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On Friday evening Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appeared in the studio of the weekly news program on Channel 1. Olmert was "the main guest" of the broadcast, in the formal, official language of the studio people in Romema. His excellency the minister was asked to express his opinion on a wide range of topics, from the march tomorrow by the Jewish settlers from the territories to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's political future. When Olmert was asked about "the day after" the disengagement - a term that has already become an onerous cliche - he provided a headline that for some reason did not get the attention it deserved.

"After the disengagement," he declared, "we will turn our attention to dealing with the social issue. I travel around the country," Olmert revealed to his interviewers, "and I meet mayors who don't talk to me at all about the disengagement, but only about the distress in their cities, about the gaps, the poverty and the hunger."

In a certain villa in Caesarea, where Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sarah reside on the weekends, the red warning lights suddenly went on. When Olmert declares so publicly and determinedly that the Sharon government's next agenda will be "social," only someone who is chronically naive will not wonder about the political implications. The finance minister is not naive. He is even suspicious at times and most certainly asked himself on Friday night whether once again Olmert is the bird who is the portent of spring, as he was in the disengagement scheme [Olmert, it must be recalled, set out the principles of the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and isolated settlements in the West Bank before Sharon did - Y.V.], and whether this pair, Sharon et Olmert, are preparing a social intifada for him in advance of the discussions of the 2006 budget.

Early signs that back up this assessment/suspicion at the Finance Minister's bureau have already appeared during the past weeks: After all, it was Sharon himself who confided to television personality Eli Yatzpan that the treasury's policy is merciless and heartless. A source close to Sharon was asked about a week ago what the prime minister will be busy with after the pullout, and the reply was swift: "personal security, social welfare and the bringing of hearts closer together."

Yes, "Bibi" Netanyahu has more than one reason to believe that the total freedom and the total backing he has received from Sharon during the past two-and-a-half years might well come to an end in the near future. Sharon has no reason to allow him to continue to enjoy the title "economic prime minister," as Netanyahu calls himself. As far as Sharon is concerned, "treading on Bibi's head" (a common expression in the political jargon, especially in the Likud) can yield a considerable profit: On the eve of a possible race between the two of them for the chairmanship of the Likud, Sharon has every reason in the world to clip Netanyahu's wings, gnaw at his economic vision, which has won international praise, and damage his leadership. In addition, if Netanyahu is forced to resign from the government after the disengagement, Sharon will not see this as a disaster. At the moment, he is interested in keeping Netanyahu in the government so as not to undermine its stability on the eve of the implementation of the dramatic move of evacuating Jewish settlements in the territories, but before the Knesset elections it is always a good idea to depict oneself as concerned for the poor.

A "social" clash between the prime minister and his finance minister on issues of welfare, health and housing, in which Sharon is the good cop and Netanyahu is the bad cop, suits Sharon and his political plans down to the ground. And this is not yet all. Making the social issue the main issue after the disengagement will help in the process of forgetting the trauma of the withdrawal, and might even have added value for Sharon: The Labor Party, which is looking for a banner to wave for itself, will find it difficult to resign from Sharon's government after the disengagement, when the prime minister is in the midst of a harsh and acute conflict on social issues with the finance minister. It is not difficult to imagine Deputy Premier Shimon Peres and Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon preaching: Now that Sharon has carried out our policy and evacuated settlements, he is implementing our - our! - policy and helping the weak. Why not stay and help him?

Portfolios or ideology

It was precisely this issue that the Labor Party ministers discussed last Thursday in the good `ole "our ministers" forum. In the coming days, the cabinet is due to hold a detailed discussion of the 2006 budget. Attention will be directed at the things that Sharon will say, at the detailed presentation that Olmert is preparing (in recent weeks he has consulted many mayors and asked them to prepare position papers on the economic policy that Israel should implement in 2006) and of course, at Netanyahu, but also at how the Labor representatives in the government will vote. Exactly three years ago, at the first cabinet meeting of all of the Labor ministers (at that time headed by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer), they voted against the budget, which presaged the breakup of the government in October - after the Labor faction in the Knesset opposed the budget - and prompted the elections to be moved up to January, 2003.

This painful event, which did not help Ben-Eliezer get elected in the primaries, took him out of the Defense Ministry and brought about the early elections in which the Labor Party, headed by Amram Mitzna, plunged to 19 Knesset seats, was hovering in the air of the room where the Labor ministers convened last week. On the one hand, they found it hard to imagine a scenario in which they would vote for Bibi and his "swinish capitalism" (this term too was mentioned at the meeting); on the other hand, they really didn't want to give up their portfolios and this is what will happen if they vote against the budget in the Knesset when it comes up, if it comes up, for a vote.

Haim Ramon, the big supporter of the continued connection between the Likud and the Labor Party as a necessary step before the "big bang" (involving a combination of moderate elements from both parties), proposed to his ministerial colleagues that they oppose the budget and suggest an alternative policy. "We must differentiate ourselves," he said. Histadrut labor federation chairman MK Amir Peretz cut straight to the point: "What's the problem?" he said. "If we decide that we are interested in resigning we will submit proposals that Sharon and Netanyahu won't be able to accept. And if we decide that we're staying, we will submit proposals that the Likud will be able to accept." Amir, that's not how you run a government, someone said to him.

Housing Minister Isaac Herzog and Interior Minister Ophir Pines sounded like they had reservations about the possibility that all of the ministers will vote unanimously against the budget. Pines and Herzog are young, new ministers. Like youths embarking on their first romance, they are enjoying every minute at their ministries. It isn't that they are scornful of the party and the social banners, but they are also committed to obtaining budgets for their ministries and know that Netanyahu will condition one sort of addition or another on their support.

Says Herzog: "We are seeking the real formula between waving our definite social banner and our need, at the moment, to continue to function in our ministries with a world view that we are not necessarily leaving the government immediately after the disengagement."

It was actually Ben-Eliezer who did not understand the wavering. "It's clear that we're voting against, in the government and in the Knesset," he said. "The Labor government will never support a Netanyahu budget. I broke up a government over a social issue!" Peres, who in 2002 opposed the move that Ben-Eliezer led, did not restrain himself: "When you break up a government over something that isn't real," he sniped at "Fuad" (Ben-Eliezer), "you pay a high price. This has already happened to us once."

The primaries diversion

After Ehud Barak, who is afraid of a race in the broad forum of Labor Party members, brought up the idea of holding elections in the party convention, which numbers 4,000 people, Peres met with a number of Knesset members and ministers from his party and suggested an alternative to Barak's idea: Why, asked Peres, shouldn't we hold the election for party chairman in open primaries?

A short explanation for the uninitiated: In ordinary primaries, as being planned at present in the Likud and in the Labor Party, the registered members elect the party chairman and candidate for prime minister. In open primaries, in addition to registered party members, all citizens who are interested in taking part in the election process are entitled to participate according to the following procedure, which was tried in its day in the municipal elections in Haifa: The citizen comes to the polling station on election day, pays a nominal sum of money, a kind of tax, and goes in to vote. A party member, who in any case pays party dues, is not required to pay upon entering the polling booth.

The idea of open primaries is just a summertime diversion and nothing more. It is possible to understand why Peres is interested in this: He reads public opinion polls with great enthusiasm and gets intoxicated by them - they tell him, again and again, how much the public loves him. In his imagination he sees tens of thousands of citizens joining the hard core of Labor Party members (about which there is no knowing how far it will shrink once the voter registration drive forms are checked) and expressing their support for him.

Today, in accordance with a prior agreement between them, Peres and Barak are supposed to meet again and discuss the future. The deal that is on the table says that Barak, MK Matan Vilnai and Ben-Eliezer will support Peres for another stint, of limited duration, as chairman of the Labor Party, but without affecting Peres' status as as the senior minister on behalf of the party in the next unity government, should it arise. Peres has every reason in the world to go for this, but in the meantime he is playing it reserved and cool. Why not? Let the children play before him.