If you ask Meretz MK Haim Oron, there is nothing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert wants more than a peace treaty with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. If Oron emerges as the victor of the Meretz primary next month, the veteran politician from Kibbutz Lahav will even consider bringing his faction's five MKs into the coalition. But he will probably have to make do with four MKs. Zahava Gal-On would rather jump from the Shalom Tower than join Olmert's government.
In contrast to Oron's optimism, former National Religious Party MK David Glass, Oron's partner in the Geneva Initiative and a confidant of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has serious doubts about the prime minister's intentions for peace. "Look for the personal angle," the Jerusalem attorney recommends.
Glass, who serves as legal advisor to Shas, believes Olmert attended the Annapolis summit in order to emerge safely from the Winograd Committee report. When former minister Avigdor Lieberman (Yisrael Beiteinu) left the government in protest over the budding negotiations on the conflict's core issues, Glass reassured his colleagues in Shas' leadership, who fear the reaction of their right-wing electorate. The attorney, who has spent quite a few hours with Olmert, is willing to bet that the prime minister will not spend too much time with Abbas during the coming months. And in fact, Olmert's schedule does not include any meetings with Palestinians, but a series of visits in several European capitals, as well as in Tokyo.
The pressure from Shas is not Olmert's only reason or excuse for "treading water" in the negotiations with the Palestinians. In private conversations, he says that if it were up to him and Abbas, peace would be around the corner. The prime minister claims that two factors are interfering with the advent of peace: Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and the head of the Palestinian negotiating team, Ahmed Qureia; and officials in the defense establishment, who are very skeptical about the chances of reaching an agreement with such a weak Palestinian partner. According to Olmert, these two channels are delaying any advance toward an agreement. A prominent Kadima MK who is close to Livni last week said that the foreign minister told him she "is reining in Ehud." It is difficult to believe that this is but a staged performance of good cop and bad cop.
The outpost issue, and the Migron outpost in particular, also has the potential of becoming a political migraine. MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima) told Haaretz that if Olmert does in fact bring about the forced evacuation of this capital of the outposts by August, as he promised the High Court of Justice, he himself will bring down the government. Schneller says he will not lend a hand to a second Amona. That sounds like an ultimatum. Schneller confirms the version of Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer to the effect that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reached an understanding with settlement leaders regarding the voluntary evacuation of 90 percent of the outposts. Schneller, who is himself a resident of the territories, says the arrangement conforms to the promise former prime minister Ariel Sharon and Olmert made to U.S. President George W. Bush. He says that in the context of the agreement, every building that was built on private Palestinian land will be moved.
Officials in the Prime Minister's Bureau are doubtful. If Barak has reached an agreement with the settlers, Olmert's associates say, what is he waiting for? In any case, Olmert has a bellyful of gripes against the defense minister. His stealthy departure from the Knesset plenum's discussion of the Winograd report came on top of the leadership maneuver he pulled on the prime minister when he closed the crossings to Gaza, a step that resulted in the breaching of the Philadelphi route. Although a few weeks ago, Barak received an agreement in principle from the cabinet allowing him to use the closure weapon, there is no question that Olmert expected the defense minister to exchange a few words with him before doing so. This prolonged tension reinforces the feeling held by Olmert's associates that Barak has no great desire to see the prime minister sign a treaty he himself was unable to obtain.
Meanwhile, Vice Premier Haim Ramon promised last week that the Ministerial Committee on Unauthorized Outposts, which he heads, would go out into the field in the coming days in order to examine from up close the legal and diplomatic issues related to the subject. He added that the committee would submit a new bill to the government regarding the procedure for obtaining construction permits in the territories. Among other things, the committee will have to decide how to treat existing plans for the construction of thousands of residential units in the territories that were approved by previous governments, beginning in the 1980s, during the government of Yitzhak Shamir.
MK Schneller is a partner not only to the plan for a voluntary evacuation of "unauthorized" outposts, but also for evacuation of "authorized" settlements as well. Together with Minister Ami Ayalon (Labor), he is promoting an initiative for a national referendum on the final-status agreement with the Palestinians. The idea began to take shape during quiet contacts in 2005, on the eve of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Also participating in the discussions were former chief of staff and minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and attorney Gilad Sher, who was Barak's representative in the negotiations with Arafat, as well as Pinhas Wallerstein (the former leader of the Yesha Council of settlements) and Emunah Alon (a settler activist).
Schneller says then prime minister Sharon was in on the secret. He says that a few hours before the group was supposed to present the agreement to him, the settlers got cold feet and the meeting was cancelled.
In exchange for the government's commitment to pass a national referendum law on the final status agreement, the settlers' leaders are willing to promise that they will convince their movement to accept the public's decision. Ayalon, a minister without portfolio, is also ready to make far-reaching concessions for the sake of peace at home and peace with the Palestinians. Not for the sake of peace in the party. "The battle in the party has only begun," he says. Ayalon is disappointed by Barak's explanations for remaining in the government, to the effect that the Israel Defense Forces have to be prepared for war and the party for elections.
"I paid a high price for joining the government before the Winograd Committee had its say," said Ayalon. "I joined and I'm remaining for one purpose only: to promote the peace process." Since finishing the shivah (the seven-day mourning period) for his father, Ayalon is trying to revive the evacuation-compensation law for the settlers. If Barak does not head in the same direction, he will get up one morning and find that a cote of rebellious doves has arisen within his party.
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