Caught in the Coalition

On paper, if Defense Minister Amir Peretz doesn't blink at the last minute and forces Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to choose between the Labor Party and Yisrael Beiteinu, MK Avigdor Lieberman will remain in the opposition. Sixty-seven Knesset members minus 19 from Labor plus 11 from Yisrael Beiteinu leaves the government with 59 Knesset members. And the inflated dowry United Torah Judaism is demanding from Kadima is pushing the six ultra-orthodox MKs outside the coalition wedding canopy.

"You can make an airplane out of your paper and send it straight to the trash can," a politician who is very close to the prime minister snorted yesterday. The man compares Peretz to a deer caught in headlights and frozen in place. Our working assumption, he said, is that Peretz is trapped in the government. Joining the opposition is not an option as far as he is concerned, as he has no idea how many Knesset members, particularly government ministers, will follow him into the political wilderness.

Vice Premier Shimon Peres, MK Haim Ramon and Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik paved a path for Peretz's opponents into Kadima's lap. They would be delighted to absorb newcomers like Labor MKs Avishay Braverman, Yoram Marciano and Orit Noked, who until recently drank at Peretz's trough. Ehud Barak will bring Labor MK Danny Yatom and will lobby Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon. National Infrastructures Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer can't understand why Lieberman isn't in already.

The cynics surrounding Olmert believe the question is not whether Labor MKs will defect, but how many will cross the lines and at what price. A senior Labor Party source said yesterday, shortly after the faction meeting intended to unite the forces, that he is convinced Peretz does not have two-thirds of the members in his pocket. He said he wouldn't fall off his chair if he were to turn on the radio in the morning and hear that a third of the faction is joining Kadima.

"Amir's critics have compared him to Stalin," said the experienced politician. "Stalin, my foot. He isn't even managing to control Shelly Yachimovich, his own personal import to the party."

The real test of Peretz's leadership is not the vote on changing the system of government in Israel. The test will be the vote on the budget. Education Minister Yuli Tamir says she is "prepared to do everything she can" to block Lieberman's entry into the government, "but what will we say to Olmert two weeks from now when our members knock down the budget?" Even Tamir, the first and only MK to stand by Peretz's side during the race for party chairman, sees the source of the party's troubles in Yachimovich. "The main opponents of bringing Lieberman into the government," says Tamir, lashing out at her main rival in Peretz's inner circle, "are those who will ultimately bring him in."

It is convenient for everyone, especially Olmert, to pass the Lieberman buck to Peretz and the Labor rebels. One Labor minister suggests looking at the Prime Minister's Bureau and among the Kadima rebels to understand the transfer man's popularity. The rumors about Knesset members giving sidelong glances to the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu increase in direct proportion to Kadima's drop in the public opinion polls. Olmert prefers Yisrael Beiteinu in the government to Kadima MK Marina Solodkin in Yisrael Beiteinu.

Olmert is not building on Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz's loyalty. And Kadima MK Ruhama Avraham, who used to be Likud MK Benjamin Netanyahu's secretary, has demonstrated impressive acrobatic abilities. Someone who has zig-zagged once is forever considered a potential defector.

And what will Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni say, having promised Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) that she would do her best to renew the diplomatic talks with the Palestinians? How will she explain to the Europeans the induction into the government of a party that preaches denying basic rights to citizens on the basis of nationality? Now really, who cares about trivial matters like the peace process and foreign relations? The time has come for Henry Kissinger to update his diagnosis that Israel has no foreign policy, but only domestic policy. Israel has mainly intra-party policy.

The gardener's test

Let us imagine that the Israel Police recommended filing an indictment against the devoted gardener at the President's Residence for the rape of two female employees, indecent acts at the residence, wiretapping and fraud. How much time would it take President Moshe Katsav to order the gardener to pack his things and not show his face until the police and court proceedings are over? Would the president allow the suspect to complete the sentence, "But sir, I am innocent, it's all a plot, as long as the court hasn't -"?

At the Civil Service Commission, they said yesterday that if Katsav were the gardner at the President's Residence, he almost certainly would have been suspended three months ago, at the start of the police investigation. According to civil service regulations, when criminal proceedings are opened, the commission receives a "public employee charge sheet." As the regulations state: "A police criminal investigation of an employee for an offense of moral turpitude, in the opinion of the civil service commissioner: In this case the employee will be suspended only after consultation with the attorney general or his representative."

The Civil Service Commission cannot recall a case in which the prosecution impeded the suspension of a state employee being investigated for crimes of moral turpitude. Citizen number one in the service of the state, who is supposed to serve as a model for others and offer moral norms to the public, has not been suspended from his position only because he is exploiting his formal immunity. This is in no way because of the presumption of innocence.

Abu Mazen's signal

Last weekend another 20 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip, among them at least five civilians. Of the civilians, two were women, one was a little girl and one was an adolescent boy. The Shifa Hospital in Gaza is staggering under the burden of the wounded. Sexier news, about President Moshe Katsav and the presidential regime, has pushed the reports from Gaza to the margins of the media.

A senior security source says that since the Israel Defense Forces pulled out of the Gaza Strip, no Israeli authority has had access to information about the situation in this battered area. According to him, all of the reports from the IDF and the Foreign Ministry about the (huge) unemployment and the (meager) food supply are based on the (grave) data of international organizations active there.

Rarely, the IDF allows Israeli human rights organizations to enter the territory. Recently, after much pleading, such permission was given to a delegation on behalf of the Physicians for Human Rights non-profit association. The group's report presents a very bleak picture of a starving civilian population, women who are leaving babies at the clinic because there is nothing to eat at home except for tea and sugar, and entire families that are suffering from anemia.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a close associate of Abbas, on Friday told a group of Labor and Meretz Knesset members that the proportion of Gaza Strip residents living off of humanitarian aid has already reached 70 percent. He related that the dimensions of unemployment are alarming, especially among young men, and that the strip is on the verge of civil war.

The meeting with Abed Rabbo and other Geneva Initiative activists from the West Bank took place at the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem. MKs Yossi Beilin, Haim Oron and Avshalom Vilan of Meretz were there with the head of the Labor faction, Ephraim Sneh, and his faction colleague Colette Avital. They decided to establish a multi-party parliamentary lobby for renewing diplomatic talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The signal for the new initiative will be given next week in a speech by Abbas marking the end of Ramadan. Palestinian sources have said he intends to present two possibilities: either a government of technocrats, without Hamas or Fatah representatives; or new elections for both the Legislative Council and the chairmanship.

Hamas has already declared its opposition to the first of these proposals, and it is not clear what its reaction will be to the second. In any case, after it became clear that Hamas was not going to recognize Israel explicitly, the move for a unity government, including the prisoners' document and the Qatari initiative, left the agenda.

According to Palestinian participants, recognition of Israel was almost the only issue U.S. President George W. Bush spoke about during his meeting with Abbas at the White House. This is the same Bush who compelled former prime minister Ariel Sharon to give up the demand that Hamas recognize Israel as a condition for its participation in the elections. Abbas has realized that without explicit recognition, not a single dollar is going to be transferred to the territories and no territory is going to be transferred to Palestine. From Bush's perspective, as Arafat used to say about the Israelis, the Palestinians can go drink from the Sea of Gaza.