Peace Talks First, Wage Talks Later

The new government must make every possible effort to renew talks with the Palestinians. Without peace, there will be no money to raise the minimum wage or old-age stipends in any event.

Who said last week's elections were a referendum on the issue of dividing the land of Israel? A visitor from Mars might think that in Israel we dissolve the government, call a vacation day and nudge voters into going to the polls for the sole purpose of deciding whether to raise the minimum wage and old-age allowances. And now, less than a week later, our elected officials are involved in coalition negotiations to determine which party will get the Ministry of Finance. Kadima is talking about a partnership with Yisrael Beiteinu, and no one is asking how that would work with the adamant opposition of that party's leader, Avigdor Lieberman, to Kadima's so-called convergence plan. Even the leaks coming from Labor about moves toward forming an "obstructive bloc" with the right have been greeted with general equanimity.

Foreign policy platform? Even the new Pensioners Party has learned the magic formula: "There is a road map, no?" party chairman Moshe Sharoni said in an unhesitating response to questions about the pensioners' position on the West Bank. "We'll see." For three years the road map has proved its worth as a prophylactic against a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians. So what if its expiration date was three months ago? Who remembers that the vicious circle of Amir Peretz begins with the peace negotiations, and that he is the one driving the economy forward?

When Ehud Olmert called, in his post-election victory speech, for Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to come to the negotiating table, it was thought to be lip service. When Abu Mazen suggests opening a covert channel and says a permanent arrangement could be reached within a year, no one reacts at all. The announcement by PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas that the Palestine Liberation Organization is still responsible for the peace process disappeared into an ocean of words on ministerial appointments in the new unity government.

Conversations with Kadima's leaders demonstrate that insofar as it depends on then, Haniyeh has nothing to fear: Israel will not take up the gauntlet. Olmert's convergence plan, precisely like Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, was intended to bury any permanent arrangement a la the Geneva Accord, not to advance it. Kadima is looking toward an agreement with the United States over Israel's borders. From its perspective, negotiations with the Palestinian are a nuisance that must be brushed aside. Haim Ramon sealed the fate of any attempt to initiate negotiations, ostensibly because the Palestinians will never relinquish the right of return ("On life and death," Haaretz, March 27).

In effect, Ramon and his new colleagues in Kadima know that negotiations could expose them to completely legitimate Palestinian demands, such as fair compensation for the settlement blocs and the just division of Jerusalem. Even the Arab League reconfirmed its support for the resolution from four years ago, stripping Palestinian refugees of the right to decide whether to return to Palestine and giving Israel the last word on the subject.

The steadfast U.S. decision to boycott the Hamas-led government puts off the threat of negotiations. A few more weeks of stasis and Abu Mazen will grow weary of playing the Palestinian Moshe Katsav. According to the PA constitution, until the presidential election, the chairman of the Palestinian Legislative Council - a Hamas member - will fill in for the outgoing president and bring Hamas closer to the last stronghold of the pragmatist camp. The diplomatic stasis and the economic pressure are a proven recipe for terror attacks, and instead of converging or consolidating in the West Bank, the Israel Defense Forces will be forced to "reconverge" on the Gaza Strip. The Defense Ministry is deep into the planning stages of such a move already.

Perhaps the Hamas victory has already put paid to the vision of peace, fulfilling the prophecy that Abu Mazen is not a partner for a final agreement. Labor and Meretz must not join a "no partner" government under any circumstances. In light of the abyss gaping below us, the new government must make every possible effort to renew talks with the Palestinians. Amir Peretz and Meretz chairman Yossi Beilin must focus their coalition negotiations on an uncompromising demand to form a coalition for negotiations. Without peace, there will be no money to raise the minimum wage or old-age stipends in any event.