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If Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were free of coalition pressures, he would have approached Meretz Chairman MK Haim Oron immediately after his election as head of the party and invited him to join the government. But this won't happen. "Doing so constitutes too sharp of a left turn," Olmert's people explain. "After the Winograd Report [examining the conduct of the Second Lebanon War], we managed to stabilize the government and reach a balance with Shas. At this point in time, negotiations with Meretz are liable to cause an unnecessary political crisis. And even if Meretz joins and Shas stays, that won't mean that we'll get an additional five disciplined soldiers. [MK] Zahava Gal-On is never going to vote with us, nor will [MK] Ran Cohen."

And so, for now, Meretz remains in the opposition. Shas has calmed down somewhat because nothing is happening on the political front. The battle between the Labor Party and Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann has also cooled down after analgesic mediation efforts by Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Shalom Simhon on behalf of Defense Minister Ehud Barak (see box). With the Knesset recess approaching in about 10 days, Olmert is in reasonably good shape with a stable coalition majority. The winter session, which lasted longer than previous ones, has been truncated by a week and will end at the beginning of April.

Apart from Gal-On and Cohen, everyone was pleased with Oron's being elected Meretz chairman. It is hard not to like him because of who he is, and it is hard not to admire him because of what he is. Politicians from all parties were happy for him.

The election of 68-year-old Oron as chair of an anti-establishment party, supported by a young electorate, is another strange indication of an unexplained phenomenon Israel has been experiencing of late: gerontocracy, a return to rule by the elders. It all started at the beginning of the millennium when Ariel Sharon, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid and Shimon Peres (the current president) conquered the higher political echelons at almost geriatric ages.

Of the three only Peres remains, but Israel, which will soon celebrate its 60th birthday, has taken the 6th decade to its heart with tremendous warmth, also with respect to its leaders: Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak, "Jumes" (Haim Oron), Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu (who will turn 60 next year) and MK Zevulun Orlev of the National Religious Party - all of them are 60-ish or more, and nearly all of them have deposed, or defeated, younger rivals: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in Kadima, MK Silvan Shalom in the Likud, MKs Amir Peretz and Ophir Pines-Paz in Labor, MKs Yossi Beilin and Zahava Gal-On in Meretz.

In contrast to what is happening in politics abroad, especially in Europe, Israel is going backward, embracing white hair. Spaniards elected the young, baby-faced Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, in his 40s, for a second term. France elected 53-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy after the presidency of elderly Jacques Chirac. In the United States, 45-year-old Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is rising like a dirigible, and it looks like he stands a good chance of taking the White House on behalf of the Democratic Party. The Achilles heel of his Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, is his age - 72.

In European politics, Britain's Gordon Brown and Germany's Angela Merkel, both of them in their 50s, look tattered and faded. Brown's rival, MP David Cameron of the Conservative Party, is 42 - more or less the age at which Tony Blair was elected for the first time. The leaders of both Romania and Georgia are in their 30s.

Only Israel has been gripped by some kind of fetish for senior citizens. And so far, we didn't even mention the Pensioners' Party, headed by Minister of Pensioner Affairs Rafi Eitan, who is 80-plus.

Dying to be trendy

"I would be delighted if Meretz were to go back in time to the period when it was hated, when it annoyed and irritated," says Yossi Sarid. "If there are people who hate you, there are people who love you. If there are opponents, there are also supporters."

The fact that this statement was made by Sarid, considered to be a good friend of Jumes, is surprising. After all, the last thing one can say about Oron is that he is annoying or irritating. In Sarid's opinion, Jumes will have to surprise; otherwise Meretz will not revive. "Continuing the current situation of wallowing and treading water is a recipe for calamity. Meretz will have to return to and revive several issues."

Do you have surprises in store, Oron was asked the day after the primaries. "I don't think so," he said in all seriousness, "unless my express statement that we are not joining the government comes as a surprise. Contrary to what everyone has been saying, I have never envisioned such a scenario. Let [Olmert] continue making efforts to keep Shas [in the coalition]. In the meantime he is paying Shas tremendous prices for nothing."

Jumes' next statement sounded like it came straight from the mouth of Gal-On: "I want Meretz to become trendy again," he mused aloud, "but not by means of a public relations firm that will tell us that we should be a bit naughty here and a bit provocative there, but rather as a result of responsibility, seriousness and maturity."

It has become Oron's lot to redefine the role and the identity of Israel's left. He intends to go about doing so in the manner proposed by Sarid, by establishing new-old emphases for Meretz: education, health, society, environmental quality. He will engage less with those political issues with which Meretz is anyhow identified.

"My challenge," he says, "is to break the decline in the number of Knesset seats since 1992. In recent public opinion polls, we have already gone up to six Knesset seats" (the party currently holds five).

Without being prompted, Oron explicitly outlined what differentiates him from Beilin, Meretz's previous chairman. "I have plans, but I don't want to set them out in the newspaper. I want to accomplish things together. I don't do a one-man show. I am not about 'Long live the new king.' I am going to share." And this is exactly what Meretz once said about Yossi Beilin.

Bibi has no regrets

What is most surprising in the latest affair involving Likud MK Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, his wife Sarah and the hotel in London is that the people closest to Netanyahu are continuing to insist that everything was fine; that the bill for the expenses was proper; that a different kind of hotel, a bit more modest, is unthinkable for such a classy couple; and that if Bibi were to embark on a similar mission in similar circumstances today, he would reside at the same hotel, choose a wealthy benefactor to pay for him and allocate some of the expenses to the State of Israel Bonds organization. (Netanyahu claims the state did not pay a single shekel apart from the plane ticket, but this is far from accurate: The Bonds paid NIS 55,000 for Sarah's plane ticket and for part of the hotel expenses. Since the Bonds is an official organization of the State of Israel for raising foreign currency, all the money it raises goes to the state.)

There is only one thing he would not do again: He would not go to the theater during a week when dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians are being killed. That was a mistake, his confidants admit, although they emphasize that he did not see a musical but a serious drama. Were it not for that lousy play, we could have come out of this whole affair relatively unscathed. After all, NIS 3,500 on laundry and dry-cleaning isn't astronomical when you're talking about a prestigious London hotel. Netanyahu gave innumerable television interviews - he needed makeup for every one of them, which meant his suit was ruined by the powder and he is, after all, known as a serial shirt-changer. This explains the inflated bill, which, in any case, he paid out of his own pocket.

Netanyahu's heart is heavy because some Likud members did not rush to defend him in the media. His bureau contacted MK Reuven "Ruby" Rivlin and asked him to give interviews. Ruby refused, on the grounds that he is a member of the Knesset Ethics Committee that looked into the trip. One person who didn't think twice was MK Dr. Yuval Steinitz. He reported for duty at Channel 10's studio last weekend, and wearing that same insulted expression he uses to warn of Egypt's intentions to go to war against Israel, he tried to defend Bibi and Sarah. In both instances, the effect was similar: We were not convinced.

When Bibi's people are asked whom they suspect of leaking the information to Channel 10's Raviv Drucker, they mention several names (which will not be listed here for lack of concrete evidence): someone who used to work in Netanyahu's bureau; present or former staffers at the Israeli Embassy in London; and a certain personage in the Likud. In any case it is clear that ever since several people left Netanyahu's bureau in the wake of publication of the full Winograd Report at the end of January, the dam has burst and the stories are flowing. This would not have happened to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, and he didn't travel the world like a backpacker either.

He doesn't seek out the media, he rarely gives interviews. He prefers to act behind closed doors and not in front of the cameras. He is considered one of the government's most professional and effective ministers. He is in constant contact with his Palestinian counterpart without making a fuss about it and he enjoys the full confidence of the following people: Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, Daniel Friedmann, Labor MK Shelly Yachimovich and Government Secretary Ovad Yehezkel.

During the past week Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Shalom Simhon also became the darling of the Supreme Court and its president, Dorit Beinisch, after he succeeded in intercepting two proposals from Friedmann that were aimed at weakening the status of the Supreme Court: the first proposal tried to diminish the Supreme Court's power on the committee for the appointment of presidents and vice presidents in the courts. The second tried to eliminate the practice of appointing justices with temporary appointments at the Supreme Court.

At first this looked like a nigh impossible mission: Friedmann had enlisted a majority for his proposals in the ministerial committee on legislation. Olmert, who was not interested in a crisis, did not succeed in blocking him. Last weekend angry phone calls went back and forth between Barak, who threatened a coalition crisis, and Olmert. But it all only worked out once Simhon entered the fray.

Until not too long ago Isaac Herzog, who holds the tourism, welfare and social services as well as the diaspora, society and fight against anti-Semitism portfolios, served as Barak's envoy on issues of conflagration in the coalition. But after Herzog got embroiled up to his neck with his miserable proposal to expand the authority of the rabbinical courts, he was in effect replaced by Simhon (who also brought about a freeze on Herzog's law proposal).

These days Simhon is Barak's representative to Olmert and to Government Secretary Yehezkel. Using his personal skills, integrity and political savvy, he has succeeded in preserving the Labor Party's honor with regard to the Supreme Court. And he is doing so without quarreling with either Olmert or Friedmann. On the contrary: In an interview with the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Friedmann referred to Simhon as his best friend at the government table.