Border Control / Barak's promises for disengagement
Two days after his reelection as Labor Party chairman, Ehud Barak's primary concern is the date of the next elections. Ideally, he would like time to settle into the Defense Ministry.
"I promise to invest all my energy and knowledge in strengthening the defense establishment and the Israel Defense Forces, and in restoring Israel's deterrent capability and decisive military power," the new Labor party chairman, Ehud Barak, said in his victory speech after the results of the primaries became known.
"I received a specific promise from Ehud Barak that the Labor Party will not sit in the same government as Ehud Olmert after the final report of the Winograd Committee is released," MK Ophir Pines-Paz, who shifted his support to the Barak campaign recently, told Haaretz. "Even if the report states that the prime minister acted reasonably and there is no reason to unseat him. Barak obtained the consent of all Labor ministers to resign if Olmert does not go."
The Winograd report, which is supposed to be the Olmert government's death notice, will be published in the next two, or at most three months. Exactly how does this timetable fit in with long-term plans such as "restoring Israel's deterrent capability"? Is the defense minister's office a bed-and-breakfast with a Jacuzzi where you go to spend the weekend?
According to Pines-Paz, Barak is counting on the fact that Kadima members will prefer to continue without Olmert and remain in power rather than stay with Olmert and go home. This will make it possible to preserve the integrity of the coalition and transform Barak into the most dominant figure in the government.
And let us presume that Olmert strays or is pushed away from Barak's course (remember that Kadima has no procedure for deposing a party chairman) - who would take his place at the helm of the party and of the government? Ariel Sharon founded Kadima and was chosen as the party's head without any contest. The party's next leader, Olmert, who stepped up to fill in for Sharon, also spared himself the trouble of a primary. Shaul Mofaz, Meir Sheetrit and Roni Bar-On will not let this happen to them a third time, and in order to rid herself of the title "acting head," Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni will have to sweat. Shimon Peres is the only person they would agree to crown as their leader without first contesting the job. All he has to do is promise that he will not run in Kadima's first primary.
And yet, at the height of the public and political storm that broke out in the wake of the publication of the interim report on the shortcomings of the Second Lebanon War, the leaders of Kadima toyed with the idea of appointing Peres as temporary chairman. He did not exactly show them the door. His confidants tried to persuade him not to risk a defeat in the second round of the fight to enter the President's Residence, when he is being presented with the opportunity for a third term in the Prime Minister's Office without having to fight for it. They warned him not to count on Olmert enlisting in his campaign against Reuven Rivlin and Colette Avital. They reminded him of how the prime minister dragged him to Aqaba and then left him out of the meeting with King Abdullah.
Peres, still laboring under the "tireless saboteur" label he was given by Yitzhak Rabin, let slip that he chose the presidential race, "so they won't accuse me of subversion." In the worst case, he would add another defeat to his collection. On the other hand, he was open to the renewed suggestion to replace Ehud O., so Ehud B. would be able to stay in the government with Kadima and continue the noble work of "restoring Israel's deterrent capability and decisive power." But until yesterday morning, no one could know whether in the coming years Peres would be busy hosting receptions in the president's sukka or would remain available to lead the Kadima-Labor wagon.
Therefore, when Barak promised to separate from Olmert, he had to take into account that the plan to disengage from the prime minister without disengaging from the government might not succeed. In that case, Pines-Paz says, it was agreed that, together with all the Labor party ministers, a date for early elections would be set. How early? Late enough to allow Barak to feel at home in the Defense Ministry's new premises. The man who at the last minute closed the gap between himself and the political novice Ami Ayalon will have to work hard to catch Benjamin Netanyahu.
Ehud O. knows there is nothing the amateur watch repairer needs more than time. That is also what Ehud O. craves more than anything else. The second Winograd report will not be released before August. The holidays fall in September and October and then, before you know, it will be 2008 and by then everyone will have forgotten about Winograd. This time will allow them to fix the problems between the Prime Minister's Bureau and the Defense Minister's Bureau. In the Kadima and Labor Party leaderships, there is talk of political cooperation to the point of merging the left-wing party and the right-wing party, which have by now turned into another center party. That is Haim Ramon's most passionate dream.
Between dealing with deterrent capability and engaging in deterrent capability, Barak will have to find time to address an issue with which he is familiar, but which is not his favorite. By order of Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, he has a month left to report to the High Court of Justice on the progress of the plan to evacuate illegal outposts. The decision was made after the State Prosecutor's Office promised at the beginning of May, in the name of outgoing Defense Minister Amir Peretz, that by the end of that month he would present the government with "an orderly plan" for the evacuation for its approval. Many of these outposts are very familiar to Barak. They were set up during his tenure in office, when he served as both prime and defense minister.
Barak inherited 42 illegal outposts, located throughout the West Bank, from Netanyahu. Some of these settlements were established during the terms of Yitzhak Rabin and Peres. Barak, in turn, bequeathed 71 outposts to Sharon. Barak's brief term in office saw the most significant increase in building in the territories since the signing of the Oslo Accords. According to Housing Ministry data, during his government's term, the construction of 2,830 housing units was begun in the territories, of which about 1,800 units constituted public housing. This population sector grew by 12 percent, as opposed to just 1.7 percent natural population growth in Israel. From mid-1999 to the summer of 2000, the Barak government issued 3,500 tenders for construction in settlements. According to a 2002 B'tselem report, the number of construction units that began during the Barak period reached 4,800.
If Barak indeed has not changed, as he himself claims ("I've learnt a lesson, I haven't changed"), the settlers could have stopped worrying yesterday. In October 1999, five months after Barak took office as prime minister and defense minister, he invited the leaders of the Yesha Council of Settlements in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip to meet with him. He told them of his intention to immediately evacuate 15 of the illegal outposts. Back then Haaretz reported that Barak told the Yesha leaders that he "attributes great importance to the settlement endeavor in Judea and Samaria, which was always carried out with the approval of the government and at its behest, but that he considers it of supreme importance to uphold the law."
In an agreement with the settlers, led by Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy of the National Religious Party (NRP), Barak arranged the voluntary evacuation of 10 outposts, including four unpopulated ones. Upon leaving the meeting, Levy applauded the fact that 32 outposts had been "saved." Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor Benny Casriel declared that "this is the first time Yesha leaders are speaking with the prime minister as equals."
All the outposts, including the Maon Farm outpost that had been evacuated by force, reappeared, and some of them even did so during the Barak government's tenure. Sharon promised President George W. Bush in writing that he would dismantle only those outposts added after March 2001, the date when Barak handed over the government to him. The dozens of outposts set up under the auspices of the Barak government, including those built on private Palestinian lands, were in the meantime "laundered."
The ministerial committee for the implementation of Attorney Talia Sasson's report is still paralyzed. The committee chairman, Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann, is busy battling the Supreme Court and the attorney general. His remarks indicate that enforcing the law in the no-man's land beyond the Green Line is not a top priority for him. The Prime Minister's Bureau responded to Friedmann's refusal to head the committee: "We are aware of the problematic situation that has evolved in this context. We intend to work to resolve the matter in the very near future and in coordination with the Labor Party chairman and the defense minister, whoever that may be, once he assumes office in the near future."
Meretz also has reason to rejoice over Barak's victory. A Labor Party headed by the man in part responsible for the Ayalon-Nusseibeh agreement would have eaten away at the remaining left-wing Zionists and those Israeli Arabs who are still loyal to Yossi Beilin's party. "Specifically because Ami is closer to my political outlook," says one Meretz MK, "his election as Labor leader would have hurt us." The security focus of Barak, who created the "there is no partner" approach, and his affection for the settlers will help Meretz present itself as an alternative to the Labor Party. Its leaders hope to attract a substantial share of Ayalon and Pines-Paz's constituents.
The Arab parties were not biting their nails in anticipation of the announcement of the primary's results. They know that the stir created by the Jews over the contest between MKs Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Raleb Majadele over the Arab vote is nothing more than a curiosity; just as they know that there is no connection between the number of Arab Labor Party members (13,500 of the total or 13.5 percent) and their contribution to the party at the ballot box. In the last Knesset elections in 2006, Labor received no more than 35,000 Arab votes, which constitutes 5.5 percent of the minority vote. That is because the new chairman, Amir Peretz, made a special effort to attract the Arab vote with the help of his associates in the workers' councils. In the 2003 elections, Arab voters for the Labor Party numbered 27,000.
The most interesting figure regarding the ties between Barak and the Arabs is the Arab share of the Labor Party's vote in the 2001 elections, which took place under the shadow of the intifada and the October riots in which 13 youths were killed. During these elections, the Labor Party received 18,000 votes from the Arab sector. The declaration that "the Arabs forgave Barak" had no basis. A veteran expert on the subject of Arab Israelis, who is trying to reduce the gap that has emerged between the Arabs and the Labor Party since the October 2000 events, said yesterday that the results of the primary have nothing to do with Arab Israelis' feelings toward Barak, the state and the Labor Party. According to him, they continue to see all three (in that order) as hostile entities.
"The sense of discrimination among the Arabs is so strong that they feel that in order to achieve equal employment opportunities or livelihoods, education and welfare benefits, they have to have close ties to the circles of power." The veteran expert said, "The Arab communities are still stuck in the 1950s, when, in order to get a job at the port or at the Electric Corporation, you had to be a Mapainik and march on May Day carrying a red flag. The Arabs who vote for the Labor Party, and primarily, the party members, the movers and shakers, see the party's ministers and its activists as a tool for their escape from the day-to-day hardships. They support whoever arranges a job for them, hooks them up to the electricity grid, issues tenders for a road or gas agency, provides water and chicken coop allotments or recognition of social status."
The expert anticipates that if the Labor Party does not legislate a multi-year affirmative action and gap reduction plan, it will be left with Ben-Eliezer's hacks and Majadele's clan.