At the Prime Minister's Bureau, they rubbed their eyes in disbelief when they first saw the document listing the demands of Labor Party chairman MK Shimon Peres and his status in the future government. "He wants to be foreign minister and a little bit prime minister," said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's people. The document, which is not signed by Peres (he, after all, does not concern himself with such matters), lists, among others, the following demands: responsibility for relations with Arab countries; responsibility for relations with the donor countries; responsibility for negotiations with the Palestinians; responsibility for the diplomatic track of the disengagement process, both with regards to the Palestinians and the international community, as well as for the advancement of peace; responsibility for the secret services and for the National Security Council. "If we fulfill all these demands," say Sharon's people, "all that will be left to [Foreign Minister] Silvan Shalom will be the car and the desk, and it's uncertain Peres won't want them, too. Doesn't Peres know the expression: There are no small jobs, there are only small people? And suppose he is minister of regional development - and he won't be, don't worry - is it conceivable that a world leader will visit here and not meet with him too? Since when is status determined by a position?" What else is there to say? Ehud Barak could not have said it better.
At the Foreign Ministry they refused to react to Peres' demands. Shalom's close associates say that if Sharon agrees to these demands, "there won't be a government." Apparently Sharon too is aware of this. The last thing he needs is a prolonged war between Shalom and Peres opening every government meeting. Sharon also does not need an angry, hostile and vengeful Shalom. This could finally send him into the arms of Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and there is no doubt that Sharon wants Shalom's support ahead of his next race for chairmanship of the Likud.
"What did the prime minister expect?" ask Peres' close associates. "That giving up the foreign affairs portfolio would go uncompensated? It is clear to us that Silvan is applying pressure and threats, but Sharon will have to deal with this. Peres is not coming into the government to twiddle his thumbs."
In any case, the person in the inferior position here is Peres. After he declared repeatedly that he has no interest in appointments, he isn't seeking them, and all he wants is to see the boys leave Gaza, an expression he borrowed from Labor MK Haim Ramon. He will not blow up the unity government over a petty quarrel about responsibilities. The scariest threat he can muster against Sharon is that the Labor Party will not enter the government without portfolios.
`The Arafat provision'
"Labor Party joining the coalition necessitates a rethinking of the entire process of the disengagement from Gaza," says Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit. "It is possible to carry out the disengagement in less time. There is a majority for this, in the government and in the Knesset. If we let [disengagement] draw out, it will only cause more disagreements and more problems. It is necessary to get straight to the point. To vote even before March 2005."
Sheetrit believes it is possible to speed up the business and to carry out a lightning vote on each stage of the evacuation of Gaza and northern Samaria. Official sources reported recently, to whomever they report, that extremist elements from the West Bank have already taken over vacant houses in Gush Katif in the Gaza Strip and are preparing to greet the evacuators. Sheetrit believes the longer the process takes, the harder it will be for the Israel Defense Forces and the police to carry out the evacuation. The price is liable to be very high.
But at the Prime Minister's Bureau, they are showing no signs of urgency. The evacuation will begin on July 3 as planned, says a source close to Sharon, but no decision has yet been taken regarding the date of the vote.
It is true that the government's decision talks about starting the votes in the government "by March 2005," but this is not a sacred date. It is definitely possible that there will be a postponement, if the legislation is not completed or the army is not ready. Or, alternatively, if a partner emerges on the Palestinian side with whom it is possible to coordinate the implementation of the withdrawal. To this end, a new provision was inserted into the agreement between Likud and Labor, known as "the Arafat provision:"
"If a new Palestinian leadership is formed, the government will act toward coordinating issues connected to the disengagement, including security matters as well as the transferal of the buildings and infrastructures that will remain in Gaza and in northern Samaria to the Palestinian Authority and international parties." This excuse alone, of building coordination and cooperation with someone on the other side, will prevent a crisis between Likud and the Labor Party if Sharon does decide to postpone a vote in the government.
For whom will Sharon fight?
Sheetrit, who has been transportation minister since the National Union left the government, doesn't believe he will have to give up his portfolio for the Labor Party. "As far as I can understand, Sharon is not about to quarrel with ministers in the Likud and certainly not with ministers who have supported him," he says.
Correct, say Sharon's close associates. That's the idea. But here and there it could be that we will have to give something up. After all, it is impossible to humiliate the Labor Party and rub its nose in the dust. One thing is clear: MK Dalia Itzik can forget about the education portfolio. The prime minister is not going to take it away from Education Minister Limor Livnat. He is not going to touch her. We also have no intention of passing special legislation for Peres so that he can become a second deputy prime minister. Since when is a Basic Law changed for one person - even if he's Peres?
Justice Minister Tzipi Livni also believes she will keep the justice portfolio until the end of the term. Public Security Minister Gideon Ezra is certain that his portfolio will not be taken from him. Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz is already measuring the Interior Ministry office windows for curtains. Health Minister Danny Naveh and minister without portfolio Tzachi Hanegbi are expecting promotions. Is everyone going to come out happy?
With regard to the interior portfolio, at least, the unambiguous talk about keeping it in Likud hands before the vote in the Likud convention changed after the polling stations at the Fair Grounds closed at 10 P.M. on Thursday night. Now Sharon has received the green light from the Likud to expand his government, the spokesmen are less definite. It is possible that the Interior Ministry will be given to Labor, they admit. We would very much want to keep it for ourselves, but it is not certain we will be able to do so.
How amusing it was at the Fair Grounds, they said this weekend in the Likud, to see the "putsch" ministers - Naveh, Katz and Livnat - spurring their people to come and vote in favor of Sharon. Only three weeks ago they cooked up, together with Netanyahu, a move that was supposed to have culminated in the toppling of Sharon's government (if he did not go for a referendum). And now, after Sharon brushed them away along with their referendum as if they were annoying flies in the sheep pen at his ranch, they are rallying in favor of bringing the Labor Party into the government.
Vilnai on top
If Peres gives up on presenting a list of ministers to his party's central committee, there will be a secret vote in the central committee, perhaps by the end of this week, for ministerial appointees. In the last round, about four years ago, it was Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Ephraim Sneh and Dalia Itzik who raked in the entire kitty: defense, transportation and industry and trade. Matan Vilnai had to make do with a minor portfolio. This time the tables could turn. Although Vilnai declares that the Labor Party should enter the government without portfolios and quit after the disengagement, it will not stop him from attacking the portfolios with all his legions the moment the auction starts.
In an internal survey in the Labor Central Committee carried out by the Hanoch and Rafi Smith research institute about 10 days ago, 400 members of the central committee who constitute, according to Rafi Smith, a representative sample, were asked to rank their "top five" (without reference to one portfolio or another and without reference to the question of party leadership, which was examined in a different question). It emerged that Vilnai had improved his position considerably. Here are the results: Vilnai - 60 percent, Peres - 55 percent, Itzik - 40 percent, Ben-Eliezer - 38 percent, Sneh - 29 percent, Amir Peretz - 27 percent, Ehud Barak - 27 percent, Ophir Pines-Paz - 26 percent and Haim Ramon - 26 percent.
On the assumption that a correlation exists between the ranking of the top five on the future list for the Knesset and the ranking for ministerial appointments, Vilnai is destined to get the most senior portfolio that is given to the Labor Party (apart from Peres, for whom a special portfolio will be concocted). This will serve him well in the primaries for the chairmanship of the Labor Party at the end of June, 2005. However, the survey does not, and cannot, examine the effect of deals among various power groups in the central committee. For example, Ben-Eliezer's camp and Sneh's camp are solidified camps, and they can link up with another camp, say Shalom Simhon's moshavniks, leaving Vilnai behind.
Another interesting point that emerges from the survey: Ehud Barak is in a bad state in the central committee. If he really is considering running for a ministerial position, as has been reported, this survey ought to drive any such thought from his mind. And what is not surprising is the low ranking of Haim Ramon, the project leader, the bulldozer and the man behind the unity government. Despite this finding in the survey, it is unreasonable to assume that Ramon of all people will remain outside the government.
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