The conventional wisdom in the political establishment, according to which the Labor Party will itself pull out after the disengagement and will go all-out for early elections, is not all that conventional for one person: Shimon Peres. Last weekend, Peres convened several key supporters in his office in Tel Aviv and laid out his vision for the next few months. "After the disengagement, we have to continue negotiations for peace," said the Labor chairman and vice premier. "Our position will be: keep the large settlement blocs inside the boundaries of Israel. The issues of Jerusalem and the right to return should be left for the last stage of the negotiations, in order not to place the subjects on which we can reach agreement at risk. We don't have to say that we are conceding the blocs when even the Palestinians have agreed to them."
If Peres' soft and elitist phrasing - to continue "negotiations for peace," including the resolve to hold onto the settlement blocs - will be his condition for continued participation in the coalition, Sharon can breathe easy. The danger has passed. Perhaps it never existed. There are at least three other ministers from Labor who confidentially tell their colleagues in Likud that Labor will be in no rush to withdraw from the coalition after the disengagement, even if Sharon makes good on another bit of conventional wisdom, and "pulls to the right" after the withdrawal: in other words, refuses both additional pullouts and adherence to the road map.
What about the budget, the party members asked Peres. "Our position will be," he said, "to allocate NIS 2 billion to development of the Negev and the Galilee - NIS 1 billion for the Negev and NIS 1 billion for the Galilee." And what if the finance minister refuses? Peres didn't answer. But when they asked him if the Labor Party would pull out after the disengagement, as the newspapers like to write, he yawned. "I'm not sure our withdrawal would necessarily lead to early elections. The prime minister could set up a coalition with Shinui and keep on going until the end of his term."
But what about United Torah Judaism, Peres was asked. Would it sit together with Shinui? "Maybe the National Religious Party would come back after the disengagement," he responded. "And then Sharon would have a stable government until the end of the term, even without us."
Putting brakes on Peretz
Precisely one month has passed since the blow-up at the Labor Party central committee, which announced postponement of the primaries for the party leadership. Since then, no one in Labor has mentioned it. And if so, then in a whisper, somewhat uncomfortably, as if it were an embarrassing illness. The five contenders (anyone remember their names?) have downshifted. From two gatherings a day they've gone to two a week, and even then without any real appetite. As though by diabolic compulsion.
Several Labor higher-ups are now kicking around a new idea: crowning Shimon Peres for another term, one that would be truncated and most definitely final, and thereby removing from their heads the vexation of an electoral race and the danger of defeat. There are the rudiments of an idea that is well known to all of the contenders: Three of the five men, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Matan Vilnai and Ehud Barak, will declare their support for Peres for another term. If Amir Peretz wants to join, then by all means. If not, the race would be between him and Peres, who would enjoy the support of the Barak-Vilnai-Fuad triumvirate. The outcome in such an event is obvious: Peres wins, and wins big, and Peretz is shattered and can no longer rise again. (Alternatively, if Peretz joins in, then in the next contest he would be weaker, by virtue of the law proposed by coalition chairman Gideon Saar, which is supposed to pass its second and third readings in the Knesset today, which obliges him to choose between the Knesset and the Histadrut.)
It is clear what Peres gains from all this. But what would the three other candidates get in exchange for supporting him? One, they almost certainly end Peretz's chances for winning the Labor chairmanship. Two, Peres would owe them, and owe them big. If Labor would win in the next general election, and Peres assembles the next coalition, he would repay them with high-ranking portfolios. If Labor loses and joins a national unity government, they would be inside, too.
The third condition, which is indivisible from this deal, is also the key condition: Peres would be asked to publicly commit that in the event that Labor loses the election, he would relinquish the party leadership within a few months of the Knesset elections and would not run again. Currently, the party constitution states that under circumstances in which Labor's candidate for prime minister does not assemble the new coalition, primaries will be held to selects the new party chairman within 14 months of the Knesset elections. If the deal takes place, it would shorten this period to five, maybe six months. There's still time to argue over it.
Another element of the deal: Even after Peres withdraws from the party leadership, he will not be required to relinquish his position in the next government. That is essentially the only thing of interest to him. The party long ago stopped "doing it" for him.
People in Peres' inner sanctum are quite familiar with this idea and prefer not to comment on it. One aide to Peres, Zeev Shor, the secretary of the Kibbutz Movement, met two weeks ago with Ehud Barak and laid out the proposal to him. Barak did not reject it out of hand, but an official response provided at the end of last week by his office stated that Barak feels "there must be an electoral contest." Vilnai, who spent several days in hospital due to a bicycling accident, stated that the idea was not familiar to him personally, but people close to him admitted that there was nothing new about it. Ben-Eliezer, the third man, is deep in the heart of the matter, is familiar with each and every detail, and is not prepared to dismiss the idea, either. Nor did people close Amir Peretz fall out of their chairs when they were told about it. Ever since the party central committee pulled the primaries out from under them, they have waited to see what would be the next booby-trap set for them.
Benjamin Netanyahu's people read last week in this space about the future strategy of Ariel Sharon and his aides in preparation for the race between the two: persuade Likud members and activists to prefer Sharon over Netanyahu, on the grounds that the Sharon as Likud leader would net them more seats in Knesset, meaning more ministers, more portfolios, more jobs and more power to the central committee members.
Netanyahu's people hastily commissioned a poll to project the distribution of seats in the Knesset based on the party's candidate for premier. According to the poll: The Likud under Netanyahu wins 34 seats. The Likud under Sharon wins 35 seats.
In any case, according to Netanyahu's poll, the Likud loses between five and six seats from its current parliamentary strength (40 seats), which are gobbled up by the right-wing National Union and Yisrael Beiteinu parties. Being a commissioned poll, the findings should be regarded with skepticism. It would be wise to wait for findings of independent polls to be released in the press.
In any case, polls taken now are meaningless. Those conducted post-disengagement, on the eve of the run for Likud leadership, will largely determine the results of the struggle. If the disengagement succeeds, it will be one thing. If a wave of terror begins afterward, it will be another story entirely.
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