Had Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv decided somewhat earlier to allow United Torah Judaism to join the government, and the new Labor ministers were already enjoying themselves in their new offices, the first blowup between the designated deputy prime minister, Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom would have taken place today.
Peres was supposed to participate as a representative of Israel at a meeting of the World Jewish Congress, in Brussels. Had he arrived there as the deputy prime minister, and as the person defined in the coalition agreement as "the most senior minister after the prime minister," he would certainly have participated in a meeting slated to take place this evening, between the president of the WJC, Edgar Bronfman, and the chairman of the board, Israel Singer, and the secretary general of NATO and the president of the European Union Council. The meeting was called at the request of the two senior European statesmen to discuss the agenda of the new government, Israeli-European relations, the anticipated disengagement from Gaza and what will follow it.
Peres won't be in Brussels today. He will be in the Knesset, at the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers. Alon Pinkas, former Israeli consul general in New York, was invited by Bronfman to participate in the meeting as the representative Israeli. Peres has a very definite and consolidated opinion regarding the next stage following the disengagement: It's called "Oslo." Peres, say his supporters, is joining this government to carry out a crusade: to prove the Oslo Accords were right. He believes Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of all people, more than former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu, who killed Oslo, will follow this path.
Had the deputy prime minister said these things at the Brussels meeting, there would have been tremendous reverberations. It wouldn't have passed quietly. The Likud ministers would have prepared a "hot" welcome for him.
In the near future, Peres will meet with Sharon to discuss his powers. Some people are suggesting that Peres not insist on clear and written powers. This way, he cannot be accused morning, noon and night of exceeding them. In private conversations, Peres says he will be working with the EU, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He wants the disengagement to become a project with global supervision and global commitment.
How generous will Sharon be toward him? Associates of the prime minister say he is stingy about delegating authority, but generous with trips: "Peres will be able to travel everywhere, and to say whatever he wants, but policy will be determined by the prime minister." Sharon's circles are particularly pleased with the fact that the last minister on the list of Labor ministers, Haim Ramon, will be joining the government. "Ramon will be the most influential and involved minister in a series of issues. After Peres, of course," say Sharon's supporters.
The life expectancy of the government to be presented today in the Knesset is uncertain. Peres, of course, will be interested in preserving it as long as possible. But the Labor Party primaries, which have been set for June 28, are liable to hasten the end. As long as the disengagement is being implemented, the Labor ministers will remain in the government. After the disengagement, when the arguments regarding the next step begin, the structure will begin to disintegrate. The discussions of the 2006 State Budget, which usually begin in August-September, will contribute to the instability. Anyone who is elected chair of Labor, with the exception of Peres, will want to pull the party out after the disengagement in order to position himself as an oppositionist.
Two strong forces will be operating, at a time and under circumstances that suit them, to shorten the life of the government: Ehud Barak (Labor) on one hand, and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) on the other. Once again they have common interests: Up until a few weeks ago, they did everything possible to prevent the establishment of the national unity government, the Sharon-Peres government. From here on in they will try to undermine its stability - without being accused of subversion.
He's no Benny Begin
Another kind of person, another kind of politician, finding himself in Uzi Landau's situation, would perhaps have considered resigning today - the day of the presentation of Ariel Sharon's disengagement government. This festive occasion, which will take place this evening in the Knesset, symbolizes the failure of the rebels' camp in the Likud, which Landau, the dismissed minister without portfolio, prefers to call the loyalist camp. Landau has no illusions: He understands that the disengagement is starting out today, and only a dramatic, external event, such as a major terror attack (which he doesn't wish for, God forbid, but which he mentions as a possibility), can stop it. But he has no intention of resigning from anything. He isn't Benny Begin.
For exactly the same reason that Peres joined the government, Landau is remaining in politics. "The struggle," says Landau, "is not only over the disengagement, but over what will follow. The disengagement will not end in Gaza, that's clear. When you hear Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert speaking about the continuation of the withdrawal, from large areas of Judea and Samaria, and Labor whip Dalia Itzik speaking about the Labor Party's `historic participation,' you understand that this is not a national unity government - but an outright leftist government, which will lead to the division of Jerusalem. This is a government that will be established with the votes of Yahad and the Arabs, with the conditional participation of United Torah Judaism. It's nothing more than a farce. This entire issue is standing on very shaky ground."
The series of battles between him and Sharon ended with the victory of the prime minister. Landau compares this victory to Argentina's victory over England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup games, which was achieved through a handball by Diego Maradona.
"The victory is legal, but the method is wrong," he says. "Sharon is using unacceptable maneuvers - threats of dismissal and enticing appointments. Unfortunately, that works on quite a number of members of the [Likud] faction."
If establishing the government were dependent on his vote, he wouldn't hesitate to vote no-confidence and bring Sharon down. He doesn't think Sharon is as great a tactician as he is portrayed in the media.
"When I look at what he began with - a stable government - and at what he's ending up with, I have to say that he has wasted all the political assets he had. He remains almost without ammunition, with the exception of two kinds of weapons: the threat of elections, and enticing appointments."
Landau believes the threat of bringing forward elections became weaker after the decision regarding a method of internal elections in the Likud that will lead to the dismissal of at least 16 or 17 MKs from the list for the next Knesset. "The way the Likud Central Committee looks today, and if we take into account the fact that approximately 130 additional people from Yisrael b'Aliyah will be joining, our camp is actually becoming stronger. And the people who will be ejected before the coming elections," he confidently predicts, "won't be our people, but rather supporters of the disengagement, Sharon's supporters."
The central committee battle
Landau is encouraged by another amendment to the Likud constitution, which was approved last Thursday at the party convention. The amendment, which was submitted by central committee member Yitzhak Nimrodi, states that a party member will need 16 months of seniority before he can be elected to Likud institutions, or vote for them.
The practical significance of this amendment is that in the primaries for the leadership of the Likud, which will probably be held within the next 15 months (assuming that the Knesset elections will not be held on time, in November 2006, but about six months earlier), those with the right to vote will be those registered now on the Likud voter list.
It will no longer be possible to register tens of thousands of new voters two or three months before the primaries - ad-hoc registrants who will join only in order to choose the next leader.
Those who will choose the next Likud chair will be primarily members of the Likud "hard core." This news should gladden the hearts of Sharon's rival in the next contest, regardless of whether it is Benjamin Netanyahu or Uzi Landau. Why? Because the "hard core" is more ideological, more extreme right-wing.
On the eve of the previous primaries between Sharon and Netanyahu, the Likud voter list comprised 300,000 people. Many of them were not Likud voters at all. After participating in the primaries, and contributing to Sharon's victory over Netanyahu, they canceled their standing orders.
Today there are about 160,000 registered members in the Likud (and another 20,000 new members, who have signed a standing order and are awaiting official approval: i.e. 180,000 members).
On the eve of the referendum of Likud voters, the same 160,000 people were registered - about 100,000 of them participated in the vote, and we recall the outcome: an across-the-board vote of no-confidence against the disengagement.
Ostensibly, if the Knesset elections are in fact brought forward by about six months, and the Likud primaries are held about two months before that, the composition of those with the right to vote for the head of the Likud will be almost identical to the electorate that decided against the disengagement by a sweeping majority in the referendum.
As mentioned, that is not good news for Sharon. MK Omri Sharon, the prime minister's son, worked at the convention to prevent the adoption of this amendment. Sharon junior also worked to prevent the new method of elections that was adopted by members of the central committee, which determined that 16 or 17 of the present Likud MKs will not find themselves in the next Knesset.
The conclusion is simple: If the Sharon camp tried to prevent those two amendments, apparently Landau has reason to be pleased.
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