to wage the battle for a socially sensitive budget at the same time that he is demanding more than 30 billion NIS for the defense budget.  Israel cannot fund a defense budget of that scale and also have money to allocate to social needs.


The Minister of Finance, Avraham Hischzon (Kadima), a close ally and friend of Olmert, has already laid down a trap for Peretz by proposing that the war in Lebanon be funded by reducing the social security payments for children.  This is something that Peretz must oppose because the income from those payments, which have already been severely reduced by Netanyahu, are vital to poor families, that Peretz claims to represent.  Peretz will have to propose an alternative budget cut or tax increase to pay for the war, and this will automatically put him into confrontation with Olmert. 


The battle for Labour party leadership has already begun.  About half of the members of Knesset from Labour see themselves as potential leaders of the party and almost all of them are against Peretz.  So far, Ami Ayalon and Avishay Braverman have declared their intention to contest Peretz for the leadership position.  Other potential candidates are Matan Vilnai, Ephraim Sneh, Ofir Pines, and by the time that internal Labour party elections come around early in the winter, there will be more candidates.


Presidential problems and other matters of corruption


Get prepared for elections for a new President.  It seems more likely than ever that Moshe Katzav will be forced to resign.  According to the press and leaks from the police, an indictment against the President is on the way.  The main question is will the President be indicted for rape or for sexual misconduct.  Katzav went on holiday up north for a few days to get out of the light of the press, but his holiday was just an additional reason for the Israeli paparazzi to follow him and his family.


Olmert is in deep trouble as well with several ongoing investigations against him clouding his ability to concentrate exclusively on governing.  Old charges of corruption concerning bribes and illegal political appointments, keeping popping up against him.  The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tzahi Hanegbi will be going to trial soon on charges against him of illegal political appointees numbering tens of cases where unqualified political cronies were given jobs by the generous Hagebi as Minister of Environment.  Haim Ramon’s trial will be in mid September on charges of sexual misconduct.  It doesn’t look too good in the halls of government, and it smells even worse.


Where are we heading?


There is no political horizon of any kind out there.  No one in government is proposing new directions or initiatives or any new hopes for making this place a better a safer one for its citizens.  The unilateral disengagement from the West Bank is off the agenda.  There are no proposals for a bilateral political process with the Palestinians. It seems very unlikely that a peace process with Lebanon or Syria is on the horizon.  Israel is watching very carefully the developments in Iran and the international community’s responses to the nuclear issue in Iran with great dissatisfaction.  We can be pretty confident that the army has been instructed to work out detailed plans for a military strike against the known targets of nuclear production sites in different parts of Iran.  This, of course, would be the last recourse if all diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran’s nuclearization fail. 


Israel is taking the threats of Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel off the map very seriously. The President of Iran is being compared to Hitler and his threats are being compared to Hitler’s in the early and mid 1930s, that were largely ignored at that time.  Israelis are not very pleased by Kofi Anan’s visit to Iran and to his photo-ops with Ahmadinejad. Likewise, the Israelis were pretty outraged by the EU decision to allow Iran more time to respond to international ultimatums.  Israel is beginning to lose its faith that the international community can deal with this problem effectively.  Israel is more confident that US sanctions will be imposed, but no one here is very convinced that sanctions alone will stop the Iranian nuclear program.


Prisoner negotiations


The Reverend Jessie Jackson made a weekend visit to Jerusalem and Jericho in search of cameras and fame, offering his services to negotiate the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldiers in Lebanon and Gaza.  Jackson and his inter-faith delegation met with Lebanese leaders and even Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Damascus. In Israel he asked to meet with senior officials, it is not clear who he got to see in the end.  On the Palestinian side, he toured the Old City and met with Saeb Arikat in Jericho on Friday. 


The press has been filled with stories about the process for negotiating the release of Gilead Shalit from his captors in Gaza.  Reports have indicated that Israel is willing to release about 1000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange.  Israeli officials have indicated that these reports are coming from Egyptian sources and they appear to be far from the truth. 


A public demonstration in support of the kidnapped soldiers was held in Rabin square last week and was attended by about 100,000 Israelis.  The raising of public awareness on this issue coincides with some new news footage that will be shown this week on Lebanese television (LBC) of the lost Israeli navigator Ron Arad – now 20 years since he was captured and disappeared.  The parents and friends of the three kidnapped soldiers do not want their children to face the same fate as Arad.  Nothing has been heard from any of the abducted soldiers.  Shalit has been absent for about 70 days and Goldwasser and Regev for about 55 days.  To the best of my knowledge, negotiations have not yet formally begun at all with the captors of Shalit simply because no one on the Palestinian sides has been identified who can actually deliver Shalit at the end of the negotiations. Egypt has been trying to play a positive role but no real results have been produced. Regarding Hizbollah, it seems that the Government of Lebanon is empowered to negotiate and the Italians and Germans have both offered their services to conduct the negotiations.  No real progress can be reported yet from any of the soldiers.  At least with regards to Shalit, no political process will begin with the Palestinians until Shalit is back at home, and the continued, almost unnoticed war against Palestinians in Gaza will continue until this issue is resolved.




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