A finger in every pie
Since his understated return to the cabinet several months ago, Haim Ramon has become Ehud Olmert's point man on almost everything, working to shore up the premier's position vis-a-vis the Palestinians, his fellow politicians and the public.
When Haim Ramon rejoined the cabinet, about two months ago, he said his ambition was to help Prime Minister Ehud Olmert get through 2008 safely and bring him politically healthy and sound to 2009. At the time, that looked like a mission that was too big for even a savvy fellow like Ramon. But this week, after the Winograd Committee - which is investigating the handling of the Second Lebanon War - gave in and retracted all its previous refusals concerning the right of individuals who are liable to be harmed by its findings to defend themselves, Ramon's ambitious goal looked a little less pretentious.
The indefinite delay of the committee's final report enables Ramon to complete his A-plan: an agreement between Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) on the principles of a final-status agreement, which would be intended to restore public trust in the least popular prime minister of the past decade and protect him against the conclusions of the Winograd Report when it is issued.
To achieve that goal, Ramon is conducting intensive dialogues in several sectors: with the Palestinians, whom he is trying to persuade to lower their demands and expectations; with Kadima, where there is uneasiness over Olmert's moves; and with the less convenient partners in the coalition, such as Avigdor Lieberman and the Shas party. His kingdom is broad, his activity eclectic: political, diplomatic, security (he is dealing with the passages in the "Jerusalem envelope") and, as of this week, it also involves the public and the media.
Isn't this the etrog syndrome redux? The question - referring to the way the media protected Ariel Sharon like an etrog (the fruit that is carefully protected from damage during Sukkot), because of its support for the disengagement plan - makes Ramon laugh. "The etrog syndrome is a theory concocted by the press," he says. "I think it is arrant nonsense. If we have a window of opportunity today, and do not know how long it will remain open, the prime minister and the government have no choice but to try to seriously examine how far we can get. That is exactly what that man [Olmert] is doing. He is trying and examining. If it succeeds, and a significant, serious process begins, maybe 50-60 percent of the public will say: Even though we don't like him, we want to allow him to go on doing what he is doing. And if the parties in the Knesset say that the prime minister has to be allowed to advance a process that is good for Israel, where's the harm? That is their duty. "Knowing the prime minister as I do," Ramon continues, "there is no chance in the world that he will reach understandings that contradict substantively the worldview of the leaders of Kadima, of Kadima [itself], the coalition and especially the public. I myself will object if red lines are crossed. It is clear to me that in the very near future he will have to sit down with the ministers and update them. But in the meantime, this is all much ado about nothing. How can you be for or against when you don't know about what? I suggest that all those who are worried should calm down. Just calm down."
To erase the stigma
Behind Ramon's A-plan is a B-plan: to restore public trust in himself, and erase the public stigma that remains from the affair of the idiotic kiss. In fact, that affair is not yet behind him: petitions against Ramon's appointment to the cabinet are pending in the High Court of Justice. This is one subject the vice premier still declines to talk about. Apart from the kiss, though, he's ready to talk about everything. In fact, it was only this week that he returned to the front of the stage and the spotlights in a series of moves (including convening the ministerial committee on the settler outposts) and militant, testosterone-saturated security interviews (he called for cutting off the power and water to the Gaza Strip because of the firing of Qassam rockets from there). There was no escaping him: Ramon's face was on every channel, his voice on every radio station.
On Tuesday night, he attended the wedding of Shula Zaken's son (Zaken, Olmert's longtime close aide, was suspended earlier this year during a police investigation of the Tax Authority). People came up to congratulate him. No, not because the trial in the wake of the kiss ended with no declaration of opprobrium, but because of his proposal to punish the Gaza Strip, which was headlined that day in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In the security cabinet, by the way, the proposal was received coolly by both Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "We will conduct our policy in Gaza not on the basis of newspaper headlines and not on the basis of emotional distress but on the basis of logic," a senior source in the Prime Minister's Office stated in response.
At least 95 percent of Ramon's talks with the Palestinians are not reported by the media. That is how he likes to work. "I am trying to persuade the other side to lower their expectations, not increase them," he says. "I tell them that there are things no government will be able to give them. That we will never enter into a detailed agreement that will stipulate exactly what regime will exist in the holy places, or which territories will be exchanged. Or, heaven forbid, that the right of return of the refugees will not be confined solely to a Palestinian state. We want a very general paper, one that can be adopted by Kadima, the coalition and the Knesset, and that will obtain the support of the majority of the public. That is what I tell them, and also international figures I meet with."
Ramon's hyperactivity, his surplus of motivation and his deep involvement in the political-diplomatic arena have landed him no few opponents. Senior figures in the Prime Minister's Bureau think he is in too much of a hurry and that his style is too rash, so much so that it endangers the process. The view in the bureau of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is that Ramon is ratcheting up expectations ahead of November's scheduled international conference in Washington unrealistically, even dangerously, high, and the defense minister's bureau is wrinkling its nose at his activity concerning the settler outposts and his frequent meetings with Palestinians.
In fact, Ramon is acting as foreign minister in practice. Livni gets updates from Olmert, but it is Ramon who is doing the diplomatic work with the Palestinians. This should come as no surprise to anyone. It is exactly what the prime minister had in mind for him on the eve of his hesitant and morose return to the government, and that is exactly what has happened. In the meantime, Ramon, who is nobody's fool, is walking on tiptoes, avoiding leaving behind crude footprints. He has no interest in fomenting confrontations between Olmert and Livni and Barak. Nor do they have any such interest.
Ehud Barak has a clear strategy with regard to Ramon: not to clash with him and not to run up against him, for good or for bad. Barak's circle calls it the "disengagement strategy." "Ehud is a candidate for prime minister," says a Barak confidant. "He does not mess with ministers without portfolio. In any event, there is not much substance in what Ramon is doing. It's all for show. Despite what he says, his activity is mainly political, intended to calm the unease in Kadima."
"There is no doubt that Ramon succeeded in making Olmert walk erect," says a Labor Party cabinet minister, "because he understands that Olmert's end will be his end, and vice versa - that Olmert's rehabilitation will help with his rehabilitation. Ramon is the most experienced person in Kadima, but he is an outsider, and without Olmert he has nothing. His main efforts are devoted to advising Olmert how to overcome internal party rivals: [Shaul] Mofaz, Livni, [Meir] Sheetrit."
"I try very hard not to hurt anyone or step on anyone's toes," Ramon says with uncharacteristic innocence. "We all have a common interest in the existence of a political process and a diplomatic horizon. Tzipi is talking about a diplomatic horizon, I am talking about a diplomatic horizon. It's possible that she doesn't think exactly what I think, but we both want a horizon." In regard to the outposts, too, Ramon says, there is no friction and no stepping on toes. "The committee on the outposts was established before Barak joined the government. You have to understand that this is not a committee to remove outposts; that is within the authority of the defense minister. This committee will decide two main things: how to build in Judea and Samaria - from balconies and classrooms to [whole] settlements - without this depending on the mood of the defense minister or the head of the Central Command; also what constitutes a legal settlement and an illegal one."
He finds no overlap or conflict in the fact that he convened the committee just when it was reported that Barak was holding a dialogue with the settlers concerning the illegal outposts. "I know that the defense minister is talking to the settlers," Ramon says, "and I definitely support that. If asked, I will also help with it." Was he asked? Has he met privately with Barak since he became defense minister? "The opportunity hasn't yet arisen," Ramon says. When it comes to Barak, Ramon suddenly becomes Mr. Laconic.
Elections? In 2010
Ramon's involvement in Olmert's day-to-day tactical and strategic management is also reflected in the central role he plays on the "Balfour team" (named for the Prime Minister's Residence, on Balfour Street in central Jerusalem) - Olmert's equivalent of Sharon's "ranch forum." Ramon is not just another member of the small, intimate group of Olmert's trusted aides, who meet in the residence almost weekly: He is effectively its director and main figure. "Haim is the most experienced political figure there other than the prime minister, and that is very much felt. The dynamics that are created between the two are extremely interesting," says a member of the team, who declines to go into detail, because of the forum's secrecy.
In addition to Ramon's array of assignments, Olmert has now put him in charge of the committee that will negotiate with the university students on the implementation of the Shohat Committee's conclusions on the matter of tuition fees. On top of this, he and the cabinet secretary, Oved Yehezkel, have the task of recruiting the parliamentary majority needed to pass the legislation on changing Israel's political regime, the apple of the eye of Avigdor Lieberman, who is himself the apple of Ehud Olmert's eye.
Ramon sounds a bit skeptical. "I hope we can obtain a majority for at least some of the issues. Not for a presidential regime, to which Olmert is opposed, but for raising the threshold percentage [referring to the percentage of the popular vote a party must obtain in order to enter the Knesset], for having the leader of the largest party in the Knesset automatically become prime minister, and for needing a larger majority to topple a government than to form a government, 66-67 MKs. Those changes will strengthen the country's political stability and the ability to govern." Before you rejoined the government, I remind him, you were afraid you would have nothing to do, that you would crawl around between Olmert's legs, remember? "Today I am happy with my lot," Ramon says. "It is now 11 o'clock at night [on Tuesday] and I am on the way home. That is what the rest of the week looks like, too. I have work, I try to influence, here and there I succeed. My relations with the prime minister are very good, I have full cooperation with him, and he gives me significant freedom of activity." Will Olmert survive until 2009, as Ramon wanted? "There is a good chance. Olmert is a good prime minister. I am not ignoring what happened in the war, but I don't want to get into that. He is certainly better than those who want to succeed him, and I am talking about the chairman of Labor and the chairman of the Likud. He has to be allowed to continue running the affairs of the state. The greatest disaster is instability. There are those who are planning elections for 2008. That would be disaster for the country. It is impossible to govern like that."
What are the chances that Kadima will run in the next elections with Olmert at its head? Ramon begins to show signs of impatience. "The next elections are in 2010. I am not a prophet and I cannot forecast what will be in another three years."