"After every major terrorist attack," said a senior defense official, "there was a standard menu in the cabinet meetings: juice, burekas, and Arafat's expulsion." Silvan Shalom was one of the first to identify the political charm of calling for the expulsion of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, and since then he has repeated it at every session of the cabinet. When Ariel Sharon surrendered to American pressure and agreed to unfreeze PA tax money, Shalom accepted the decision with demonstrative displeasure, and sent his director general instead of going himself to meet with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad.
But in those days he was finance minister, fighting for his place in the Likud leadership while the economy was collapsing. Since then, things have changed and he's come out the great victor in the game of musical chairs Sharon played with the appointment of ministers. Arriving at his new offices in the Foreign Ministry was a new Silvan Shalom, who wants to advance the peace process and improve the soured relations with Europe and the Arab countries. He chose to hold his first meeting with Shimon Peres, and in front of the photographers praised Peres' rich diplomatic experience. The messiah had arrived: here was the right-wing minister, the champion of expelling Arafat, seeking a blessing from the chief rabbi of Oslo. The journey continued with Itamar Rabinovich, the Syria expert who negotiated with Damascus on behalf of Yitzhak Rabin, and European Union envoy Miguel Moratinos, as well as a series of European foreign ministers.
Politicians love the Foreign Ministry. It guarantees a lot of exposure, important dealings, with very little authority and zero responsibility. There's never been a judicial commission that tossed out a foreign minister. Shalom sat down and went to work methodically. He promised ministry staffers that from now on, they wouldn't be the suckers of the defense establishment and the Prime Minister's Office any more. He offered them his political power in the Likud and government, in exchange for their professionalism and knowledge. In his get-acquainted meetings, Shalom pulled out a notebook and made notes about what he heard. Presumably, his conversation with Peres also included talk about how to influence Sharon, and how to neutralize his secret emissaries.
Silvan Shalom's left turn is not surprising. The second Sharon government is right wing in composition and seemingly has a guaranteed majority for every extremist decision based on using force. But the political and international reality will force its top tier to behave with restraint, seeking the center and avoiding the kind of fire-breathing rhetorical statements to the press that characterized them in the unity government.
Sharon's new "kitchenette" (inner) cabinet has four members: Benjamin Netanyahu, Shaul Mofaz, Silvan Shalom and Ehud Olmert. All are in a race for the Likud leadership and the leadership of the state, and above them is a prime minister in his last term, who has already made clear he will not deal with the day-to-day operations of the government, but only guide, navigate, supervise and control - a kind of chairman of the board of the state.
The election results show that the path to victory leads through the center. Those who proposed expelling Arafat, like Netanyahu, or talking with him, like Mitzna, lost, and whose who supported the status quo with a vague hope for change in the future, like Sharon, won big. The message got through to the ruling group, and they also grasped that the security and economic crisis means toeing the American line and not doing anything that angers Washington.
In the coming year, each of the four rivals will do all he can to erase his previous image. Mofaz will have to prove that he has taken off his uniform and is not simply Sharon's clerk for defense affairs. Shalom needs a record as a statesman. Netanyahu must succeed in the challenging arena of the treasury. Olmert has to build up his credit in the Likud, after losing the primaries, and of all people, Olmert the pragmatist has the potential for right-wing positions.
The mutual rivalries will open with a bloody battle between Mofaz and Netanyahu over the defense budget, which will take place in the shadow of their rivalry. And Sharon? He'll enjoy playing the referee, arbitrator and judge, and will divide and rule among his senior ministers, doing whatever he likes.
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