Labor pains over Lieberman
It's hard to decide what would be harder for the Labor Party to digest: the addition of transfer advocate Avigdor Lieberman to the government, or the election of defector Shimon Peres as president of Israel. What is the ostensible connection between the election of an elderly politician to a post devoid of authority and the changing of the coalition's face?
They are very much connected. Eyal Arad, Kadima's political adviser, found Peres took at least six Knesset seats when he left the Labor Party. If Amir Peretz had entered coalition negotiations with 25 Knesset seats, compared to Olmert's 23 seats, life would have looked completely different from Labor headquarters in Tel Aviv's Hatikva neighborhood.
Had Peres accepted the party's decision to elect Peretz, it is very possible that the latter would now be sitting in the prime minister's seat, and the Labor Party Central Committee would not be choosing between sitting with Meretz in the opposition or with Yisrael Beiteinu in the coalition. Lieberman would have dried up on the right-wing extreme of the map, and the government would not be considering changing the system of government or discussing the Iranian threat.
Members of Peretz's shrinking camp are not the only ones thinking a lot about Peres. Ehud Barak's loyalists remember that were it not for then-Meretz leader Yossi Sarid's refusal to take part, Peres would have challenged the party's chosen leader and joined Barak's race against Sharon in the 2001 elections.
In January 2003, a week before the following elections, a Maariv poll showed Peres could win five more seats than Amram Mitzna, and the media again dropped rumors that Peres would be tapped. At campaign headquarters they searched desperately for the perennial candidate to urge him to stand behind the chosen party chairman. Peres "disappeared" somewhere in Italy. At the last minute, he contacted one of Mitzna's associates to find out whether the party needed a new candidate.
The election of Colette Avital as president would free Labor Party members from the need to choose between a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who betrayed them and Reuven Rivlin, a right-winger loyal to his views and his party. But the Basic Law on The President may force them to face this dilemma. The law stipulates that in order to be elected in the first or second round, the candidate needs a Knesset majority (61 votes). In the third round, the candidate who received the smallest number of votes in the previous round is out, and the candidate with the most votes (a regular majority) wins. Given the balance of power among the parties, Peres and Rivlin will presumably reach the final stage. The lucky flies on the wall in the Knesset plenum will get to find out whether Peretz will pave the way to the President's Residence for the man who blocked him from the Prime Minister's Office.
Existential threat for sale
Even if something goes wrong as he makes his way into the government, Avigdor Lieberman got what he wanted. His party, which advocates transfer, will arrive at the next elections with the approval of Shimon Peres of the Peres Center for Peace, which organizes sports competitions between Israeli and Palestinian children.
In all the archives it is written that in return for the kindness of Lieberman, Kadima was willing not only to overlook his racist doctrine; the ruling party, which presumes to be centrist, passed for his sake a government resolution on radically changing the system of government. Lieberman bought for a mere pittance the commodity most desired by the extreme right wing: legitimacy.
Herring was the appetizer on Yossi Beilin's desk at the meeting where Lieberman was legitimized by the Israeli center. If the Labor Party Central Committee twists Amir Peretz's arm, the bourekas served at the cabinet table - alongside Peace Now founder Yuli Tamir and Geneva supporter Ophir Pines-Paz, both Labor ministers - will be the main course. The cherry on top will be the portfolio responsible for the Iranian threat.
It seems that in giving up the perks of a government ministry, Lieberman has presented "another kind of politics." Basically, if he is indeed invited into the inner sanctum of the Israeli establishment - privy to the nuclear secrets - Lieberman will make a joker out of Olmert. After he is entrusted with such a complex, sensitive and critical issue, the kind that justified convening a special forum of four past and present ministers, who could argue that he is not ready to govern? Who will remember Lieberman's threat to bomb the Aswan dam? Transfer, shmansfer, who will bar a man placed in charge of "strategic threats" from proceeding to the Defense Ministry and the position of prime minister?
Danny Yatom dealt with the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat for years, first as Mossad chief and then as the head of prime minister Ehud Barak's defense-political bureau. The idea that a man lacking any experience in this field could be placed in charge of it is making this Labor MK dizzy. If sitting with a racist party is not enough to convince the Labor central committee to vote against adding Yisrael Beiteinu to the coalition, Yatom will explain to his colleagues the meaning of adding the name "Lieberman" to "minister handling the Iranian nuclear threat."
Yatom suggests that the new Laborites Shelly Yachimovich, Avishay Braverman and Yoram Marciano get it through their heads that this is the cost of their refusal to compromise over the proposed budget. He too is not pleased with the government's policy, but being familiar with the Iranian threat firsthand, he is convinced Olmert must not be given an excuse to entrust this matter to Lieberman.
"After the prime minister traveled specially to Russia to deal with the Iranian threat, as he said, you have to ask him whether Lieberman is the most appropriate person to deal with this issue. Is there no limit to the cynicism? How is it possible to transform an existential threat into a game piece and a platform for bringing someone into the government?" says Yatom.
If Olmert entrusts Lieberman with the Iranian issue, Yatom adds, his conclusion would be that the prime minister is more worried about his political survival than his state's survival. "Olmert is so worried about the Iranian threat that he searched the country high and low for the person with the most knowledge and experience in this area, searched and searched until he found Lieberman? In the last war we saw what price we paid for misguided judgment in appointing inexperienced ministers to sensitive posts."
Yatom cautions that with too many cooks, the Iranian broth will boil over. The defense establishment and the defense minister are addressing the military aspects; Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz received as compensation responsibility for strategic dialogue and is in charge of ties with foreign officials. Here and there the input of the national security adviser, the Foreign Ministry and the nuclear energy committee is required. The committee of intelligence service chiefs coordinates intelligence aspects among the Mossad, the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces military intelligence department. All the officials dealing with this issue have the highest level of security clearance.
The nuclear club
To the best of anyone's knowledge, Lieberman is not among the cabinet members familiar with the nuclear secrets. When he was director general of the prime minister's office, during Benjamin Netanyahu's tenure, the issue was entrusted to political adviser Uzi Arad, who set up an inter-ministerial committee consisting of representatives from the defense and foreign ministries, the IDF and the Mossad to discuss the matter. After a long debate, Ariel Sharon opted to entrust the matter of "political thwarting" with the Mossad chief, rather than making it the responsibility of Uzi Dayan, who headed the National Security Council.
A source close to the prime minister said yesterday that the decision on Lieberman's position had not yet been made. He stressed that even if Lieberman is asked to handle the Iranian issue, this would not happen at the expense of other ministers' authorities - in other words, just like Meir Sheetrit laughed and said of the law to change the system of government, "it's just more spin by Lieberman." A few more spins like these and Lieberman will be laughing at everyone on his way to the top.