Auspicious Autumn

Olmert's November has started well. Apart from the minor matters of scandals and police inquiries

In times of pressure or crisis, Ariel Sharon would visit the Knesset cafeteria. That was his way of showing his famous nonchalance, his unforgettable cynicism. Last Wednesday, for the first time since the present Knesset was sworn in, Ehud Olmert entered the cafeteria to apparently publicize his victory. In the Knesset plenum, the members of the coalition, bolstered by Yisrael Beiteinu's 11 soldiers, made havoc of the opposition's proposed bills, defeating them one by one. Olmert table-hopped, exchanged quips about soccer, gently patted Limor Livnat's shoulder, and had a tete-a-tete with Avigdor "Yvet" Lieberman.

Were it not for the scandals and police investigations that will accompany him from now on, he might have told himself that November had started off nicely: The coalition was stronger than ever. Approval of the budget, which, until two weeks ago, seemed to have a slim chance of being passed by parliament, turned out to be a piece of cake, and Ophir Pines-Paz, who always aggravated Olmert, was no longer in the cabinet. Any replacement - e.g., Matan Vilnai or Ehud Barak - would be politer, easier to get along with, more of a colleague.

After the Labor Central Committee gave the green light to Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet, the cell phone in National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer's car rang. It was Olmert: "Fuad, I want to thank you, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart."

The next day, in the Knesset plenum, Olmert walked over to Ben-Eliezer, shook his hand and again thanked him - from the bottom of his heart. He had good reason to feel elated. On the day of the Labor Central Committee vote, when the newspapers reported a neck-and-neck battle, the prime minister's bureau was in a panic. If the central committee disapproved Lieberman's appointment, Olmert would face his weekly no-confidence vote on Monday afternoon without a majority (with only 59 members of Knesset supporting him). Naturally, he could buy the six votes of United Torah Judaism for a billion shekels; but then he would come under serious attack from the public. Alternatively, he could decide not to add Leiberman to the cabinet. In that case, Labor would not quit the government; however, he would then become Amir Peretz' hostage and a laughing-stock in the eyes of the opposition and the public. Furthermore, his rating in his own party would sink even lower. Those calling for his ouster would become more strident and his political future would vanish . In his own party, Olmert likes few cabinet ministers as much as Labor's Ben-Eliezer, Shalom Simhon and Isaac Herzog. A curious alliance has formed between Olmert and this trio. Immediately after informing the public, during Sukkot, of his meeting with Lieberman to discuss "changing Israel's system of government," the three ministers declared support for Lieberman's appointment. They thus pulled the carpet from under Peretz' feet, destroying any chance he had of organizing some resistance to attempt thwarting the appointment.

In the Labor Central Committee, the trio worked together with Peretz, to mobilize a decisive majority in favor of Labor's remaining in the coalition. By mid-week, the third stage was reached: the possibility of Ehud Barak's possibly joining the cabinet. Again, it appeared that the trio were working hand in glove with Olmert: Ben-Eliezer and Simhon urged Peretz to recruit Barak, while Herzog signaled he was in favor. At the same time, Olmert told Ma'ariv that he supported Barak's inclusion in the government.

Some Laborites see the trio's moves as sheer genius: The three ministers are trying to get Barak into the cabinet to provide him with the springboard he needs to become Labor Party head and the next defense minister. This would accomplish four goals: They would rid themselves of Peretz, whether the primaries are held on schedule in May 2007 or later; they would be anointing Barak, whom they all consider a good choice; they would sabotage the prospects of Ami Ayalon, who is very popular among Laborites, becoming party chief; and they would ensure the Olmert cabinet's continued survival, with the hope of a possible merger between Kadima and Labor. This is only speculation, and everyone can offer a different interpretation of their moves. However, they can certainly feel flattered that, in this era of bedlam and chicanery, people are giving them credit for such far-sighted deviousness.

State comptroller doesn't understand

Last summer, during and after the second war in Lebanon, senior members in the State Comptroller's Office leaked the message : "In another three months, certainly before the end of the Knesset's summer recess, Olmert will no longer be prime minister." This unequivocal statement, which that office leaked and which reached the ears of some of Olmert's political rivals, was based on the following assessment: When the report concerning the house on Jerusalem's Cremieux Street appears, Israel's citizens will be shocked and nauseous. According to this assessment, Olmert would be unable to counter demands for his immediate resignation. Faced with demonstrations and protest, he would submit his resignation. This was the assumption made by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and his staff. In addition to the craving for yet another headline, the assumption reflected a total misunderstanding of public, democratic and legal processes. At best, it expressed naivete.

This week, Moti Gilat wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth that the Cremieux dossier did not yet contain enough evidence of criminal acts on Olmert's part. The other three Olmert affairs (sale of the controlling shares in Bank Leumi, fringe benefits enjoyed by Uri Messer and the political appointments) appear more substantive and will apparently lead to the initiation of criminal proceedings.

The summer recess ended on October 16 and Olmert is still prime minister. Meanwhile, the state comptroller's adviser on the war on corruption, Yaakov Borovsky, is fighting to clear his name. Earlier this week, Ayala Hasson of Israel Television's Channel 1 disclosed that Borovsky had allegedly been chummy with political bigwigs in the Likud Party while vying for the post of Police Commissioner and that he had allegedly attempted to influence then prime minister Sharon to appoint him police commissioner in return for a replacement of the police team investigating his doings. Borovsksy denies the charges and the matter will be looked into by the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry's Police Investigations Department.

In addition, five senior Israeli jurists yesterday published an advertisement on the front page of Haaretz in which they accused Lindenstrauss of undermining the foundations of Israeli government by his "extraordinary and flawed behavior" regarding Olmert's affairs. This battle between Olmert and Lindenstrauss will accompany us for some time, perhaps until the end of the Knesset's winter recess.

Silvan is losing patience

The last few months - dominated by the war, its aftermath and ramifications - made us forget another war, being waged on another front: in the Likud. The failure of the war in Lebanon, which enhanced Benjamin Netanyahu's status in the public's eyes, pushed his chief rival in the party, Silvan Shalom, to the sidelines. Shalom decided to bide his time, waiting for the right opportunity. It arrived, with Lieberman's appointment to the cabinet. Now the Likud and Netanyahu will have to cool their heels for a long time in the opposition.

Shalom, a patient individual, anxiously awaited his opportunity. He finally struck, at the session of the Likud secretariat that convened last weekend in Tel Aviv. "We are an irrelevant opposition. We initiate nothing, do nothing, attack nobody," he accused his colleagues, as Netanyahu sat stony-faced. "If we had decided to stop fence-sitting and pressed for an independent commission of inquiry, which is what Rabin and Peres set up in 1982, that commission would be functioning today and Lieberman would not be in the cabinet. We could have organized a mass protest at Malchei Yisrael [now Rabin] Square with Meretz and with reservist generals. At that rally we could have demanded the creation of an independent commission of inquiry, but we failed to do so. Now the protest has died. Instead, people negotiated with [Arcadi] Gaydamak. And that is the main reason why Lieberman joined Olmert's cabinet."

The "people [who] negotiated with Gaidamak" - namely, Netanyahu - stared at Shalom without responding. The two politicians have barely spoken with each other since the Likud's disappointing showing in the elections. Recently, MK Yisrael Katz, who chairs the secretariat, tried to get Netanyahu and Shalom to agree (in separate conversations he had with each) to a date for the primaries: October 2007. Until the primaries, he is urging them to stop their fighting. Katz estimates that he stands a fair chance of succeeding. Why October 2007? By then, he believes, the government will fall apart - either because of the police investigations against Olmert or because of the security situation or because of the stalemate in the Middle East peace process. If the stalemate continues, Labor will quit the government and, if it is reinitiated, Lieberman will quit.

The date suits both Netanyahu, who thinks the government will not last that long, and Shalom, who thinks Netanyahu will not last that long.

Let Itzik stay

There are two explanations for Moshe Katsav's determination to remain president despite all the humiliation he is causing everyone near him. The first involves his family and wife. He believes that his resignation now would be tantamount to a confession of guilt. The second explanation is more practical: As long as he is president, he is immune from indictment.

The Knesset has reached the conclusion that it will be impossible to find 90 MKs who will vote for Katsav's impeachment. That is why support is now being given to the proposed bill of MK Yitzhak Galanti (Pensioners), according to which the Knesset can force the president to take a leave of absence, which, in effect, is equivalent to declaring that he is temporarily incapacitated. Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham prepared the original bill. Because of the Agrexco affair, Avraham dropped the issue, and Galanti took over from her. Avraham was a close friend of Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik. If the bill is passed and Katsav takes a leave of absence, Itzik will become the president's stand-in for five to six months. She will administer the oath to judges, deliver speeches at official ceremonies, host visiting heads of state, sign pardons and receive the credentials of ambassadors until Katsav has his hearing around May 2007. Then a new president will have to be chosen, because Katsav's term of office ends in July.

In that scenario, some people might argue that the election of a new president represents an impeachment - of Itzik herself. If she fills this role for five or six months and if her performance is without blemish, why replace her? She is, after all, a Sephardic Jew who grew up in extreme poverty in Jerusalem and who has served in various capacities in the cabinet. So why not let her keep the job?