Ehud Olmert has apparently learned from Ariel Sharon that it is easier for a prime minister to maintain a hawkish policy if he has a minister or two to his left presenting dovish positions. This was Shimon Peres' primary role in the Sharon government. Olmert has fine-tuned the concept. He granted Amir Peretz the empty title of "defense minister" and turned him into a significant player to his left. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who often talks of peace and influences Olmert as much as forecasters affect the weather, has also done her part. The leaks that the prime minister is on the brink of taking Peretz's toy away from him and of putting Livni back in the Justice Ministry, have ensured that things will not go to their heads. Here are a few examples, which illustrate the phenomenon of a government steering rightward on left-wing crutches.
Under the cover of the sound of explosions in Gaza and Olmert's nice words to Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, the Kadima-Labor government is proceeding with a settlement strategy that explains why the minister of strategic affairs, Avigdor Lieberman, is so quiet. Construction of a police station in the area known as E1, between Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem, is now nearing completion. Four floors have already been built and heavy equipment is energetically paving a highway to the new station. No other police facility has merited its own four-to-six lane highway. Dozens of settlements in the territories began in the same way. First came the rope, then the bucket. After the road come the houses.
Because of U.S. opposition, the plans to build a neighborhood of 3,500 housing units in the area and to use it to link Ma'aleh Adumim to Jerusalem will have to wait. But the new building and the expansive road ensure that this area will remain for the time being outside the Palestinians' area and will perpetuate the division of the West Bank from north to south (in addition to cutting off the Jordan Valley in the east, from the rest of the West Bank).
In order to remove any doubt as to who will be in charge, the government last February approved the inclusion of E1 within the route of the separation fence. At around the same time, the responsibility for the fence in the area surrounding Jerusalem was placed in the hands of the Jerusalem district police. This means that the new headquarters of the Judea and Samaria police district, which is in charge of the West Bank, lies in the capital district's jurisdiction. The explanation given at the time for the decision to move the headquarters eastward was that the current premises of the Judea and Samaria police district, in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood, lies within the jurisdiction of the Jerusalem district and this distortion must be corrected. Do you understand that, Peretz?
Peretz decides, Olmert cancels
How can Peretz be expected to halt a huge project like E1 when he can't even manage to influence a decision regarding a small section of the route of the separation fence? This case also involves the Ma'aleh Adumim vicinity, along the southern outskirts of the large town.
Following a discussion held in his office in late November, Peretz was convinced that there was no justification for extending the route in the area by another four kilometers, for spending more than NIS 40 million (including the construction of a 10-meter high bridge) and for the price of appropriating 7,500 dunams and severely damaging Wadi Abu Hindi.
Colonel (res.) Danny Tirza, who oversaw the planning of the fence, acknowledged that he did not only take into account the security needs of Ma'aleh Adumim and Jerusalem residents. In a hearing at the Supreme Court on petitions submitted by Palestinians from the area against the theft of their lands, Tirza confirmed that the much more modest fence route presented to the High Court of Justice by experts from the Council for Peace and Security, led by Colonel (res.) Shaul Arieli, was satisfactory as far as security was concerned. His only consideration was the inclusion of the residents of the community of Kedar (60 families) and Old Kedar (6-7 caravans) within the fence.
On November 29 last year, a few days before Peretz decided to minimize the damage, the dispute was brought before the cabinet.
Peretz was surprised to discover Tirza, who had just vacated his Defense Ministry office, alongside the GOC Central Command, the police inspector general and senior officers. Peretz presented his position.
Olmert listened and ruled in favor of Tirza's generous route. A senior official in the Defense Ministry confirmed yesterday that the minister stuck to his position that the inclusion of both Kedars inside the route of the fence did not justify the cost.
The Ashkenazi riddle
Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi is the first chief of staff from the ground forces, in quite some time, who did not graduate from the "settlers' school" on his way to the top. Ashkenazi was not GOC Central Command or the commander of the Judea and Samaria battalion nor even the commander of the Benjamin Brigade. He did not clash with Zev Hever (Zambish) and did not meet Pinchas Wallerstein in the corridors of the Defense Ministry. As director general of the Defense Ministry, Ashkenazi dealt with the fence's route and displayed a tendency to consider not only the security needs of Israel's citizens but also the interests of the settlers. On the other side, in the southern sector, he listened to the complaints of the Palestinians in all matters relating to the difficulty of the transfer of goods via the Karni crossing.
As chief of staff, Ashkenazi will be required to choose between two options. One is to continue in the path of his predecessor, Dan Halutz, which allowed the GOC Central Command, Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, to help Olmert maintain Ariel Sharon's policy. That is, to encourage the settlers in the West Bank and to crush the residents of the Gaza Strip. The second option is to join forces with deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh and the ministerial aide, Hagai Alon, who is responsible for dealing with the Palestinians' "fabric of life." Last Friday, the Palestinians who came to the tree planting ceremony, held in Salem at Rabbi Michael Melchior's initiative, got a taste of this second option.
"The Defense Ministry and Israel's defense forces see it as their goal to preserve the freedom to maintain the fabric of life, the freedom to work your land," said Alon. "The basic freedom of a person who goes to work his land is one of the Israel Defense Forces' missions. This year, the defense minister personally oversaw the olive harvest and made sure that farmers would be able to harvest their olives down to the last one." The faithful aide promised that this is how it would be in future seasons as well. The olives Peretz harvested, Olmert is willing to eat; but not much more than that.