In the holiday spirit
Even if nothing is happening between Israel and Syria, media reports about contacts between the two countries are providing fuel for the already raging fire between PM Olmert and opposition leader Netanyahu
Ever so slowly, the blown-up reactor is being pushed aside by the messages that have been exchanged between Israel and Syria under Turkish auspices. Strangely, the voices of those cabinet ministers and Knesset members belonging to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima party, and who are opposed to negotiations with Syria, have been more numerous than those of the opposition. These party members are considering their future in the next Knesset, perhaps back in the ranks of the Likud. Not a single one of Kadima's top brass has mustered the courage to defend the person who is both their party leader and the prime minister.
Olmert and his bureau have neither confirmed nor denied talks with Syria. They have left the headlines to the Turks and the Syrians. Opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud also kept mum, even though every whisper of peace, however faint, makes him feel as though the whole world is against him. Bibi waited for the appropriate opportunity - which presented itself at the Mimouna holiday on Sunday. Accompanied by fellow Likud members, all dressed in white shirts, including the half-hearted Silvan Shalom and Limor Livnat, Netanyahu fed the media a single, calculated and quite predictable sentence, accusing Olmert of diplomatic amateurism and hastening to make dangerous concessions.
Within minutes, the silence the Prime Minister's Bureau had imposed on itself was broken. Olmert's response was just as predictable: He mentioned billionaire Ronald Lauder, who had engaged in contacts with the Syrians on behalf of then prime minister Netanyahu, as well as the latter's concessions to Yasser Arafat. It was obvious that this statement had been formulated in advance, waiting for the right moment. Olmert is seeking to pick a fight with Netanyahu, in order to strengthen his standing as the head of the center-left camp, at the expense of Defense Minister Ehud Barak of the Labor Party.
People in Olmert's circle are not denying that there was a planned ambush. We knew that Bibi would call us "irresponsible" and "amateurish," they say, and we reminded the public of who negotiated with the Syrians before us and who gave land to Arafat. According to Olmert's people, the press release they chose to send out was moderate, relative to other ideas that were brought up, relating to the past. For example, that "[Bibi] the furniture merchant and [Lauder] the cosmetics merchant already sold the Golan." We are not yet in an election campaign. There is no need to waste ammunition.
Anyone who has heard Netanyahu recently in internal discussions is under the impression that he is relating to talks with Syria with considerable seriousness. He even sounds as though he is eulogizing the Palestinian channel in preparation for a battle against Olmert over the Golan.
Someone asked him: What is your plan, what hope are you offering the people? After all, it is impossible to say no to everything. Netanyahu does not think he says no to everything. With respect to the Palestinians, he is prepared to talk to President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad about economic projects that will benefit their people, but not about a permanent status agreement. They are weak and not capable of delivering. Let Abu Mazen kill one Hamasnik, let him start educating his people about peace and then we'll see.
Netanyahu reckons that Olmert is beginning to understand that any goods he delivers from the Palestinians will be ridiculed, even in the prime minister's own camp. Therefore, Olmert is moving to a different arena. It's all about survival. As for Syria, Netanyahu is definitely in favor of peace, but with Israel in control of the Golan Heights. That's what he had Lauder tell the Syrians in 1998.
The Syria of today is different from the Syria of 1998-1999. Back then it wasn't in the grip of Iran and it wasn't trying to produce an atomic bomb. Today, Syria is conducting an active war against us. That is why we have to remain on the Golan. When two armies are fighting a war and want to talk peace, they stop fighting each other. Even President Shimon Peres says that Israel will not give the Golan to the Iranians.
If Netanyahu is elected prime minister, that is what he will tell the Syrians. He will look for confidence-building measures to encourage them to mend their ways, but even then he will not allow them to develop any false hopes. Each time he is astounded anew by Israel's lack of skill in conducting negotiations. Just when Syria is isolated internationally, and is being pushed into a corner, Israel makes a move in its direction, thereby helping Damascus extricate itself from its problems.
Olmert doesn't have an agenda, Netanyahu's confidants say. He is hacking out his path day by day, between spins and ersatz plans. Netanyahu believes Olmert is only surviving because he has bought people in the coalition.
But nothing lasts forever. The prime minister is creating a virtual reality with the Palestinians, is not managing to sell it, and is thus proceeding to create a virtual reality with the Syrians. And maybe, when the day comes, he will combine everything into one package and run with it for election as the prophet of peace.
Bibi has no doubt that elections will be held over an agreement with the Palestinians or any development with the Syrians. But even if the government does approve the agreements Olmert may bring as prime minister, Netanyahu will not be obliged to implement them. After all, the elections will be a plebiscite, a referendum, on any agreement or agreements. A Netanyahu victory is tantamount to the people's rejecting Olmert's proposals.
The last drop
There is so much bad blood between Ehud Barak and Labor MK Amir Peretz, the former party chairman and defense minister, that any additional drop is liable to cause a deluge of biblical proportions. Beyond the mutual loathing, beyond the party issues and the bitter enmity between the two, there is another and sensitive matter that has to do with last September's air strike on Syria.
This week, after the intelligence photographs of the reactor were revealed, even U.S. President George W. Bush officially and publicly confirmed that news of the bombing had been deferred intentionally to prevent the possibility of a regional war. Now the time has come to reveal what they have been saying in Peretz's close circles in recent months: When Barak entered the Defense Ministry and became aware of the Syrian issue, he demanded the move be postponed.
Peretz's confidants are convinced that the reason for doing so was political: Back then, Barak believed that in a few months, after the Winograd report on the Second Lebanon War, or because of criminal entanglements, Olmert would be going home, elections would be held and Barak would be elected. Barak, say Peretz's people, wanted the credit for the operation to be his and his alone.
One of Barak's close associates who heard that story this week responded with astonishment. According to him, when Barak became defense minister and was shown the plans, he found quite a few flaws in them. They flirted too closely, too dangerously, with the possibility of a war. Barak, according to the aide, acted responsibly and with good judgment. If things worked out the way they did, it is largely thanks to him.
No agenda, no identity
Minister Without Portfolio Ami Ayalon was not present at the event at Labor Party House this week at which Amir Peretz's brother-in-law, Ami Shushan, rushed up to Ehud Barak and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, grabbed microphones, and started a shoving them. At the time, Ayalon was attending the funeral of Yossi Harel, the commander of the Exodus. Later he was told what had happened, and he found it hard to believe.
"These struggles between Peres and Barak are destroying the party," Ayalon says. "If it continues like this, we will become irrelevant. We will lose our political power and our ability to influence. With us, every struggle, even a legitimate struggle, all too quickly becomes a brutal fight. We are in bad shape, in a crisis that has been dragging on for years now - one the Labor Party has been trying hard to ignore. If I have ever said that things need to get worse in order to get better, there is no doubt that we are on the right path."
If anyone had hoped that in light of the situation Ayalon would announce that he will run for party chairman again - he has no intention of doing so. He reiterates that he will not run against Barak before the general elections and he suggests that Amir Peretz do the same. "People are giving preference to their own personal struggle over the willingness to help Barak. We need to help him do things differently, even though every one of us is paying a heavy price. I expect that Barak will decentralize authority - that he let us, the people around him, help him."
One needn't be a great expert on Barakology to imagine the defense minister's eyes narrowing in suspicion. What is Ami aiming at, he is no doubt thinking to himself, what is he plotting? Where is all this goodness coming from? How is he planning to screw me?
Despite his declarations of support for Barak, and his clear reservations about Peretz's path, Ayalon says: "I am a lot closer to them [Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni]. And I also feel that my influence on them is not inconsiderable. I met with them often during the five years I was in the National Census [after his retirement from the Shin Bet security service] and I can outline the shifts in their opinions."
Another member of the Labor Knesset faction, who preferred to speak anonymously, surmised this week that if Olmert obtains a reasonable agreement with the Palestinians, and Barak tries to shoot it down, 14 of the Labor faction's 19 members will support Olmert. "This is liable to cause a split inside the faction and to rob it of an agenda and an identity," said the source, who is not affiliated with the party's left wing.