Last Thursday, a Sderot resident named Aliza Amar sustained moderate wounds when a Qassam rocket fired from the Gaza Strip crashed through her tile roof and landed in the kitchen. That evening Eli Moyal, the city's colorful mayor, who had earlier resigned in a live radio broadcast, met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Tel Aviv. After the meeting he withdrew his resignation. The early darkness descended on a frightened, despairing town, in the center of which military correspondents took up positions and broadcast live to the evening television newscasts.
Amid this tense to-do, a small convoy of cars made its way silently and invisibly through the narrow streets. The convoy stopped in front of the home of MK Amir Peretz, the former Labor Party leader and defense minister. A man and a woman emerged from one of the cars; surrounded by bodyguards, they slipped into Peretz's house.
In the hours that followed, around a table laden with Moroccan dishes, the hosts, Amir and Ahlama Peretz, and their guests, Ehud and Aliza Olmert, dined to their heart's content in an exceptionally cordial atmosphere. Around them - in a broader radius, on land, at sea and in the air - the Israel Defense Forces was on high alert. It has to be remembered that the day before, 19 rockets and mortars had slammed into the communities of the "Gaza envelope," so tensions were running high. It was precisely then that the prime minister insisted on following through with the private visit to the Peretzes that had been planned in advance. After all, promises must be kept.
Even though everything was impeccably laid out, Olmert felt a bit uneasy about the situation, and especially about the timing. After all, the prime minister was visiting Sderot on the day that a woman was wounded and her home was ruined. The visit was supposed to be a deep, dark secret. But security is security: The prime minister's bodyguards ordered him to stay close to the reinforced safe room in the house, then to move quickly to the armored car, then to the helicopter and home. Without solidarity visits, without the media.
A senior figure in the Labor Party this week offered an incisive headline for the relations between Olmert and Peretz: "late love." While Peretz was in the government, their relations were marked by quarrels, lengthy periods of mutual silent treatment, and constant mutual suspiciousness. But after their paths parted, in June of this year, when Peretz was replaced by Ehud Barak as party leader, they rediscovered each other. The time apart has been good for them.
Olmert meets frequently with Peretz privately and keeps him abreast of intelligence secrets and security developments. When the relations between the prime minister and the present defense minister deteriorated, Olmert found in Peretz an attentive and sympathetic listener. Olmert also enjoys hearing Peretz attack Barak and urge him to show a warmer attitude toward the negotiations with the Palestinians and the prime minister's political efforts on the eve of Annapolis.
Peretz, for his part, will not soon forget Olmert's testimony before the Winograd Committee, which is examining the Second Lebanon War. In that testimony, made public after Peretz had left the Defense Ministry, Olmert, far from being critical of Peretz's performance, praised him (at least in the uncensored sections). The prime minister's gentlemanly behavior toward Peretz created something of an unofficial alliance, albeit one without political significance, between the two men.
Since Olmert turned his back on the bold political vision of his vice premier and entrusted the negotiations with the Palestinians to Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Haim Ramon has been wandering about the Knesset listlessly and joylessly. If asked whether the rumor that he is on the way out is true, he responds with rolling laughter, Ramon-style.
Since entering politics, Ramon has always looked for a national project to become involved in, always seeking to foment some sort of "breakthrough," be it the National Health Insurance Law, the security fence, the disengagement from Gaza or the "big bang" political scenario. His current project is the promotion of "evacuation-compensation" legislation - a law that would make it possible for West Bank settlers to leave their homes voluntarily, before a permanent settlement is reached with the Palestinians, in return for appropriate compensation.
In advance of Annapolis, Ramon suggested to Olmert that he declare, during his speech at the summit, that the law will be enacted. Olmert demurred: "Not just now," he said. "We'll think about it, check it out." Now, with Olmert's knowledge and consent, Ramon is carrying out a comprehensive feasibility examination, to determine how many votes are guaranteed in the Knesset, who will help with the financing and what political benefits will accrue. Ramon has spoken with representatives of Knesset factions, among them MK Gideon Saar, the Likud faction chair. Saar rejected the idea outright. Ramon offered a compromise: The government will not evacuate all the settler outposts in return for Likud support for the legislation. Saar was still not buying.
At the moment, there does not seem to be majority support for the legislation, but Ramon is talking about submitting the bill in March, at the end of the Knesset's winter session. If Olmert survives his two big tests - the 2008 state budget and the final version of the Winograd Committee report - and if Ramon comes up with a practical plan that has prospects of passing, the prime minister may be open to persuasion.
Just between us, no peace agreement will emerge from the negotiations until the end of 2008. The evacuation-compensation law, in contrast, is a kind of hitkansut ("convergence" or "realignment") by agreement, which is what Olmert sought before the last elections. In the absence of a peace accord, this can be the center of an election campaign. The departure of 30,000 or 40,000 settlers from their homes without clashes and without boiling oil being poured on soldiers' heads - in short, without a national trauma - is a significant political act, and one that will enjoy broad public support.
"I am examining it in depth," Ramon says. "If it will topple the government, we will not go for it. If it will cost $10 billion, we may not be able to pull it off. As for a parliamentary majority: I am told that 10 Kadima MKs will vote against. I'm not so sure. If the prime minister gets actively involved, things will look very different."
In any event, Ramon's efforts will gather momentum only about a month from now, after the dust of the full Winograd report settles. This is Olmert's survival month - next week the state budget, then the visit by President Bush, and in mid-January the report - and Ramon will be there to help him pass the tests safely.
It was riveting this week to hear Yossi Beilin's confidants describe the party he will continue to head until a successor is chosen next March. "A closed, elitist party that hates outsiders, controlled by an old guard that is eager to crown a kibbutznik like Jumis [MK Haim Oron] as its leader. That is why Meretz spews out everyone who is not part of it, and Yossi, even though he is the chairman, is still considered an outsider."
The confidants give direct, undiluted and emotional expression to feelings that Beilin will never admit to having - at least not in this incarnation. If he is angry with his friend, MK Oron, who pulled the party out from under his chair and prompted him to withdraw from the leadership race, Beilin will not say so. At the moment the two have identical interests: Oron needs Beilin's support in the urban sector, in north Tel Aviv, and Beilin will need Oron's kibbutzniks if he decides to run again for a place on Meretz's Knesset list.
But even the confidants admit that their man got a chance and blew it badly. He is affable, intelligent, educated and has a great sense of humor, even at his own expense - but he has failed in every parameter of leadership: He did not consult, did not share his plans and made serious errors of judgment (for example, when he conducted a well-publicized political flirtation with Avigdor Lieberman on the eve of the elections, or when he suggested bombing Syria at the start of the Second Lebanon War). The word is that he was excessively occupied with internal politics and wallowed joyfully in every personal intrigue. Once a Mapainik ...
It has already been noted about Beilin that he is better as No. 2. As Shimon Peres' No. 2, he helped devise the Oslo accords. He possesses one of the most brilliant political minds in the country. In the eyes of the foreign ambassadors here he is a star, outshining most of the cabinet ministers, but his influence on the nitty-gritty of politics is zero. It is hard at this time to imagine a political situation that will bring Beilin back to the decision-making forums that he loves - the cabinet, the inner cabinet, just a whisper from the prime minister's ear.
Beilin's outrageous comment during this week's press conference, at which he announced his resignation as party leader - that his alliance with Oron "pretty well wraps up the primary" - had the expected effect of riling the other two candidates, MKs Ran Cohen and Zahava Gal-On. We heard Cohen again at the beginning of the week, firing in every direction. Gal-On made do with a laconic statement congratulating Beilin on his resignation. She will stay in the race, as will Cohen, but it's clear to her, too, that her chances are slim.
Two weeks ago, she heard the party's founder, Shulamit Aloni, say in a radio interview that the party members should support Oron "because there is a consensus around him." "Shulamit Aloni is talking about a consensus?" Gal-On retorts incredulously. "Since when does she sanctify a consensus? When she headed Meretz and won 12 seats, was she in any consensus? You know, the consensus candidates could bring about a situation in which Meretz will not get enough votes to enter the Knesset. Why should people vote for Meretz when they can vote for Labor or Kadima? When was Meretz's era of glory? When it was courageous, determined, kicking and did not cut corners."
"When I spoke out against the war [in 2006] - that was determination, that was leadership," Gal-On continues. "Obviously, if we had been part of the consensus, I would have been treated differently. My taxi driver always asks me: Why do you talk about Gaza? Why don't you stick to women's affairs? But it is not my heart's desire to be in the consensus. That is not why I entered politics."
Gal-On fumes when she is told she is too extreme, too controversial, and that she is liable to push Meretz below the qualifying threshold to enter the Knesset in the next elections.
"Since when have we become such a tired party, so conservative?" she asks. "That is not what people expect from Meretz. The peace process is not everything. I am involved in human rights, I spoke out about Olmert's corruption. That is what people expect from Meretz - to kick, to infuriate, to lead."
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