"Hello there, Gunnar and Ralph," Ariel Sharon said to MKs Gideon Sa'ar and Michael (Mickey) Eitan, warmly greeting them when they came to his office on Thursday morning to discuss the situation in the Likud. It took a few moments for the two MKs to realize whom their boss was referring to, but not all of the advisers caught on.
Sharon happily volunteered to explain. There is nothing he enjoys more than the spontaneous history lessons he occasionally imparts to the young people around him. He spoke at great length about the two diplomats, the Swede Gunnar Jarring and the American Ralph Bunche, who spent much time in the Middle East during Israel's first decades as United Nations mediators, making the Sisyphean effort to bring peace between Israel and the Arabs. During the lulls in fighting in the War of Independence, Sharon explained, David Ben-Gurion always tried to improve Israel's position before the mediators achieved a cease-fire. I understand that this is also your strategy now, Sa'ar said to Sharon.
As these lines were written, the fate of the compromise formulated by Eitan and Sa'ar was still uncertain. Sharon and his people held consultations, Benjamin Netanyahu packed his suitcase in the United States for his trip back to Israel. The proposal to establish a "rapprochement forum" including Sharon, Netanyahu, Sa'ar, Ehud Olmert, Silvan Shalom, Netanyahu and Uzi Landau - a type of party cabinet that would convene from time to time to resolve crises in the discordant ruling parts of the movement - upgrades the status of Netanyahu and Landau, making them almost equals to Sharon. It is no wonder that Sharon was not enthusiastic about this forum when he heard about it for the first time. But he did not shoot down the idea when it was presented to him by the two MKs, as he could have done.
The logic of Sa'ar and Eitan was: There is no place where these rivals, who are so hostile toward each other, can speak together today. Because of this lack of communication, every dispute, every small argument, as marginal as it might be, carries the potential for escalation, for regional conflagration. If there is really a desire to continue together until the elections, or at least until the Likud primaries, this party cabinet, along with the other proposals included in the document, is a satisfactory solution.
If the document is accepted by Sharon (assuming that the "rebels" adopt it and that no additional land mines appear during the next day), it would signal that Sharon has made a strategic decision against quitting the Likud, against early elections, against forming a new party. It would also signal that Sharon believes in his chances of defeating Netanyahu in the primaries for the Likud leadership.
Sa'ar and Eitan worked for five days to hammer out the document, maintaining a level of secrecy befitting the discussions of the secret services forum. Up until the official announcement, on Saturday night, no one knew the document existed. The duo spoke with everyone - Sharon, Netanyahu, Landau and all of the rebels. On Friday, Landau was a guest at Sa'ar's home in Tel Aviv. On Saturday, they sat with Mickey Ratzon at Eitan's home in Kochav Yair. During the past week, they met at cafes and gas stations around the country on their way to and from countless celebrations of party central committee members, to work on the document. At each of these stops, they had to look for an available electric outlet where Eitan, the Knesset's computer freak, could plug in his laptop, where the draft document was hiding. If Sharon was a television buff instead of a history buff, he would have called them Sheka and Teka ("Outlet" and "Plug," from the Electric Company's commercials).
Only so Peretz won't win
During his visit to New York several weeks ago, Sharon met with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Sharon made an appeal - not quite official and not quite personal - for Annan to work to bring Israel onto the Security Council. Even if I recommend this, Annan told him, it would not happen before the year 2018. That is the way the UN works. Great, Sharon said. I'm glad this will happen when I will still be in office.
Sharon faces some tests this week that are not simple: Today he will bring to a vote the appointment of three Likud ministers - Olmert to the Finance Ministry, Boim to the Absorption Ministry and Bar-On to the Industry and Trade Ministry. If the vote fails, he will need to decide whether he will separate the vote, contrary to his public commitment not to do so, and he will submit only Olmert's appointment, for which he has a majority. He is likely to do this so that the country will not be left without a finance minister. He would attribute his decision to "national responsibility for the fate of the economy." It is reasonable to assume that the two ministers-designate, Bar-On and Boim, would help him make a graceful retreat by publicly announcing that they are withdrawing their candidacy and thanking the prime minister for his efforts.
The second test is whether both sides accept the compromise document drafted by Sa'ar and Eitan. The third test is perhaps the most difficult and troubling for Sharon because the prime minister has no influence over it: the primaries in the Labor Party. His friend and colleague, Shimon Peres, is again fighting for his political life against shrinking survey results and a paralyzing fear of defeat to Amir Peretz. Peretz declared in Maariv yesterday that if he wins, the Labor Party would leave the government within days. Even if it takes longer, it is clear that the partnership between Labor and Likud would end with Peretz's victory. A person who is very close to Peres and is very eager to see him succeed said last week that if Peres loses, he would advise him to slam the door on the Labor Party and go with Sharon. Enough, the Peres associate said. There's a limit!
Contributions and contributions
Some of the wealthiest people in the country received a letter in their mailbox in recent weeks that contained a simple-looking form with the title "Fund-raising night for the Yitzhak Rabin Center, November 14, 2005." The form is actually an invitation to a festive dinner to be held to mark the inauguration of the center. The addressees are requested to make a financial contribution, which is a condition for participating in the event. They are allowed to choose between a modest contribution of $2,500 or a larger one of $5,000. In the center of the form, in small letters but in a box, appear the following lines: "Note that the seating arrangement at the inauguration evening for the Rabin Center will be according to the contribution, with priority seating for major contributors."
The person who is supposed to provide an incentive for potential donors to double their contribution, in order to sit as close to him as possible, is Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States, who is gracing the event with his presence. There were those who regarded this as somewhat unseemly: On this festive but somber evening should people be competing with each other over who will sit closer to Bill and Hillary?
This form also landed a few weeks ago in the Prime Minister's Office. Sharon wanted very much to attend. (He will sit at the Clintons' table without having to reach into his wallet.) But a problem arose: The law prohibits the prime minister from participating in an event in which fund-raising occurs, even if the object of the funds is entirely deserving and noble. Several months ago, a fund-raising evening was held in the home of former American ambassador Dan Kurtzer for the Yad Sarah charitable organization, which provides medical equipment to Israelis. Sharon was invited and wanted to go, but the legal adviser in the Prime Minister's Office prevented him from doing so, citing this prohibition.
The rules on this matter are very clear: The prime minister is not allowed to raise funds for any organization or person because it is never possible to know where the money really goes: for equipment to aid the sick and elderly, or to buy a personal computer or car for the CEO.
To enable the participation of the prime minister, a convoluted opinion was drafted in the Prime Minister's Office after much running around; this time, he will be permitted to go. According to attorney Yael Cohen, the PMO's legal adviser, the Rabin Center was established by law in 1997 and the prime minister is the minister responsible for implementing this law. In accordance with the law, the PMO's legal opinion states, the establishment of the center will be financed through contributions, while its operation will be funded from the state budget as well as from revenues and donations.
Since the Rabin Center is a "corporation established by law," the legal adviser states, she sees no legal impediment to having the prime minister participate in the event, "even though it entails the raising of funds (via advance payments) for the establishment of the center" and despite the fact that the contributions are being solicited by a nongovernmental organization rather than by the center itself. The adviser says that in his speech Sharon cannot call for contributions to the center, either directly or indirectly. This prohibition is irrelevant, of course, because the guests already paid the contributions in advance.
On Saturday night, November 21, the large assembly in memory of Rabin will be held at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. At the same time, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, a festive dinner will be held for the guests of the billionaire Haim Saban to mark the opening of "The Israeli-American Dialogue," sponsored by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Clinton is scheduled to deliver the main address at both events - in Jerusalem at around 8:30 P.M. and in Rabin Square at around 9:45 P.M., just before the conclusion of the gathering. If everything goes as planned, without delays, Clinton will leave Jerusalem before 9 P.M., and 45 minutes later he is supposed to be on stage in the square. Many of the participants at the King David dinner want to also participate in the assembly, but the helicopter arranged for Clinton only has room for him and Saban, who is financing his trip. So the following solution was found: Immediately after the dinner, the Clintons will get into their armored car. Other guests wishing to go to Tel Aviv will get into other vehicles and the entire convoy will speed to Tel Aviv, without stopping, with the Shin Bet security service, police and American Secret Service alternately blocking sections of the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway to enable the royal convoy rapid and uninterrupted movement in the secure "corridor" from the King David to Rabin Square.
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