"So," someone said to Avigdor Lieberman this week as it became increasingly clear that the Annapolis summit had been shrunk, shredded and emptied of any meaningful core issues, "you were able to bend the prime minister to your will."
"I did no such thing," Lieberman protested with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. "I merely helped him clarify his ideas." This "clarification" process, to which Ehud Olmert has been subjected in the past couple of months by two of his coalition partners, Yisrael Beiteinu's Lieberman and Shas' Eli Yishai, has been intensive, unyielding, partially coordinated and apparently very effective. This week, both were celebrating their victory, each in his own way.
Paradoxically, for them, the "Annapolis declaration" that will eventually be made will be a double blessing: It will leave them in their cabinet seats, with all the goodies that go with that, and will also allow them to boast to their voters about their targeted assassination of the summit - to which, by the time of this writing, official invitations had yet to be issued. (The joke making the rounds in right-wing circles these days is: "Why haven't invitations been issued for the summit yet? Because you send out wedding invitations two months ahead of time, but invites to a funeral only go out the day before.")
People who have spoken with Lieberman, the minister of strategic affairs, during the last few days got the impression that he is taking most of the credit himself for transforming Annapolis from a formative event in the history of the Middle East to a "get-together" lasting just a few hours, which is supposed to "restart" lengthy negotiations on a final status accord. In private meetings, Lieberman describes his original plan of action, from the time the idea for this summit first debuted amid great fanfare: He was the one who insisted, both in talks with Olmert, EU envoy Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her associate David Welch, and in cabinet meetings, that Israel must make any move contingent upon implementation of the first stage of the road map, which calls for the Palestinian Authority to eliminate the terror infrastructure.
Yes, indeed, the man who once voted against the road map now considers it a "great asset," because he understands that the first stage will never be implemented, the Palestinians will never combat terror and thus Israel will be relieved of the obligation to make any move of its own. He was also the one who prevented Olmert from committing himself to evacuating the illegal settler outposts, arguing that it would "hurt national strength." He was the one who first brought up the demand that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a difficult thing to agree to. And he was the one who foiled Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's clever idea of holding "conditional negotiations" - i.e., the concept that Israel and the Palestinians would conduct negotiations and reach agreements, but their implementation would be conditional on the Palestinians' fulfillment of the road map's first stage. No way that's going to happen, said Lieberman. The moment we reach an agreement, the world will be pressing us to start evacuating settlements.
A year after Lieberman's surprising entry into the Olmert government, which was battered and limping then, following the Second Lebanon War, it seems that the main strategic threat being fought by the minister for strategic affairs is the Annapolis summit. Now Lieberman is preparing for "the final battle": He hopes to get a decision passed at next week's cabinet meeting, the last one before Annapolis, which states that no negotiations may begin before the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state. This is the final shackle with which Lieberman wishes to restrain and weigh down Olmert before his departure. With this kind of excess baggage, the prime minister's plane might not even make it off the ground. There may be no point to a summit that is already starting to look like a farce. "Let him (Olmert) go," say people in Lieberman's circle.
On Monday evening, Shas leader Eli Yishai was a panelist at an event held in Kfar Sava in honor of the publication of journalist Amir Rappaport's book "Esh 'al kohoteinu" ("Fire on our Forces") about the Second Lebanon War. At around 10 P.M., a gray Mazda 6 pulled up next to Yishai's government van. Yishai exited the building where the event was held and got into his vehicle. Then the Mazda's doors opened. Likud faction chairman MK Gideon Sa'ar got out, slipped into Yishai's vehicle and the two sped off into the darkness, with only a driver and bodyguard.
It was this drive that gave rise to the cooperation between Shas and the Likud, as became evident two days ago when the Knesset plenum voted on Sa'ar's bill, stipulating that any change in Jerusalem's boundaries must be supported by a majority of 80 MKs. But this night ride may not even have been necessary. Olmert and his coalition didn't stand a chance on the matter anyway. In this Knesset, as was true for its predecessors, any bill, initiative or petition relating to "Jerusalem" immediately wins a passionate parliamentary majority and the singing of "Hatikva." Thus, Sa'ar's bill, whose entire purpose was to show up "the emperor" Olmert, in all his coalition nakedness, on the eve of Annapolis, was eagerly supported by Yisrael Beiteinu and MKs from Kadima and the Pensioners' Party, too.
Yishai chose to adopt the quiet approach. He declined to establish an opposition front with Lieberman. Instead, he conveyed his threatening messages to Olmert in one-on-one conversations and through the ultra-Orthodox press, usually in the name of "Shas officials." And when Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon informed the media of his audacious plan concerning the core issues, Yishai gave the green light for a renewal of meetings between Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef and Benjamin Netanyahu. This was a typical Shas-style move - designed to signal to Olmert that he had better cool it, and that Shas has other options.
Now that Shas is confident that the Annapolis danger has passed, it also wishes to gain something from the whole business: Close associates of Yishai relate that he informed Olmert in a private conversation, a few weeks ago, that if Annapolis were to result in "agreements or even partial agreements on the matter of Jerusalem, the Council of Torah Sages will convene immediately upon the prime minister's return and decide that the party should resign from the coalition." In fact, say some in Yishai's circle, a month ago, when Yishai was about to meet with Secretary Rice, Olmert sent him a note at the cabinet meeting: "Eli," Olmert wrote, "I know you have a meeting with Rice. I'm telling you that at the summit only frameworks will be discussed, not content." It was signed "E." But Yishai was not reassured. Quite the contrary: During the past month, his comments have become more pointed and he also arranged another meeting between Netanyahu and Rabbi Yosef (which was held this past Monday).
Annapolis is not really the problem, says Shas. The problem is the budget. Children's allowances are the problem and Shas will not be satisfied with "no cuts to the allowances." It will demand an increase.
Actually, the past week has seen an interesting phenomenon in the Knesset: Olmert's coalition, which in the first five weeks of the winter session notched a number of achievements and victories, has begun a process of rearrangement into sub-coalitions: a political coalition, as shown in the vote on the proposed amendment to the Basic Law on Jerusalem, and a social-economic coalition, comprised of three parties (Labor, Shas and the Pensioners), which is poised to make life miserable for Olmert and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On in the budget debates. The supportive reactions brought on by the prime minister's diagnosis of prostate cancer are fast fading from memory.
The prevailing feeling on Wednesday in the High Court of Justice, where petitions against the Winograd Committee were being heard, was that this saga is nearing its end and that the full report will be submitted in early January, 2008, without any personal findings or conclusions. Attention will then focus on Defense Minister and Labor Party Chairman Ehud Barak, who promised during his primaries campaign "to end the partnership with Olmert" if the prime minister does not resign from his post by the time the full Winograd report is published. This commitment, which was recorded on tape and film, will soon come back to haunt Barak.
How ironic: For many months during that campaign Barak was careful to keep quiet. The only time he opened his mouth and made that declaration, to secure the support of Ophir Pines-Paz, he tied a rope around his neck. Is it any wonder that Barak, the bold and most highly decorated fighter in the IDF, is afraid to step into a TV studio these days?
All the excuses and all the explanations won't spare him the agony that awaits him in the media, which will repeatedly replay his remarks from that fateful June, 2007 press conference. "Wait a minute," says MK Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a loyal member of the Barak camp, who is opposed to leaving the government. "That's not the only thing Barak said. Check what else he said." We checked. As it happens, Barak also said that Labor under his leadership "would act to establish a new government in the present Knesset, or alternatively, act to set a date for early elections." "Exactly," says Ben-Eliezer. "We'll call on Kadima to replace Olmert with someone else."
And if Kadima does not comply? "Then we'll carry out the third part of Barak's declaration," says Ben-Eliezer. "And we'll begin making contacts in anticipation of early elections. We'll talk with the factions." But in the Knesset there is no majority for early elections. "True," Ben-Eliezer admits with a sigh. Then what will you do? "We'll have to stay in the government," he replies. "Until we decide that it's right for us to resign. There won't be any elections in 2008."
Ben-Eliezer's view appears to be shared by many others in Labor. The main question, though, concerns Barak's position. Apparently, he himself doesn't know yet. He's preoccupied with the affairs of his ministry and the occasional dustups with Olmert. He'll decide once the Winograd report is released. Lately, when people have asked him what he'll do when the day of reckoning arrives, he says: "I'll honor my commitments." The question is - which one of them?
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