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To his aides, Ariel Sharon would praise Uzi Landau, the leader of the Likud "rebels," who opposed the disengagement plan. Uzi has a historic role, Sharon explained: If the plan is implemented without encountering any resistance, the world will think such a move is easy and that Israel did not make enough concessions. For this reason internal opponents are important - they strengthen you outwardly.

That historic role is now being played by the Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu parties. The danger of their defecting from the coalition is strengthening Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in carrying out the negotiations - which began this week - with the Palestinians on the text of the joint declaration that is to be presented at the end of next month's Annapolis conference. The chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), and his staff want to reach an agreement on the principles of the final-status arrangement already now. Olmert, on the other hand, wants a document of a more general character, which will reflect Israeli concessions on the "core issues," but leave their solution for talks to be held after the conference.

Faced with these Palestinian demands and the pressures exerted by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is to arrive in the region on Sunday for talks, Olmert has two cards he can play: Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman, the leaders of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu, respectively. In his statement to the Knesset last Monday, Olmert said, "This is not a move by one person but by a government, including all its component parts and the policies of its members, each with their special sensitivities." Beyond the swipes at Ehud Barak, whose coalition fell apart on the way to the 2000 Camp David summit, and at Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government crumbled after the 1998 Wye agreement, Olmert's comment also carries a present-day message: the political weight of Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu will determine the extent of Israel's flexibility in the current round of talks.

The view in the Prime Minister's Bureau is that the existing coalition will survive the Annapolis meeting and the declaration it will produce. Shas has no ideological problem when it comes to negotiations with the Palestinians. Its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, asserted long ago that saving Jewish lives is more important than maintaining a Greater Israel, thereby rendering the peace process kosher. In his testimony to the Winograd Committee investigating the conduct of the Second Lebanon War, Yishai related that he had warned Rabbi Yosef that this approach would cost Shas voters and that the party would find itself with a mere two Knesset seats. "He responded, 'I do not care about the seats, I care about human life,'" Yishai testified to the committee. "Many rabbis attacked him, saying 'Who made you the arbiter of the Land of Israel, which God gave to the Jewish people?' Rabbi Yosef said, 'That applies to the time when the messiah will come and give us the whole Land of Israel. At the moment, human life is more important to me.'"

Shas' vision, according to Yishai, is one of a political process and peace. But vision aside, Yishai is concerned about losing Knesset seats and is reluctant to upset Shas' right-wing voters. This is why he requested of Olmert to proceed with caution. He has no problem with the schedule or with general declarations being made in the November conference. Shas' stomach cramps will start when the essence, the core issues, are reached. Yishai has already stated that he will not lend a hand to the partition of Jerusalem.

Lieberman's agenda is different. He wants to remain in the government and is pleased with the attention Olmert is devoting to the Russian sector. The political process does not frighten him. He is more perturbed by the incessant firing of Qassam rockets from the Gaza Strip and he establishes a connection between security in Gaza and negotiations over the West Bank. A more forceful policy in the South, which will reduce the extent of the rocket fire, will make it easier for him to stay in a government pursuing a political process with the Palestinians. The implication is that Olmert should take a harder hand against Hamas, which will make public opinion more receptive to the anticipated concessions to Abbas.

Relying on Bush

Few people recognized the man who arrived in the Knesset visitors' gallery on Monday afternoon to observe the opening of parliament's winter session: Dr. Shaul Shenhav, an expert on political rhetoric, who is also Olmert's speechwriter. Shenhav arrived late, though, and missed the speeches of both Olmert and opposition leader Netanyahu.

After almost two years in power, Olmert has become accustomed to reading prepared speeches, and this week it sounded as though he had rehearsed the intonations and emphases before taking the podium. He has learned to anchor his remarks in past figures, and this week quoted both Abba Eban and Menachem Begin.

Olmert insisted on writing one passage of his speech himself: the criticism of his predecessors, whose failures in diplomatic negotiations "hinder their freedom of movement today." The hint was clear: Olmert is disappointed in the approach of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has positioned himself as the contrarian figure to the political process. According to Olmert's aides, the prime minister expected Barak to be the first one to get aboard the negotiations train. Barak's hard-line security image could certainly help the prime minister in the face of right-wing criticism that he is "abandoning the state to Abu-Bluff" (the slogan painted on hundreds of buses throughout the country). But that's politics: one day you encourage Barak in his campaign against Amir Peretz and Ami Ayalon for leadership of the Labor Party, and the next day you are looking for channels to the left-wing Labor ministers who object to Barak's approach.

There is one thing Olmert is carefully trying to avoid: detailing his views on the issues of substance. He was silent during Sunday's cabinet discussion on policy, and in his Knesset speech, he went no further than issuing general remark about "concessions." Explaining his silence afterward, he said he was not conducting the negotiations with the Knesset. Even when he convened the negotiating team, he told them only, "Sit with them, talk, see what comes out of it." So far, it's working. His right-wing critics, along with Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, are coming down on Vice Premier Haim Ramon and are busy trying to guess whether Ramon's plan for the "partition of Jerusalem" by transferring the city's Arab neighborhoods to Palestinian control is actually Olmert's plan as well.

Ramon is supposedly suffering from the lack of support he is getting from the prime minister, who distanced him from the negotiations, but there is no doubt that Olmert is benefiting from the trial balloon floated by Ramon. This week it became apparent that the division of Jerusalem is no longer the magic slogan able to unite the political ranks against the diplomatic process - like it once was. Only the four Shas cabinet ministers were unreservedly opposed to any compromise in Jerusalem. All the others either backed the idea, including Ramon and Lieberman, or said nothing. The Prime Minister's Bureau took note of this division of opinion.

Olmert believes he will go to Annapolis from a position of strength. Even if the conference collapses and a joint declaration is not achieved because of the differences between the sides, he thinks Israel will not pay a price. George W. Bush, the friendly president, now in his final year of office, will not get into a confrontation with Israel. Unlike Rice, Bush is not eager to liberate the Palestinians from the yoke of the Israeli occupation. In the past he forbade the secretary of state to put heavy pressure on Olmert, and the view in Jerusalem is that he will continue to protect Israel.

Two weeks ago, at the UN General Assembly, Bush, visibly bored, was shaking hands with dozens of leaders and foreign ministers who had come to the meeting in New York, when suddenly he spotted a familiar face. "Tzipi," he said, his eyes lighting up as he patted the Israeli foreign minister on the back. The line stopped; Bush spent a few minutes expressing American support for Israel to Livni.

Between skepticism and indifference

Not everyone accepts Olmert's reading of the situation. The director of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, stated in his survey for the cabinet that it is precisely the Palestinians who feel that they are in a win-win situation. Either they will get what they want in the negotiations, or Israel will be branded as the recalcitrant side. Yadlin also warned that Hamas will perpetrate serious terrorist attacks if the conference does not die of its own accord.

Olmert, though, is calm, and says his desire is to progress and not to look for excuses. He believes that Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad are sincere in what they are saying and want to establish their state alongside the Jewish state. He is skeptical about their ability to get things done, but believes they have to be given a chance - otherwise Israel will be faced with a Hamas-ruled West Bank, too. As for Netanyahu's idea of maintaining the status quo with the support of Egypt and Jordan, Olmert finds that hallucinatory.

The Palestinians are appreciative of the respect with which Olmert treats Abbas. The members of the Palestinian negotiating team, headed by Ahmad Qurei (Abu Ala), told Tony Blair, the emissary of the Middle East Quartet, that in their view Olmert is serious and sincere in his intentions and that the Israeli negotiating team displayed a serious approach in the opening session on Monday. Blair dined with Abbas in Ramallah and was served chicken and lamb in rice, and for dessert, knafe (shredded pastry filled with cheese and covered with sugar syrup).

The political world in Israel is taking a skeptical, if not indifferent, attitude toward Olmert's move. It's not clear whether it's just empty talk or whether something is really afoot. In the meantime, they are giving him a chance. The criticism that is being voiced is expected and commonplace. The left wants him to accept the Palestinians' demands, the right wants him to stay put. It's all very polite: Olmert asked the Kadima ministers to stop hounding Netanyahu over his remarks about the operation in Syria, Netanyahu refrained from attacking Olmert personally in his Knesset statement. Olmert likened himself to Begin, which is almost tantamount to sacrilege for the right wing. There were a few jeers from the Likud MKs, but Netanyahu said nothing other than to note that Abu Mazen is not Anwar Sadat.