Barring last-minute surprises, the referendum basic law bill will be put to a vote in the Knesset today. And barring any earth-shattering political-parliamentary developments, the referendum notion will come crashing down, and its spirit will cease to hover over the political establishment - for six months at least.
The potential for last-minute drama does, however, remain. If one faction asks the Knesset speaker to turn the vote on the referendum into a motion of no confidence in the government, we'll have an interesting situation on our hands: How will the Likud ministers who are in favor of a referendum vote? Support for a referendum would also mean support for the no-confidence motion. Can a minister who votes no confidence in his government continue to serve in it? And how will the majority (some 28) of the Likud faction members who support a referendum vote?
If the above scenario ensues today, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may find himself in a pickle: He will have to rely, once again, on the votes of Yahad and the Arab parties, which reject a referendum on the one hand, and, on the other, are also opposed to the government; in light of their support of the disengagement, however, they will be obliged to vote against the no-confidence motion and support the Sharon government.
Labor MK Yuli Tamir thinks her party wimped out completely last week. Labor had the power to prevent the vote on the bill by virtue of its coalition agreement, but it didn't lift a finger. "We have become the Knesset suckers," Tamir says. "What we are going through is plain sad. No one takes us into account any longer. If we had balls, we could have prevented the referendum and secured changes in the budget clauses too. But this party prefers to commit suicide. We are constantly being told: `Keep quiet; the disengagement is more important than anything else.'"
Tamir is referring to Clause 18 in the coalition agreement between the Likud and Labor that clearly and plainly states: "The sides agree that all new basic laws, or any amendments to them or the existing basic laws, will be submitted and enacted solely with the consent of all factions in the coalition to be established. In the event that a proposal comes up for voting on first reading in the Knesset contrary to the aforesaid, all the coalition factions will vote against it."
What could be plainer than that? Labor, after all, rejects a referendum. All it had to do was stir up a crisis on the backdrop of plans by Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Michael Eitan to put the first reading of the bill to a vote. Tamir wasn't the only one who had such expectations from her party. The prime minister's close associates also expected Labor to do the work for them. They forgot they were dealing with Labor.
At first glance, it appears that once again, Labor demonstrated its typical wimpishness. But if one thinks about it a little, it did the right thing by standing on the sidelines and not brandishing the agreement - first and foremost because it had no real sanction with which to threaten Sharon. What would Shimon Peres have said? That Labor was going to dismantle the disengagement government (the evacuation-construction government, as Peres likes the call it - the evacuation of Gaza and construction in the Negev and Galilee)? That isn't on the cards. It will happen in any event if the referendum bill is miraculously approved today in the Knesset.
Secondly, it is best for Labor to remain on the sidelines, in this case, and watch the Likud bigwigs bickering and fighting among themselves. At the end of the day, the policy that Sharon is putting into practice is Labor's policy.
And thirdly, Labor is not very adept at directing crises. The "hold-me-back" story no longer impresses anyone. It would have broken down in tears and come crawling back - in return for nothing.
Engagement after disengagement
Last week, on these very pages, Akiva Eldar wrote about "the disengagement after the disengagement" - referring to the possibility that following the pullout from Gaza, the Likud and Labor may be forced to part ways, and elections would be brought forward. The deal struck by Yosef Lapid, Avraham Poraz and Sharon at Sycamore Ranch on Saturday night brings to the surface a scenario that could be called "the engagement after the disengagement."
In other words, did the four-strong dinner at the ranch (Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon was also present) include talk of the following option - that after the pullout, if indeed the political divide between Labor and Likud ends their partnership, Shinui will return to the government, together with the National Religious Party, and remain a part of it until it completes its term in office, in October 2006?
Why not in fact? These two parties, the NRP and Shinui, are power-hungry entities. Life in the opposition wilderness doesn't do them good. Under the prevailing assumption, following implementation of the disengagement, Sharon will shift to the right in an effort to better his chances in his leadership face-off with Benjamin Netanyahu. Shifting to the right means that Sharon will be tough when it comes to the nature of the final-status agreement with the Palestinians. This will be an excellent excuse for the NRP to race back into the government. Shinui won't need an excuse. It will simply report to Sharon's bureau and wait with bated breath and its tail wagging until the narrowest opening in the door appears.
Numerically, it could all work out: Under the assumption that Labor quits the government, Sharon will remain with 40 MKs from Likud, five from United Torah Judaism and two or three supporters from the outside. Shinui and the NRP would add another 18 seats - thus enabling a stable coalition of 66 lawmakers. If UTJ pulls out because of Shinui's entrance, Sharon will be left with 61 MKs - from the Likud, Shinui and NRP, plus three supporters from the outside in the form of Yosef Paritzky, Michael Nudelman and David Tal.
No, it's no picnic; but from a political point of view, it's a stable coalition - and is also so from an economic point of view and with regard to matters of religion and state. Shinui has eased its positions in the past, and it won't have a problem being flexible in the future too. To the contrary, flexibility is an acquired trait.
It's all up to Sharon, in fact. If he believes that elections immediately after the disengagement don't serve his interests, he will have this option at his disposal.
What was eating Katz?
Sharon again spent the last week deep in thought about the cynicism and lack of consideration that have taken over political life. He is not accustomed to such expressions of ingratitude on the part of colleagues and partners to the cause. After all, he was always there to lend a hand to friends in trouble.
Who and what sparked Sharon's ire? Ministers Limor Livnat and Yisrael Katz. On Friday morning, a few hours before Sharon was slapped in the face by Yedioth Ahronoth's main headline about statements by U.S. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer that there is no understanding between Israel and the United States vis-a-vis settlement blocs remaining in place, Limor and Katz jumped to their feet and released an announcement on the need "to reconsider the disengagement plan."
Katz was very adamant; Livnat was more low-key. She only wanted to make sure that the American commitment to support the settlement blocs was still in place.
Sharon was livid. Why couldn't they have waited a little longer, and demonstrated some patience, Sharon asked his people. The headline, which Sharon likened to a political terror attack par excellence (and has been undermined meanwhile by minutes documenting Kurtzer's exact statements), had hardly had a chance to set, and already Livnat and Katz were starring on the radio. Sharon and his people were at a loss with regard to what was eating Katz. What caused the agriculture minister, who is on good terms with Sharon, to go on the attack with such ferocity?
For a few hours, Sharon toyed with the idea of adopting the proposal by the two ministers, of putting the disengagement plan to a second vote in the cabinet - where it would have won a large majority, of course - and then seeking the approval again of the Knesset, and forcing Livnat and Katz to again vote in favor of the plan, just as they love so much to do.
Sharon was itching to pull a fast one; but he showed restraint. This time, his associates explained yesterday, he wanted to win, and not to enjoy himself. Nevertheless, he didn't restrain himself completely and yesterday, during the cabinet meeting, he directed the following statements at Katz: "Those who want a lack of clarity create a lack of clarity. We had no need for the American clarifications. We know what we have achieved. Those who want the clarifications are closing their eyes in any case and have no intentions of accepting them."
An irrelevant rescue
The capitulation on the part of Lapid and Poraz led to the cancelation of the Yahad convention, which was supposed to have taken place last night in Tel Aviv for the purpose of discussing the faction's vote on the budget. From the outset, faction members were not very enthusiastic about holding the gathering at all. They couldn't work out when Yahad had turned into the Likud. Why convene the party convention to tell the Knesset members how to vote?
But party chairman Yossi Beilin insisted, and his close associate Ruby Nathanson collected the required signatures. Yahad faction sources believe the true reason behind the convention was the ongoing, and somewhat trying, struggle between the two Yossis - Beilin and Sarid. Beilin wanted the convention to force Sarid to toe the line - to vote in the same way as his colleagues and not to be a renegade, as was the case in the vote on the establishment of the unity government. The convention was also intended to provide Beilin with a media platform two days before the vote on the budget, which, prior to the Lapid-Sharon meeting, was dependent primarily on the Yahad votes.
Nothing ensued. Yahad was pushed aside. Just like the Likud rebels, it became irrelevant. It was on the verge of winning its 15 minutes of fame by rescuing Sharon and the sacred disengagement; and then it all fell through.
All that remained was the Beilin-Sharon meeting, which was defined no less than "historical" and became one of mere courtesy. Sources in Sharon's bureau told of pressure on the part of Beilin, applied through a third party, for the purpose of holding the meeting (prior to the deal with Lapid). Sources in Beilin's office denied any pressure.
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