Between the Lines / What's the rush?
Ariel Sharon is in no hurry. "Even my secretary can form a narrow government in five minutes," he said this week. Unlike his two predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Sharon was elected to a second term in office as prime minister.
Ariel Sharon is in no hurry. "Even my secretary can form a narrow government in five minutes," he said this week. Unlike his two predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Sharon was elected to a second term in office as prime minister. He is not trembling with desire to enter the Prime Minister's Bureau, as Netanyahu was after the 1996 elections. He will not have to wait impatiently for a month before the prime minister's official residence in Jerusalem is vacated, as Barak did in 1999.
He has been prime minister for the past two years and he wants to form a government that can be described as "broad." He wants a substantial protective vest to shield himself against the "road map" of President Bush and against the economic catastrophe that is engulfing Israel.
Like his two predecessors, he, too has been dazzled by his great victory. The arrogance that characterized Netanyahu and Barak at the outset of their terms in office is plainly discernible at the beginning of Sharon's second term of office as prime minister. It was that arrogance that led him to lecture Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna this week on the strategic and historical importance of two Gaza Strip settlements, Kfar Darom and Netzarim. The same arrogance drove him to humiliate Shas, the Likud's ally for the past two decades. It is also what underlies Sharon's belief that he will succeed in doing what now appears totally incredible: to split the Shinui party and bring only some of its 15 MKs into the government, and to split Labor, too. And all under the rubric of an "emergency government."
The expected American attack on Iraq is meant to help Sharon bring his plan to fruition. He believes that even things that appear illogical or hopeless are doable. Last week he reminded a friend how many times the latter had told him that there was no chance his plan would materialize - "yet I did it," he said.
Following the meeting with Mitzna, Sharon called him a UFO, while Mitzna said Sharon was off the wall. Nevertheless, Sharon is confident that part of the Labor Party will join his government.
MK Avigdor Lieberman, the head of the far-right National Union, who said this week that he is considering leaving politics in the wake of Sharon's behavior toward him, will never forget the series of humiliations he was subjected to. But Sharon continues to attack Lieberman and to reiterate that he will not be a member of the government.
Sharon is not perturbed by Shas leader Eli Yishai, who this week observed that Mitzna's attitude toward the religious parties is better than Sharon's. Sharon believes he will be able to form a government with the religious parties, with Shinui and with part of the Labor Party.
Ensconced in his office, brimming with satisfaction, Sharon says there is no need to rush. Even if he forms a narrow government, he will make sure that the Labor Party, and more especially Shinui, stew in their juice. He will prove to the public that he wanted Shinui (and he can always say that this doesn't mean he really wanted them). He will prove to the public that he wanted the Labor Party (and can always say that this doesn't mean he really wanted Mitzna by his side). He has to present an alibi to the Americans - and to his own people.
Lieberman is sitting on the sidelines and saying that he can't believe it: Sharon has a golden opportunity, which is unlikely to recur, to establish a right-wing government, so what is he waiting for? And when that government is finally established - it will be a right-wing government even if some of the Shinui MKs join - everyone in it will have a sour taste in his mouth.
Lieberman frequently mentions Reuven Adler, Sharon's adman and arch-adviser: Adler said, Adler decided. Lieberman thinks that Adler is behind Sharon's assault on the National Union both before and after the elections. Adler undoubtedly wields great influence; he's a kind of Arthur Finkelstein type who always has the prime minister's ear. And he's not the only one.
The group of the "captains of the economy" - the gaggle of cheerleaders consisting of industrialists, lawyers and businessmen, who in the past two years have made it their business to buttonhole politicians and plump for the establishment of a unity government - was at it again this week. They met in the office of Oded Tyrah, the president of the Manufacturers Association, and spoke of the urgent need to form an "emergency government." The initiator of the meeting was Eyal Arad, Sharon's strategic adviser (who has also been appointed a member of the team that will negotiate the formation of the coalition). Arad is also the strategic adviser of Oded Tyrah.
In fact, the strategists are working overtime these days, as though the election campaign were still in full swing. And they truly have their work cut out for them. On the one hand, Sharon is calling for the establishment of a broad government and is activating the "captains of the economy" to pressure Labor into joining the coalition. At the same time, though, he is doing everything, as in his private talk with Mitzna, to ensure that Mitzna does not join his government.
A competing coalition was established last week: Benjamin Netanyahu (the outgoing foreign minister), Silvan Shalom (the outgoing finance minister) and Tzachi Hanegbi (the outgoing transportation and environment minister, who came out on top in the Likud primaries). Each of them is defending Shas and the National Union. Their short-term goal: to bypass Ehud Olmert (the mayor of Jerusalem) and Shaul Mofaz (the defense minister), whom Sharon wants to name to senior portfolios. The long-term goal: the Likud's two allies, Shas and the National Union, are capable of toppling Sharon - and Sharon's successor will need their support.
All three members of this troika fear for their cabinet seats. Netanyahu has gone mute since the elections. Shalom flew to the United States this week just as the figures on the steep decline in state revenues were being published. Hanegbi has also decided to remain silent, for the time being. Each of them wields considerable clout in the Likud, but Sharon this week reiterated that he has promised only one portfolio in the next government: Shaul Mofaz will be the defense minister. Period.
No big hurry
Eli Yishai, too, says that he is in no rush to enter the government. "I am not stuck on the coalition," as he put it. Really, he said, he has no desire to be party to another budget cut. Yishai quoted Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Shas' spiritual mentor: "Rabbi Ovadia says that `whoever pushes ahead the time is pushed aside by time.'" As a member of the coalition, Shas will be partner to new cuts that will affect mainly the party's constituency.
No, Yishai will say nothing bad about Sharon. "I am very friendly with him, I have no personal problem of any kind with him. He is now trying to engage in negotiations that will lower the price of all the parties. That's the tactic. The Labor Party will apparently not join, and Sharon finds it hard to live with a narrow government," Yishai says diplomatically.
In other words, Yishai doesn't believe that Sharon will succeed in forming a government with Shinui and the National Religious Party, and without Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Union. The NRP will not easily agree to changes in the religious status quo, and if Sharon tries to pass a declaration in favor of a Palestinian state, he will have to mess with Shas, too, in addition to the National Union.
According to Yishai, Shinui leader Yosef Lapid, with whom Sharon is not flirting, is a "hitch of the elections" and a "racist." Lapid, he says, hurled himself into a deep pit when he agreed to be a member of a coalition that includes United Torah Judaism. The disqualification of Shas, a Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, as against its Ashkenazi counterpart, UTJ, will not go down at all well with Likud voters, he says.
Yet another party leader who is in no hurry is Effi Eitam, head of the NRP. Much to the chagrin of his party rival, Zevulun Orlev, Eitam was strengthened within the NRP when it received a sixth seat thanks to the voting in the army. Orlev, who called for a "housecleaning" in the NRP on the day after the elections, found himself in an embarrassing position when it turned out that the NRP had one more seat than in the outgoing Knesset.
The reason Eitam is in no rush is that Orlev and Shaul Yahalom command a majority in the party's Central Committee. It's doubtful whether that majority will permit Eitam to accept the NRP's senior portfolio in the government. Eitam has therefore been talking about the need to replace the NRP Central Committee. He has time. First he wants a new registration drive, which will reverse the present situation within the party.
This week it turned out that Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, a former chief rabbi and a spiritual mentor of the NRP, is also of the opinion that the NRP should not be the only religious party in the coalition. To begin with, "unity within the religious camp" is needed, Shapiro told Eitam, who met with him this week, and only afterward "unity with the secular parties." Another former chief rabbi and NRP spiritual mentor, Rabbi Mordechai Eliahu, who is Eitam's guru, is also against the NRP joining a coalition with Shinui.
In a big hurry
On Tuesday of this week, Amram Mitzna convened the group that worked for him in the contest for the Labor Party leadership. We're going to run again, he told them, so start registering new members for the party - meaning new member who will support him. There's no time, he urged them, I intend to hold this contest as early as possible. The party's list of registered voters will be updated in about three months.
Mitzna really doesn't have much time. He had a clear advantage in the last registration drive - but who know what will happen in the next one? He wants his people to recruit as many new members as possible, and he is concerned that the party members who voted for him over Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, most of whom have a left-wing orientation, will not be eager to register again.
Ben-Eliezer's campaign team got wind of this development and declared themselves ready. Mitzna wants a new leadership race? That's fine with us, they said, whispering among themselves that Mitzna doesn't know what he's in for, because the time for revenge is at hand.
But then the Ben-Eliezer organizers remembered that they had a problem with the boss. Ben-Eliezer has been blocking the "grassroots" for the past two weeks: Labor Party mayors and heads of local councils who have called to ask about his plans are being met with silence. Ben-Eliezer doesn't want to give the impression that he is "undermining" the party leader, as Yitzhak Rabin wrote years ago of Shimon Peres. Mitzna wants a leadership primary now, but other senior figures in the party who are eying the top spot - Matan Vilnai, Haim Ramon and Avraham Burg - are in no hurry. They, too, can wait.