It's not only the portfolios
When Benjamin Netanyahu used Yasser Arafat's coffin and George W. Bush's victory to revoke his ultimatum regarding the referendum, his critics said these were "just excuses to use to climb down from his high horse." When Shimon Peres says that Abu Mazen's expected election and Shinui's departure will change the political situation, opponents to the unity government argue that Labor's chairman has found excuses to get back into the government at Ehud Barak's expense.
Let us assume that the motive of both men, as unusual as this may be for politicians, is personal. This is not enough to detract one iota from the importance of the events just mentioned. If indeed the circumstances that provide a chance for changing reality have developed, the interests of one minister or another and the whims of one functionary or another are irrelevant.
In its special edition entitled "The World in 2005," The Economist predicts that as far as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is concerned, next year will not be the same as this year. According to the important weekly's assessment, if Bush takes time off from the Iraq crisis, which has led him to treat Ariel Sharon with kid gloves, he will feel a growing need to pressure Israel to accompany the disengagement from Gaza with a pullout from the West Bank. This pressure, according to The Economist, will be much more crucial in the event of an American failure in Iraq, which will require the United States to rehabilitate its credibility in the Arab and Moslem world.
Hosni Mubarak's reconciliation efforts with Sharon, which are getting high marks in the White House, indicate that Cairo also predicts that, with respect to the crisis in the territories, the first year in Bush's second term will not resemble the previous one. According to Foreign Minister Miguel Moratinos of Spain, who visited Israel a few days ago, the European Union is pushing the Americans not to let Sharon miss the opportunity to replace Arafat with a pragmatic Palestinian leadership. A vote in the Likud convention this week against adding Labor to the government will be seen in the world as an excuse to sabotage the elections in the territories and thwart the disengagement plan and the resumption of talks on a permanent settlement.
Labor's situation has also altered since the previous Likud convention kicked the party out. The departure of Shinui's 15 MKs from the coalition has eliminated the dubious term "safety net" - i.e., the option of supporting the disengagement from the opposition benches. In real terms, Labor's relative power in a new unity government could turn it into a more significant force than it was, when it served as a rubber stamp to Sharon's occupation policy and paralysis in the previous unity government.
Peres did well to give up the foreign affairs portfolio. Now he must thank Silvan Shalom for his "generous" offer to entrust Labor's chairman with the disengagement portfolio. The settlers and their friends in the Knesset and even in the cabinet will be pleased to get their old punching bag, Peres, out of the mothballs. Dismantling the settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank and the struggle with the settlers are Sharon's babies. The Labor ministers' job will be to make sure the prime minister does not resume his habit of leaving them to carry the "defeatist" message while he returns to the right wing.
Labor does not need the security portfolio to demand that the pullout from the northern West Bank not end with the evacuation of only four settlements, as Sharon wishes it to be, or to demand that the separation fence route, the roadblocks and closures do not rupture the life fabric of tens of thousands of residents in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Labor does not need the foreign ministry portfolio to object to the plot to cut Gaza off not only from Israel, but from the West Bank, or to insist that the government of Israel must not ignore Bashar Assad's call to renew the talks with Syria. It does not have to hold the finance portfolio to ensure a safety net for the weaker, poorer populations.
Labor had better learn from the ultra-Orthodox how to take advantage of a change in reality to create a better one.