In order to have the Labor Party join the government, Sharon has to square things with Netanyahu - who doesn't want Labor in the government. So in order to bring Labor in, Sharon has to skewer it in order to placate Netanyahu. Clear?
On Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's desk there are two volumes of the Yellow Pages. Not the thick telephone books that citizens find on their doorsteps once a year, but slimmer volumes that are distributed only in the ultra-Orthodox community. Sharon intends to show these books to the heads of Shinui, and perhaps already has, in order to persuade them that the ultra-Orthodox aren't such parasites. Sharon pages through the books, and they warm the cockles of his heart: He sees in them a wonderful community life, full of caring and concern for others - aid societies, charitable organizations, associations to help the blind and the poor. There are even women prepared to share their breast milk with strangers' babies, Sharon was moved to find. Sharon hopes that Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid will see in these Yellow Pages what he sees in them: The ultra-Orthodox are not monsters. They are good Jews.
Sharon (as of yesterday noon) has not given up his hope that Shinui will agree to sit with the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism (UTJ). As he sees it, this is the ideal government: Likud, Labor, Shinui and UTJ; the Likud rebels will agree to swallow Labor with UTJ; he will have a majority for disengagement and also for the budget; and most importantly - none of the parties will be able to grab him where it hurts. If Labor leaves, he will have a majority. If Shinui leaves, he will have a majority. If the ultra-Orthodox leave, he will be left with the government that he wanted from the outset: a government of the Likud, Labor and Shinui.
This is what the Likud rebels are worried about - that Sharon will do a number on them. He will buy their support when he brings UTJ into the government, but it will not be long before the ultra- Orthodox, a negligible minority in the government, will quit, and then they, the rebels, will be stuck with a secular- liberal-"white" government. And what will they do then - vote no-confidence?
Not that the nuptials between Shinui and UTJ are a done deal. Shinui will have a hard time coming to terms with the Likud's commitments to UTJ. So you think you'll be in that ministerial office two weeks from now - Interior Minister Avraham Poraz was asked last week. "Two weeks from now, yes, said Poraz. "Two months from now, I'm not sure."
Sharon and Netanyahu
Knesset Speaker Reuven (Ruby) Rivlin met with Sharon at the beginning of the week. Without Bibi (Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), said Rivlin, you don't have a government. He advised Sharon to strengthen their alliance.
I'm with him, said Sharon. Bibi is getting full backing from me. But Netanyahu, in private conversations, has been voicing the suspicion that what's behind Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's aggressive attack on him and on his economic policy is Sharon himself. A senior figure in the Likud recently transmitted a message from Netanyahu to Sharon: If you give up on bringing Labor into the government, Netanyahu will repay you in two ways - he will see to it that the government approves the disengagement plan and he will make a commitment not to run against you for the Likud leadership if there are elections. Sharon responded with the smile of one who has already seen everything. He trusts Netanyahu just as much as Netanyahu trusts him. Sharon is convinced that Netanyahu is opposed to bringing in the Labor Party because he wants the slow-but-sure collapse of Sharon's government so that he, Netanyahu, can succeed him.
But Sharon will not give up on Labor because he sees it as essential for carrying out the disengagement. However, he also realizes that if he gives in to Labor's economic demands, he will be opening a front against Netanyahu. Therefore, this week he has been even tougher than Netanyahu; while the finance minister's people were saying, off the record, that they would agree to a one-week delay in the government's discussion of the budget, Sharon was not prepared to hear about it. This is the situation: In order to bring the Labor Party into his government, Sharon has to square things with Netanyahu - who doesn't want Labor in the government. Therefore, in order to bring Labor in, Sharon has to skewer it in order to placate Netanyahu. Clear?
Sharon and the right
Why aren't you talking with Yesha (acronym for the territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza), Rivlin asked Sharon. Sharon didn't bother to answer. Instead, he asked an underling to bring him a copy of Jeffrey Goldberg's opinion piece that had been published two days earlier (August 5) in The New York Times. The heading: "Protect Sharon from the Right."
Opinion pieces in The New York Times are long, and Sharon called Rivlin's attention to the part where Goldberg tells about an encounter with a woman settler in the territories who lives in an outpost near Nablus. Ayelet, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, carries an M-16 rifle. Goldberg quotes her as saying: "Sharon is forfeiting his right to live." He asks her whether she would like to kill him. "It's not for me to do," she says. "If the rabbis say it, then someone will do it. He is working against God."
In the middle of the conversation between Rivlin and Sharon, the prime minister was informed of the Likud tribunal's decision to convene the party convention to discuss bringing Labor into the government. No matter what the convention decides, declared Sharon, ultimately it is the Knesset that will approve or reject the makeup of the new government.
Sharon can thumb his nose at the convention. He does not need this raucous bunch, which has made every civilized person in the country sick of it. After every encounter with them, its popularity among the public declines. The convention - or the central committee; it's the same thing - is their electorate. If the convention members decide on Wednesday that they are against bringing the Labor Party into the government, some of the members of the Likud Knesset faction who tend to support bringing in Labor will be up against a problem. They will be afraid of revenge from the party members.
Just to make sure, so as not to annoy the convention delegates too much, the Likud and Labor negotiating teams have agreed not to come to any agreements until after the convention. By the end of next week, promises a senior figure in the Labor Party, it will be wrapped up.
Peres and Shochat
On Tuesday of this week Sharon visited the Bedouin township of Rahat. The council head, Talal al-Krinawi, said to him: "You are a person who has the roots of a Mapainik [a member of the precursor of the Labor Party], and the blood of [Ze'ev] Jabotinsky (the founder of a precursor of the Likud] flowing in your veins." Sharon squinted at the cameras in front of him. "I thank you very much for the compliment," he said to the council head. "I hope you will not be angry if I don't invite you to the Likud convention next week."
On Wednesday it was reported that there had been a compromise suggestion in the economic realm made by the Likud people to Labor Party chairman MK Shimon Peres. It was suggested that the Finance Ministry would promise about NIS 400 million, some of it to the pensioners; the budget would be approved in the government on Sunday, as Sharon and Netanyahu want, and Labor will be able to demand a reconsideration of the budget provisions, immediately after the government convenes and after the vote on the first reading in the Knesset.
Labor MK Benjamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer, who bears the title of "Chairman of the Economic-Social Team" in negotiations between Likud and Labor, claims that he hasn't seen this suggestion. He hasn't been told about it. He hasn't been brought up to date. "Nada" [nothing], as he put it. "Apparently Peres wants to spare me the work.
"If we don't insist on all our demands, which are the minimum, we are leading the party to total destruction. It is impossible give to the pensioners, the students, the council heads, the single mothers, the farmers and be left panting," said Fuad. "The Likud's suggestion that we come in after the budget is passed by the government, and that we make changes later, is total bullshit. This is what they tried to put over on me back then, before I resigned from the government" (the previous unity government).
Ben Eliezer is brandishing a big stick, but at the same time his bureau and his people are working energetically, as only they can, on members of the Labor Party central committee to ensure that he is chosen to be transportation minister. Anything less would be unthinkable.
Thus, at a time when, in the area of foreign policy, Labor MK Haim Ramon is pursuing quiet contacts with the Prime Minister's Bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, and with the head of the negotiating team on behalf of the Likud, attorney Yoram Rabad, in the economic area chaos prevails. Three people, three positions: Ben Eliezer breathes fire and brimstone. Shimon Peres seeks compromise and is prepared, almost, to accept anything. MK Dalia Itzik, the chair, isn't coming out in favor of Peres' position, for fear of harming her chances that the central committee will choose her to be a minister.
About three weeks ago Peres appointed MK Avraham (Beiga) Shochat, who was finance minister for six years - four of them in Yitzhak Rabin's government and two of them in Ehud Barak's - a member of "the advisory team to the economic negotiating team on behalf of the Labor Party."
"We had a very important role," says Shochat. "To meet with Dalia, Ramon and Fuad, three weeks ago." A few days ago, when he saw the dimensions of the farce, Shochat went to Peres. "Listen," he said to him, "you are causing dissension over minor matters. What are we? UTJ? Are we going to be content with the NIS 400 million they are throwing us? The moment they refused to postpone the approval of the budget in the government by a week or too, everything is ridiculous."
Shochat suggested to Peres that he go to Sharon and demand that he increase the budget by 1.7 percent and not by 1 percent, as Netanyahu is proposing, but without increasing the deficit. The meaning of this: another NIS 1.5 billion that will come from sources that Shochat undertook to find. "This will be divided up among the pensioners, the local governments, higher education, the Galilee and the agricultural sector," Shochat proposed to Peres. Peres listened and went to Sharon. He came back and said to Shochat: "It's hard. Awfully hard."
"Apparently Bibi has him by a sensitive spot," says Shochat. "We got neighborhood grocery answers from them. Today too I am in favor of entering the government, but I suggest that we don't play games. Instead of depicting this nothing as an achievement, we would do better to say: We concede all the social demands, and are coming in only on the disengagement. This is a sufficiently important issue.
"What affords hope," adds Shochat cynically, "is that the difference between swinish capitalism and social-democracy is NIS 400 million."
Barak and Ramon
Labor Party Knesset members who have not yet been invited to meet former prime minister Ehud Barak, and there are not many such, read in Haaretz yesterday what Barak has said against Labor joining the government, and they all came to the same conclusion: He's coming back. The assessment in the Labor Party is this: Barak does not want Labor in the government. He does not want Shimon Peres as foreign minister. He wants a frustrated party. Bitter. Without sinecures. A party that will agree to forgive him his sins and give him a second chance.
Nu, so what do I know how to do? Barak asks with a kind of challenging humor. To move Peres aside and to beat Bibi. Peres hears these things and goes out of his mind.
Next week, before he leaves for abroad, Barak has meetings planned with three more MKs. A week ago, a messenger on his behalf contacted one of the members of the faction. What can Ehud expect from you if he comes back, asked the messenger. I'm not going to mount the barricades, replied the MK. This was enough. The next day the invitation came.
When MK Haim Ramon read how Barak is preaching to do unto Sharon what he, Barak, did unto Netanyahu after the Wye summit in the fall of 1998 - that is, topple him and not rescue him - he didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
"There was one person who engaged in toppling Netanyahu, and that was yours truly, and there was one person who engaged in rescuing him, and that was Barak. He conducted secret negotiations with him about a unity government in the summer of 1998, at the same time I was busy putting together the coalition to topple him," says Ramon. "All day long he's busy rewriting history. The one who delayed the toppling of Netanyahu's government by several months was Barak. And let there be no doubt about it - if Netanyahu had invited us into the government after his return from Wye, we would have come. Fortunately for us, on the flight back to Israel from Wye, Sara [Netanyahu's wife] convinced him not to go for that. He came back to Israel, attacked us at the airport, and then we toppled him, together with the right.
"What's all this blather about an alternative? What kind of alternative does Barak want to represent? In the economic realm he's more Netanyahu than Netanyahu. A fence -
they're building one. Settlements in the territories - they're evacuating them. Negotiations with the Palestinians? When there's someone to talk to on the other side, even Sharon will talk. With whom does Barak want to negotiate? With [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat?'
A lot of hot air, says Ramon. Ramon is one of the few in the Labor Party who believe that Barak has no intention of coming back. He just enjoys tantalizing everyone and annoying Peres. To this end, believes Ramon, Barak is holding all those meetings, with the activists and the politicos, with the groups and the Knesset members. Perhaps Ramon might change his mind if knew that Barak has even met with Ra'anan Cohen, formerly the party secretary-general and currently a banker, who made life bitter for him during the period they worked together.
Ramon is promising Barak hell on earth if he even tries to come back. But Barak is not alarmed. He believes that this fight, the outcome of which is known to everyone - including Ramon - will only help him establish his standing as the comeback kid.
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