"If he were a decent human being," says Labor Party MK Dalia Itzik of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "he would have said a good word or two about the Labor Party. Instead, he chose to snipe at us in his speech last week. But I am not promising him anything and he can curse as much as he wants. He can say that the mother of [Labor MK Shimon) Peres is an Arab, that he has shares in Tadiran - and we will support the disengagement plan in the Knesset next week. None of his tricks will help. If he thinks that we are going to knock down his plan - it isn't going to happen. I will work for him. If need be, I'll pull out some votes for him from here and there. The main thing is to get it passed."
If there is anything that embodies the complicated situation in which Israeli politics now finds itself because of the disengagement plan, it is this monologue by the chair of the Labor Party Knesset faction. There are innumerable internal contradictions in Labor's conduct on the matter of the disengagement, and Itzik is the first to admit this. Last week she led the vote in her faction against the prime minister's policy address - contrary to the opinion of party chairman Shimon Peres. On that very same day she was invited to a one-on-one meeting with Sharon. The meeting was set for today. Itzik says that she is trying to make up her mind. On the one hand, there is the truism: One doesn't refuse an invitation from the prime minister. On the other hand, Itzik is suspicious that here too Sharon is being deceitful. He invited her by herself, and also Peres and other key people in the Knesset faction - MKS Haim Ramon, MK Benjamin "Fuad" Ben-Eliezer and MK Matan Vilnai.
"There is an attempt to divide and rule here," she says. "This is causing chaos in my faction. Why should I go? He should invite the entire faction. After all, all of us are promising to support him next week, unconditionally. Imagine Peres inviting Knesset members from the Likud to come and speak with him."
Three years ago, when Itzik was the minister of industry and trade in the unity government, she went to great lengths to describe Sharon's virtues. His courtesy, his intelligence, his patience. He would call her at her home to ask her if everything was all right, and she would melt. Today she is much more wary.
"There is a sense of foot-dragging, of procrastination, in everything he does. When, for once, it was a matter of action and not talk, when we were conducting negotiations to establish a unity government, he failed utterly. I was the head of the coalition negotiation team on our behalf and even then I said: This isn't how you conduct negotiations. But I didn't blow them up, so that it wouldn't be said about us that we were the ones who caused the talks to fail.
"Why wasn't Uri Shani [Sharon's former bureau chief, who had established and maintained the previous unity government for him] there?" asks Itzik, and provides the answer: "Because he is an experienced person and he didn't want to be a pawn. He understood, and knew, that Sharon didn't mean it seriously. Uri's explanation is that involvement in coalition negotiations is bad for his business, but everyone knows that a unity government is good for business."
Itzik says that now she has no interest in a unity government. But if Sharon invites them, she, and the negotiating team under her that has not been disbanded, will come.
In private conversations Itzik complains that she has no one with whom to work. Her faction appears not to have been born for the opposition. Even Ramon, an unparalleled oppositionist, has become Sharon's No. 1 character witness. Itzik nearly goes out of her mind when she hears Ramon's suggestion that no more no-confidence motions be made against Sharon.
"Ramon thinks that his approach is helping Sharon against the extreme right. Could it be in fact that this approach is doing the exact opposite? Maybe it is giving Sharon another excuse for being in no hurry. Ramon's approach gives up on the Labor Party. I haven't yet given up on Labor. We can't act as though we are lost and finished.
"What is Haim saying? For my children's sake, for my children's sake. So out of concern for the children, I'm saying that we mustn't destroy the alternative to this government. We mustn't be an opposition to the state, but we also mustn't be sweepingly self-effacing. True, Sharon has taken our rhetoric from us. We don't have an identity card. After all, when [former Labor prime minister Ehud] Barak wanted to get out of Lebanon, he announced that within one year from election day, he would leave Lebanon. And when it comes to Gaza, which is a sin, then Sharon, the commander, the great general, zigzags. Procrastinates. Wastes time. Why this procrastination? Because he isn't wholehearted about it, and on the right they sense this and they are succeeding in entering that vacuum."
It is not by chance that Itzik mentions Barak. Last week they met. Barak is trying to turn her into a supporter. Itzik is torn between him and Peres. She advised Barak not to declare his candidacy in the coming weeks, but to "run without running," and the moment general elections are declared, to enter the arena officially.
"Why does Barak have to declare his candidacy now? After all, everyone knows him. He doesn't need to infiltrate. He can be on the scene, circulate, without declaring. He can say that he is lending a hand to Peres in the current session. Afterward he can contend fairly. The last thing the faction needs now, during this particular session, is internal elections. Everyone in our party is running."
Itzik says that if the primaries are brought forward to the beginning of next year, Peres will contend and win, and she will support him. But if Barak lets Peres finish out his term and the primaries are held in November or December of 2005 - Peres will not run. And whom will she support?
"I've never been considered anti-Barak," she says.
Beilin, too - why not?
The group that sat around a table in the Knesset cafeteria last week was strange to see, even taking into account the odd combinations that the cafeteria sometimes cooks up: There was MK Zahava Gal-On, the chair of the Meretz-Yahad faction, a definite and sometimes blunt and militant spokesperson of the left in Israel. With her sat seven Jewish settlers from Alei Sinai in the Gaza Strip, one of the settlements slated for evacuation in Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan.
The group of settlers, headed by the serially uprooted Avi Farhan, formerly of Yamit in Sinai, came to Jerusalem especially to meet Gal-On. For a long time they sat with her and explained to her why she had to come for a visit to their flourishing settlement. Simply had to. Gal-On is not the only one among the Knesset members from the left who has received an invitation; Farhan says that Labor MK Amram Mitzna has also been invited, and has promised to come. Down the line, other people from the left will also be invited.
The settlers are employing a new tactic here. After having taken control of the Likud convention and winning in the referendum of Likud party members, they have targeted the Knesset members who will have to vote next week for or against the disengagement plan. Mitzna was chosen because in the past, according to Farhan, he did not mention the northern Gaza Strip as a place destined for evacuation. Gal-On was chosen, explains Farhan, because of her public image as someone who defends civil and human rights. "Because she is genuine, not like some of those people with interests there."
"It was a pleasant and good conversation," says Farhan. When asked whether in his opinion there really is a chance that Gal-On will change her mind about supporting the disengagement, he replies in the negative ("I know her. She has firm opinions"). But a few minutes later he produces a different answer ("In my opinion there is a chance. For her own reasons. She has always been against unilateral moves, hasn't she? She has always talked about civil rights and property rights").
This is what the settlers are aiming at now. They would like to get a number of prominent people from the left: professors, or Knesset members, or former politicians, who will come stand by their side publicly. And if not at their side, at least on the side of a referendum, which looks to them like the last resort to prevent the disengagement. It could well be that the current move by the Yesha (the settlers' acronym for Judea, Samaria and Gaza, which also means "salvation" in Hebrew) people will not affect the vote in the Knesset next week, but in their opinion it could cause an entire large public, which is now turning its back to their arguments, to lend them an ear. As far as they are concerned, even a photo of Knesset members from the left at their settlement could contribute something.
Gal-On told Farhan and his friends that she would bring the matter up with the faction next week, after she returns from abroad.
"I am not a private individual," she told them. "I will come with the faction. Not alone."
We'd be delighted, Farhan told her, "if all of you came. Including [MK Yossi] Sarid and [Yahad chairman Yossi] Beilin. Why not? We will receive you with great honor."
"I can see their pain and difficulty," says Gal-On. "Nevertheless, people built homes there and established families. But this will not change my support for disengagement."
Somehow, it seems that even this quite innocent statement by Gal-On in some way serves the interests of the Gaza people.
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