Guilty, Until Proven Otherwise

What a wonderful coincidence. A few days after Prime Minister Netanyahu hinted - and his confidants said explicitly - that Haim Ramon was striving to foil direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a John Doe dropped by Israel Radio's talk show "Hakol Dibburim" (It's all talk ). In a deliberately distorted voice, as though he were a father of a raped child, he made the case against Ramon.

He said Ramon had met senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat in the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem three weeks ago. The man happened to be sitting next to them and apparently wrote down or recorded what they were saying. He said the defendant (Ramon ) urged the Palestinian not to open direct talks with Netanyahu. The defendant said he was sent by President Shimon Peres.Even through the electronic distortion it was clear the speaker was an intelligent man, well versed in the peace process. He was fluent and sharp. Unfortunately for Ramon, he chose to sit down, of all places, near the anonymous speaker's table, for lunch.

Only the talk show host, Ayala Hasson, knows who the speaker is. His motives are also unknown. But why deal with trifles - the witch hunt has begun. Barely an hour went by and MK Zeev Elkin, from Likud, declared Ramon a traitor. MK Ofir Akunis, also Likud, called in to express his horror. And MK Otniel Schneller, not from the Likud (yet ) but from Kadima - the party in which Ramon serves as council chairman - announced sadly that his party was not worthy of heading the government. What remains but to prepare the hanging tree.

Ramon's statements, if indeed he made them, made sense. He said the Palestinians, who had rejected Olmert's more moderate demands, had nothing to expect of Netanyahu. The latter would not offer them 50 percent of what Olmert did. But what difference does it make? The fact that Ramon, Tzipi Livni's confidant and chief strategist, was caught asking the Palestinians not to engage in direct talks with Bibi is no less than a political catastrophe for Livni. At a time when both the United States and Europe are pressuring Mahmoud Abbas to talk with Israel - even the Arab League gave him the green light yesterday - the man closest to her transpires to be an obstacle? An instigator?

For Netanyahu, this is a political gold mine. A wish come true. Until today, when the opposition accused him for the absence of direct talks, he blamed the Palestinians. From now on he can say the Palestinians are guilty, but so are you, Kadima.

Ramon's entanglement is not personal. It paints Kadima with a leftist, subversive, treacherous hue. The hue that in years gone by had stuck to Labor. It clung to Peres, Beilin and Weizman, who talked to the PLO when it was banned.

This served Likud well in its election propaganda. Now Kadima too is seen as a cynical, power-hungry political creature that would stop at nothing to topple the government. This stain will now stick to Ramon too. He will be seen as guilty until proved otherwise.

Ramon denies some of the things the stranger said, and Peres denies having sent him. Peres can always speak to Palestinian leaders directly. There is something very strange about this story.