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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

To everything there is a time and a season: Has Olmert's come?

King Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said that there is a time and a season for everything. For Prime Minister Ehud K. Olmert, it seems that every time and season in this country is a time for his coalition partners - including from his own party - to think about withdrawing from his government and causing its downfall. It would be fortunate for the rest of us if it finally happened. But it won't happen without the public forcing it to happen. Here's a quick rundown of who's thinking of leaving and why.

Yesterday, the Olmert-Barak-Livni government announced that it is going to begin negotiations on the 'core issues' with 'moderate' 'Palestinian' President Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazen. The term 'core issues' (sugyot haliba in Hebrew) is code for the big three: borders, Jerusalem and 'refugees.' Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party has said that if there are negotiations on the core issues, he will pull his party and its eleven MK's out of the government. That would only be enough to bring down the government if someone else also walks out, but Olmert apparently doesn't need to worry about that as long as Uncle George is here: Lieberman is willing to bury his head in the sand for at least a few more days:
Lieberman views Tuesday's developments "gravely" and will request explanations from the PM but he understands that the negotiations are not going to begin until after President Bush leaves, sources close to the minister of strategic affairs said. He will not cause a coalition crisis while Bush is in Israel, they said.

Sources close to Olmert said that they didn't expect Lieberman to leave because the development wouldn't change anything, since the negotiating teams have been discussing core issues since the talks commenced.
A second party that you might have thought would leave the government would be Shas with its twelve MK's. Again, their leaving would not be enough to bring down the government, but it could cut the majority back from 78 to 66 out of 120 MK's. But fear not - Shas is not leaving so quickly.

First, the only one of the three core issues on which Shas has expressed a strong opinion is Jerusalem. Second, Olmert offered last week to bribe Shas by bringing back a new Religious Affairs ministry - which Shas would control - which is not the same thing as the old Ministry of Religious Affairs which was done away with by Ariel Sharon's government. I hope none of you expected Shas to turn down political patronage and money for an issue as insignificant as Jerusalem. After all, what's more important: Money and jobs for cronies or our nation's capital? Yesterday, the government postponed a vote on giving Shas its new ministry because Olmert realized that with Yisrael Beiteinu and Labor both set to vote against, he didn't have the votes to get it through the cabinet. But Eli Yishai, Shas' leader, has a positively Clintonesque response to why Olmert need not fear that his party will leave the government:
Shas officials, meanwhile, said that Olmert's announcement would have no impact on them, because they had never threatened to quit the government over talks with the Palestinians. They stressed that they had only threatened to quit if an agreement were reached with the Palestinians.
A lot of good that will do.

Okay, so today, Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, said that the government should not be negotiating with the 'Palestinians':
"Of what use are talks when Kassams continue to land, even this morning, on Sderot and when Israelis are killed by Palestinian security forces in Judea and Samaria?" asked Yosef, adding that "no one is authorized to discuss concessions on Jerusalem."
But that doesn't mean they'll leave if Olmert keeps on talking:
However, Shas officials said that the party's guidelines for when to leave the government were set by the party's mentor, Rabbi Yosef, according to the Torah, and "not based on the mood in the newspapers."
Maybe we Ashkenazim (Jews of western extraction) have a different Torah than the 'Shas officials' (who apparently do not include Rabbi Yosef, which is why I take the liberty of saying this) but my Shulchan Aruch, the codification of Jewish law, has a fifth volume:
A popular Jewish folktale tells of a young student who came to a prominent rabbi to be tested for ordination. The rabbi's first question was "Name the five volumes of the Shulkhan Arukh."

The student, thinking that the rabbi had made a slip of the tongue, named the four volumes, but the rabbi asked him to name the fifth.

"There is no fifth volume," the student said.

"There is indeed," the rabbi said. "Common sense is the fifth volume, and if you don't have it, all your rulings will be of no use, even if you know the other four volumes by heart."
Then there is the Labor party. Labor leader and Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised that if Olmert did not resign when the Winograd Report on the government's handling of the Lebanon War in the Summer of 2006 - now scheduled for January 30 - comes out, Labor will take its nineteen MK's - finally enough to bring down the government - and leave the government. Or will he?
If Israel Beiteinu bolts, the coalition drops from 78 to 67 seats, still more than enough to govern. However, if Barak, wrestling with the question of whether to fulfill his pledge from a few months ago to leave the coalition after the release of the Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War, decides to bolt, it would bring the government down. The Winograd Committee announced on Sunday it would release its long-awaited report on January 30.

Which is why a Lieberman exodus now could be good for Olmert: It would give Barak the excuse he needs - and seemingly wants - to stay in the government. Barak could then ask his supporters how he of all people, as head of the Labor Party, could be the one to finish Lieberman's work and bring down a government that has embarked on a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

Better, he could argue, to stay inside the government despite his pledge and see the diplomatic process through.
In other words, don't look for Barak and Labor to be outside the government come February 1.

Then there are the two factions within Olmert's own Kadima Achora party. Olmert himself has said that he won't resign regardless of what's in the Winograd Report. In Israel, this is known as a "Let me die with the Philistines" strategy after the prophet Samson who - having been shorn of his hair and blinded - literally brought the house down on a Philistine theater performance, committing suicide but taking as many of his enemies with him as possible. (See Judges 16:30).

There are two groups within Kadima that are opposing Olmert's willingness to drag his party down with him. One group would like to install Foreign Minister Tzipi Feigele Livni as Prime Minister, and it became apparent this week that Ehud Barak and Labor are cooperating with this group:
Livni went on an unannounced tour of the West Bank Monday given by the head of the Central Command and other top IDF generals. She was updated about the IDF's recent activities in Nablus, the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure, as well as settlement activity and the illegal outposts.

And she was photographed in a very prime ministerial pose - almost Ariel Sharon-like - looking grim and very serious while scanning the scene and listening attentively to the explanations given by a bevy of generals.

The photographs are key, because they present an image of Livni the public does not know, and one she obviously wants to nurture - Livni the security buff, Livni the military maven.

If anyone really had any doubt about Livni's plans, these pictures should put them to rest. To become prime minister in this country, especially after the Second Lebanon War, security credentials will be necessary. These pictures seem especially designed to create that image.

And pictures like these could not be taken without the cooperation of Defense Minister Ehud Barak himself. One does not just walk around among the generals and troops unannounced - it all had to be coordinated with Barak's Defense Ministry, the latest indication of a fascinating alliance forming between these two contenders for Ehud Olmert's throne.

The thinking among some Machiavellian analysts is that this alliance, between two leading figures in two opposing parties, is meant as much to stop Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu as it is designed to topple Olmert. Livni was already once badly outmaneuvered by the prime minister, and may be hesitant to try her luck again.

But if the upcoming Winograd Committee report is so damning that Olmert is forced from office, then the two may conceivably be interested in a pact to run separately as heads of their respective parties, and then after the election form a coalition that would keep Netanyahu from being anointed prime minister.
The other group in Kadima is a group of ambitious MK's that wants to throw the party open to primaries - no mean feat given that elections would have to take place ninety days after Olmert is forced out (if ever):
Kadima and Labor officials began studying succession laws to determine under what circumstances Olmert's deputy prime minister, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, could succeed him without forcing an election.

However, Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, also of Kadima told Army Radio Monday morning that "if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be forced to resign following the publication of the Winograd report, Kadima will not make his stand-in, [Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni, prime minister. According to the party's constitution, primaries will be held, and I, Meir Sheetrit, intend to be a candidate."

Sheetrit nevertheless added there was no point to discuss, at present, political speculations ahead of the Winograd report's publication.
In other words, neither of those groups is going into action until Olmert is forced to resign by someone else: Mrs. Cohen from Hadera. The 'average Israeli.'

Many of you have asked what it would take to get rid of Olmert. As you can see from going through this rather long post, it would take a lot, and it's not going to happen yet. In three weeks, there may be something to discuss. But it seems that it will take massive demonstrations by the public in the wake of the Winograd Report to make it happen. For Israel's coalition MK's there is never a time or a season for them to place their cabinet ministries and Knesset seats at risk.


At 7:39 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The government's unpopularity, ironically enough, has turned to be the greatest asset for its own survival. If it falls, the people who serve will not return to office. Of course, it could make Olmert dispensable after Winograd, if a way could be found to get rid of him without bringing down the government. That appears to be the preferred option of Olmert's enemies within Kadima and his Labor rival Ehud Barak.


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