The future of the little Ulpana neighborhood of the West Bank settlement of Beit El, whose legality is in doubt, seems to be driving the government to distraction. Aides to Defense Minister Ehud Barak Saturday released a statement accusing two of their boss's cabinet colleagues, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon of adopting the rhetoric of the extreme right.
Katz visited Ulpana on Friday and said Barak had "taken the Defense Ministry and made it a political tool at the expense of the settlers."
On Saturday, Ya'alon half warned, half threatened that the government could fall if Ulpana's residents were forced to leave. In response aides to Barak, who is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's closest confidant, said Katz and Ya'alon had been struck with "a serious case of Feiglinism," referring to the extreme right-wing Likudnik Moshe Feiglin.
These are not trivial matters. When Ya'alon, speaking at a cultural event in Be'er Sheva Saturday, suggested the government was in danger of collapse he seemed resigned to the prospect. His statements probably added fuel to the fire of the settlers.
Ya'alon, who is also Strategic Affairs Minister, criticized Barak over his move to evacuate settlers from a house in a Palestinian neighborhood of Hebron earlier this month. "They were prepared to evacuate. There was no need to send in the counterterrorism unit of the police," Ya'alon said, adding, "The defense minister insisted on sending them in, and afterward we heard his people saying, 'Now the left camp will understand who its leader is.'" Ya'alon went on to say that Barak was motivated by political considerations and that his interests diverged from those of the coalition.
But Ya'alon is neither a pundit nor one of the back-bench Likud lawmakers (and even they would not dare to express themselves the way he did ). One would expect a politician of his stature and position to stand by the prime minister, exuding calm, self-confidence, stability and determination. Who is Ya'alon actually threatening? Netanyahu? Netanyahu's wife, Sara? Himself?
Barak's response - couched as a statement issued by "officials in the defense minister's inner circle" - signaled what is in store. If he has resolved to launch a frontal assault against Katz, one of the strongest ministers in the Likud Central Committee, it indicates that he has relinquished, for all intents and purposes, any hope of a reserved spot on the Likud candidate list for the next election.
In any event that was a highly unlikely scenario: Barak is preparing to run at the head of the Atzmaut party - after him, the deluge. The inter-party quarreling over the illegal outposts in the West Bank will be his main ticket to the election, after which he would be happy to continue to serve as defense minister in a third Netanyahu government, should this happen.
The weekend to-and-fro is apparently only the teaser for the meeting this morning of the Likud ministers, who will compete among themselves for the title of most vitriolic toward Barak (as though Netanyahu were not in charge ), and the cabinet meeting that will follow. Above all, they are the trailer for the show of support planned by Likud MKs and ministers in the Ulpana neighborhood itself. Never mind the MKs whose lives are not worth living without such gimmicks. But what do the ministers of the ruling party seek in a place that the High Court of Justice has said must be evacuated and destroyed? They are not differentiating between reasoned and rational support for the continued existence of the neighborhood and a wild race to show the settlers who is their strongest supporter in Likud. The Knesset's summer session begins in eight days and electioneering is in the air. It is hard to see Netanyahu holding his coalition together as a sane and functioning parliamentary body until the session ends in July.
The settlements, Ulpana and Migron; an alternative to the Tal Law exempting most yeshiva students from military service, which expires in July and the major difficulty the government has in passing a reduction-heavy budget - these are all very high hurdles, almost too high, for a government in its fourth year.
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