On the eve of critical votes in the Knesset and cabinet on evacuation-compensation, on the actual evacuation and on the 2005 State Budget, there is once more rumbling in the Likud. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says in private conversations that he will vote against the disengagement. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom says that he is still undecided.
Netanyahu says that even if he votes against the plan he will not organize opposition to Sharon or campaign against disengagement. He wants to signal to the prime minister that he is not interested in an all-out war. Sharon is in no hurry to believe this reassuring message. Sharon will stop being suspicious of Netanyahu when Netanyahu is no longer suspicious of Sharon.
During the previous cabinet vote on the disengagement plan, Netanyahu and Shalom coordinated their moves, together with Education Minister Limor Livnat. The three, with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni acting as a mediator, worked out a formula requiring that a separate vote be held before the evacuation of each cluster of settlements. Today, it is clear that it would be impossible to implement this step-by-step formula, because the attorney general has ruled that at least five months must pass between a vote on evacuation and the actual evacuation.
Will the Netanyahu-Shalom-Livnat axis be resurrected before the next cabinet vote, which may come next week or perhaps the week after? Will a suite need to be arranged again at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv so that the threesome will have a warm and pleasant place to deliberate and undergo their tormented soul-searching? So far, the three ministers say, no pre-vote coordination has been planned, but initial feelers have been exchanged.
There is also tangible unrest among Likud Party activists. Last week, 650 signatures were collected from central committee members demanding a committee meeting to decide on a referendum. In any case, the committee will not be convened before the cabinet votes.
If the committee passes a resolution instructing its Knesset representatives to support a referendum, and if someone submits a referendum bill, all 40 members of the Likud faction would be obligated to support it.
According to the current balance of forces in the Knesset, even if all Likud MKs and the right support a referendum, it would still lack a majority.
Despite Tuesday's summit and a flurry of diplomatic activity, senior Likud figures focused last weekend on just one thing - a survey asking members of the Likud Central Committee to rank candidates for the next Knesset party list under the assumption that Sharon remains Likud chairman. In the survey, conducted for Radius Radio by the Geocartography Institute directed by Avi and Rina Degani, Netanyahu won first place, followed by Uzi Landau, Dan Naveh, Silvan Shalom, Tzachi Hanegbi, Yisrael Katz, Ehud Yatom!, Gilad Erdan, Limor Livnat, Abraham Hirchson, Michael Ratzon and Gideon Sa'ar.
Except for Hirchson, all are opponents of the disengagement plan, or Likud rebels or referendum supporters. Next in the survey's rankings were Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Ayoub Kara, Gila Gamliel, Gideon Ezra, Shaul Mofaz (18th place!), Meir Sheetrit and Haim Katz. Most of those ranked 11 through 20 are supporters of Sharon and the disengagement. The message from the central committee is clear and not at all surprising: Sharon's supporters will be punished and his opponents will be upgraded.
Holes in the security net
It's not just Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu who are anxiously waiting for Shas to decide whether it will support the State Budget, or at least enable its passage by abstaining. The Yahad (ex-Meretz) faction is also holding its breath, because if Shas decides to oppose the budget, Sharon will need the votes of the six MKs from the left to pass the budget and carry out the disengagement.
Shas has still not decided, but Yahad is already arguing over something that might not take place. In fact, they argue about practically everything. Last weekend, at the Israel Bar Association convention at the Dead Sea, elite attorney Ram Caspi asked the faction chairman, MK Zahava Gal-On, how she and her colleagues would vote. "Against," Gal-On responded unequivocally, even if it means the government would fall. We cannot support this budget, she explained.
Caspi, a great supporter of the government, was shocked. He proposed polling the attorneys in the auditorium on how Yahad should vote if the fate of the government depended on it. A poll was not conducted, but from the levels of applause after Caspi and Gal-On's speeches, there was no question which would have received a majority.
"It's true that Caspi received more applause," Gal-On said, "but I'm convinced that we must not vote for the budget, unless it is a very different budget. Sharon should decide what is more important to him - the disengagement or Bibi. You can't relieve Sharon of the responsibility each time and lay it at our door. It's true that we voted for the `sake of heaven' last time [to approve the new government, Y.V.], but the budget is not the same thing."
"At most," Gal-On said, "the disengagement would be postponed by a few months. Any prime minister elected after Sharon would be committed to it."
Gal-On said that her position reflects the view of her Knesset faction but that she is troubled by "nuances" she has detected in the positions of some of her colleagues. She is not referring to Yossi Sarid. He sounds just as determined as her. But MK Ran Cohen sounded a bit less unequivocal. "At the moment, we're voting against," he said. "But the faction decision, which I formulated, says that we will not allow the Likud rebels and extreme right to undermine the disengagement, and this decision also still stands. If the political reality on March 31 [the deadline for approving the budget, Y.V.] changes, we'll need to deliberate."
The party's chairman, Yossi Beilin, is somewhere in the middle, leaning slightly toward Cohen's position. According to Beilin's office, Yahad will vote against the budget unless "significant changes" are made to it. That is, Beilin is ready to negotiate.
By the way, according to a survey conducted by Yossi Vadana and reported last week on Israel Radio, a clear majority of Yahad supporters - about 65 percent - believe that their Knesset faction should vote for the budget if the fate of the government depends on the vote. Perhaps there is an opening here for a deal: Beilin would agree to his colleagues' demand to bring back the "Meretz" trademark, and in return, they would support the budget in accordance with the wishes of most of their voters, who also want to reinstate the name Meretz.
An edge for Ashkenazim in Labor
More than 20 percent of Labor Party members are kibbutzniks - Kibbutz members number about 11,000 of a total party membership of 48,000. They have always registered for the Labor Party collectively - the kibbutz secretary submits a check to the party on behalf of those registering. Every once in a while someone protests this arrangement. The protests are made and the collective convoy continues on its way. By the way, the kibbutzim pay a discounted membership fee - NIS 50 per person a year. If they insisted, the party would agree to pay the entire fee for them - just as long as they keep registering every year.
A few weeks ago, the party decided to take a close look at this. They established a membership committee and appointed the party's treasurer, Moshe Cohen, to chair the panel. After studying the matter, Cohen's conclusion was crystal clear: If the collective registration were to be canceled, the number of kibbutzniks registering for the party would plummet to one thousand. "Most members of Takam [the largest kibbutz movement] do not have private bank accounts," explained Cohen. "They can't write checks. Instead, each person has an individual budget with a special `political' item, from which the membership fee is drawn. Not just for the Labor Party, but for any party."
Cohen said that he did not personally check the prevalence of bank accounts, but that this is what a number of kibbutz secretaries told him. According to what Cohen was told, a kibbutz member who wishes to register for a party fills out a form and gives it to the kibbutz secretary, which deducts the fee from their personal budget. It turns out that only about one thousand of the kibbutz members who register for the party have a personal bank account.
At first glance, this sounds a bit odd. After all, most of the kibbutzim have decided to privatize to some degree and many kibbutz members have opened or are opening bank accounts. In any case, the conventional wisdom in the party is that Labor's decision not to touch the collective registration arrangement at the kibbutzim serves the interests of two contenders for the party's leadership - Matan Vilnai and Ehud Barak. The Ashkenazim. One of them - Barak - is a former kibbutznik. Therefore, the arrangement harms two of the other candidates, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Amir Peretz. The non-Ashkenazim.
Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit does not know where the rumors started. Last week, three people approached him in the Knesset and asked him whether he was a candidate to become the next ambassador to Washington. Sheetrit said "No," twice. No, he is not giving up the Transportation Ministry. No, he does not seek a diplomatic post. It has never even crossed my mind, Sheetrit chuckled.
It seems that the source of the rumors was the negotiations between Sharon and Eli Yishai about Shas joining the coalition. It was reported last week that Shas would get the transportation portfolio. According to this version, Sheetrit - a supporter of disengagement - would be given the Washington post as a consolation prize. But Sheetrit has little to worry about because the chances of Shas joining the government appear to be slim.
However, a source in the Prime Minister's Office attributes the rumor to "spin" someone is trying to create at the expense of the current ambassador, Danny Ayalon. "Lately, I am hearing more and more about how the prime minister intends to replace Ayalon," the source said. "I have heard the names of three `sure' candidates to replace him. I hereby declare that Ayalon's position is secure, that Arik relies on him and that there is no intention of replacing him."
The same source hinted that this "spin" might have originated in the Foreign Ministry, where there is great displeasure over the close and fruitful connection between Ayalon and the prime minister's special envoy, attorney Dov Weisglass.
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