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Friday, May 04, 2007

The meaning of last night's protest

Last night's protest in Tel Aviv drew between 150,000 - 250,000 people and there are several articles today that discuss whether or not it was 'relevant.' The office of Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert, which has an interest in dismissing the protest, downplayed it as 'irrelevant.'
Olmert's associates downplayed the rally, saying it was "irrelevant" as long as there was no chance of the Knesset unseating the prime minister. They said the unity among Right and Left in the square was meaningless if the two sides could not agree on an alternative to Olmert.

"We have already known what the public thought for a long time because of the polls," a source close to Olmert said. "It doesn't matter how many people came to the square, because decisions are made in the Knesset and not in demonstrations, because we are not a banana republic. And anyway, public opinion will soon flip in our favor."
It would be easy to dismiss the self-interested comments of Olmert's aides, were they not echoed from other quarters in the political spectrum. For example the leftist Peace Piece by Piece Now organization was similarly critical of the rally:
“The demonstration against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz was juvenile, one-dimensional and offered no alternative,” Peace Now director Yariv Oppenheimer told Ynet following Thursday’s mass rally at Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.

“To say ‘Olmert go home’ without offering an alternative is not a message, but blindness that I refuse to be a part of,” he said.
But Oppenheimer also has an interest in being dismissive: If elections were held today, it is clear that the Likud and Binyamin Netanyahu would be the big winners:
The Peace Now director said Israel’s Right was taking advantage of the public outcry to call for early elections.

“I do not adhere to the notion that if Olmert resigns the country’s problems will be resolved,” Oppenheimer said. “If Olmert says, ‘I am staying on as prime minister and advancing the peace process’ – that’s okay.”
In other words, if Olmert implements the left's agenda, regardless of how corrupt he is and how many more soldiers and civilians will die needlessly, all will be forgiven as far as Oppenheimer is concerned.

But it's not just the left-most quarters in Israeli society that criticized last night's rally. Late last night, I had an email forwarded to me by Harvey in Efrat, which claims that
Baruch Marzel told the right wing religious public not to go. Did you hear what some of the speakers said? Meir Shalev said: All our problems are because of the "occupation" There was so much garbage and nonsense spewed at that rally. They were not demonstrating against Oslo unfortunately. It was almost an anti-war rally; that we should not have gone to war with Hizbolla at our doorstep. Uzi Dayan, the organizer, is left wing.
As far as I am concerned, they are all wrong. First, because it looks like the rally may yet have tangible results. The Labor party is considering quitting the government. In fact, Labor's central committee will vote on quitting next Sunday, May 13.
Labor secretary general Eitan Cabel, who resigned from the cabinet this week, said he would convene the party's central committee on May 13 to vote on quitting the government.

The central committee will be asked to vote on proposals ruling out a partnership in an Olmert-headed coalition, but not in a government headed by another Kadima member.

"There is no reason not to cooperate with another candidate from Kadima," said MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who initiated the central committee meeting. "We won't interfere with Kadima's decision as long as it offers a worthy alternative to Olmert."
If Labor quits the government, two important consequences will result. First, if Labor quits, it could trigger a domino effect of other parties quitting. Second, if Labor quits, Olmert will not have the support to carry out the leftist agenda that he wants to carry out and that he may have to carry out in order to have a chance of keeping the far left parties from voting no confidence in him. And if Kadima replaces Olmert - whether with Livni or with someone else - there is no guarantee that other coalition partners will go along.

A second consequence of last night's demonstration is that Olmert's chances of surviving a no confidence motion this Monday are looking dicey.
Olmert, who managed to stymie the rebellion against him in his party, faces another test in the Knesset next Monday in a no-confidence vote because of the Winograd report.

Certain Labor MKs intend to stay away from the plenum or vote for the no-confidence motion.

Pines said he would not vote for the government. "I believe I won't be alone," he said.

MK Shelly Yachimovich is also determined not to support the government in the vote and is considering what course to take. On Thursday, Yachimovich called on Defense Minister Amir Peretz to resign and distinguish himself from what she called the disgraceful behavior of the prime minister. Peretz himself may join the initiative to abandon Olmert's government.

Cabel and MK Ami Ayalon are also deliberating.

MK Marina Solodkin (Kadima) said she too would not support the government.

Olmert's associates checked the power balance and concluded that 10 Labor MKs at the most might revolt against toeing the party line, claiming the vote was on a matter of principle.

In any case Olmert will have a large majority, his aides said.
But will he? If 10 Labor MK's vote against him, and Solodkin and Avigdor Yitzchaki vote against him, he's down from 78 MK's to 66. Tzipi Feigele Livni won't vote against him because she would lose her cabinet seat. But I find it hard to believe that all of Yisrael Beiteinu and Shas will toe the line. And so does Olmert, who is trying to woo United Torah Judaism MK's to support his government from outside the coalition.

But there are two other reasons why I believe that last night's rally will have an effect. First, because it looks like regardless of what happens on May 13, Labor will be out of the government after its primaries on May 28:
Peretz's ally in the Knesset, MK Shelly Yacimovich, told Israel Radio she had urged him to resign because "sometimes you have to do things because they are right" and to "separate himself from the shameful behavior of the other politicians."

Yacimovich said she would not support Peretz in the May 28 Labor primary if he did not quit.

Labor leadership candidates Ami Ayalon, Ophir Paz-Pines and Danny Yatom have ruled out joining an Olmert-led government, while Peretz and former prime minister Ehud Barak have not clarified their position on the matter.

"There is no possible way I'd sit in an Olmert government," Ayalon told The Jerusalem Post at the demonstration. "I'll do everything possible to prevent Labor from sitting together with Olmert. I don't think he'll survive the final report. His only goal is to keep his chair, and this leadership will lead us nowhere."

Barak will likely be forced to give his opinion on whether Olmert should resign and whether he would join his cabinet when the Labor central committee convenes on May 13. Labor sources said Barak had met with three Labor ministers who support his candidacy and they promised they would resign their posts if he requested they do so.

Influential United Kibbutz Movement head Ze'ev Shore on Thursday called on the Labor candidates to announce that they would keep Labor in the government. If Labor left the government, Olmert would be left with a minority coalition of 59 MKs and might have to initiate early elections, he said.
But the more important reason why last night's rally will and should have an effect is because it's what most of Israel wants. For too long, this country's politics have been dominated by ideological purists of both right and left, who often cut off their noses to spite their faces by deciding that someone who is close to them ideologically is not pure enough. Probably the best example of this was the 1992 election, which was lost by the right to Yitzchak Rabin and Labor because all the ideological purists divided their votes. This time, enough Israelis want the same thing to prevent the ideological hardliners from preventing it. The only questions are how long it will take and how much worse a position Olmert will put the country into as a result.


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