Corridors of Power / Bibi Meets His Match

1. A familiar face

When the single mothers' protest first began to emerge, Benjamin Netanyahu was advised to try to nip it in the bud. "It will cost the treasury NIS 20 million to solve the problem of the mothers in Mitzpeh Ramon," he was told. "If they start to march toward Jerusalem, the cost will keep going up the closer they get to the capital. And if single mothers from all over the country come all the way to Jerusalem, there's no telling how much it will cost to resolve the situation."

The finance minister did not act on this recommendation and this week he found himself flooded by a wave of protest that threatens his standing and the durability of his economic program. At least one minister heard Netanyahu complaining this week that his colleagues in the government aren't giving him enough backing in this struggle.

Outwardly, he remains cool and resolute, but some in political and government circles have also noticed more impulsive reactions from Netanyahu that are reminiscent of the incessant PR- driven maneuvering he engaged in during his worst days as prime minister.

The Welfare Ministry is the governmental authority that is most familiar with the country's impoverished citizens. Professionals in this ministry know who Vicki Knafo from Mitzpeh Ramon is and who Ilana Azoulai from Arad is. They could provide the finance minister and his senior aides with information about these two - about their socioeconomic status, their leadership abilities and how just their demands are.

If Netanyahu and his advisers had consulted experts from the welfare authorities, they might have been given some useful ideas on to how to deal with the burgeoning phenomenon of the protest pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Perhaps they would have learned how to distinguish between those in genuine economic distress and those swept up by the popular tide, between real economic need and a quest for public attention, between those truly seeking a solution to the employment problem and those propelled by a desire for direct contact with senior government representatives. But Netanyahu decided to go it alone (feeling abandoned by his colleagues) and, as was his wont when he was prime minister, projected the kind of arrogance and aggressiveness that seem to be a cover for discomfiture and irritation.

The government ministries have yet to be shown a practical plan for responding to the needs expressed by the single mothers; instead, they've been treated to a slide presentation complete with snappy titles that ostensibly outlines a plan of action. Netanyahu hastily announced the formation of an "exceptions committee" to address the requests of women affected by the economic reforms. Before discussing it with the relevant ministries, the treasury announced that women who increased their amount of employment would be eligible for compensation to the sum of NIS 900. Before providing a clear definition of who the "exceptions" are that will enjoy special benefits, the finance minister held a press conference in order to announce them. Before having found a job for a single unemployed person, he trumpeted the availability of hundreds of potential jobs, based on a Yedioth Ahronoth marketing campaign.

Veteran welfare officials were dumbfounded this week by the finance minister's verbal acrobatics. They were critical of the lack of seriousness of the solutions he is coming up with, of how little effort he makes to study the problems in-depth, and of his ability to stand up to pressure. Sound familiar?

2. One month later

When the far right-wing ministers ask Ariel Sharon's people to point out where the road map makes any mention of Israel being obliged to release Palestinian prisoners, the answer they get is that while this does not appear in the document, Israel has made an oral commitment to the United States. Then they ask: And when did Israel commit itself to including prisoners from Hamas and Islamic Jihad among those released? And the answer is: The government's basic decision to release prisoners did not automatically exclude these prisoners.

There are also ministers who recall that when the Shin Bet chief was asked, at a cabinet meeting about releasing Fatah prisoners only, why Israel couldn't include Tanzim people in the category of those it absolutely refused to let out of prison, he replied that, if that definition were applied, it wouldn't be possible to release anyone.

Ministers from the Likud, the NRP and the National Union believe that the prime minister will soon agree to release prisoners from the Islamic organizations. They realize that Sharon is bound by the promise he gave the U.S. - and apparently Abu Mazen as well - on this matter.

They also worry that, in accordance with the criterion of not releasing prisoners "with blood on their hands," the number of those released could be in the thousands, since only several hundred have actually carried out lethal attacks (and many committed suicide in the process). The thousands of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails include accomplices to terror attacks, planners of attacks and some who rigged explosives meant for use in attacks.

To Israel, and evidently to Washington, too, it's not entirely clear how interested Abu Mazen really is in a large-scale release of prisoners who are affiliated with the radical organizations. While prisoner release has been expressed as an unequivocal demand, some senior officials in Jerusalem believe it is largely lip service due to political constraints on the Palestinian prime minister, and that Abu Mazen would actually be quite happy to leave a lot of those people behind bars in Israel.

There are signs that this is also the prevailing view at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.

In any case, the declared Palestinian demand for the release of a significant number of prisoners is currently perceived in Israel as the main obstacle to real progress on the road map and as a very serious threat to the continuity of the cease-fire. The issue is thought to be so critical that, this week, an unofficial proposal was bandied about between Jerusalem, Cairo and Washington for a "presidential gesture" in which presidents Bush, Mubarak and Katsav would simultaneously call for the release of Jonathan Pollard, Azam Azam and Marwan Barghouti, and in this atmosphere of mutual forgiveness, many hundreds of incarcerated Palestinians would also leave Israeli prisons.

Meanwhile, the first month of the three-month hudna has passed without any significant progress on the road map. Israel is not living up to its pledge to remove illegal outposts (The U.S. has determined that, on balance, only one outpost has been removed, given the number of new outposts that sprang up in wake of the evacuation efforts) and the Palestinian Authority has not made a serious attempt to eradicate the terrorist infrastructure. Furthermore, Abu Mazen has yet to establish his authority with regards to Arafat and consequently, he is unable to keep the commitments he signed on to in the agreement.

At the end of the month, Sharon and Abu Mazen will each have to give an accounting to the American president about how they are implementing the road map. The Palestinian prime minister will meet with President Bush on July 25 and the Israeli prime minister arrives in Washington two days later. Both leaders will be exhorted to do more to advance the American peace initiative.

The American administration will expect Abu Mazen to show concrete results regarding the cessation of incitement, dismantling of the terror infrastructure and more extensive cooperation with Israel. The Americans will insist that Sharon withdraw the IDF from West Bank cities, remove illegal outposts, release prisoners and present some practical plans for easing the suffering of the Palestinians. American pressure could also bring about a meeting of the two prime ministers in Washington, with the aim of producing a joint statement about the progress being made on the road map.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom will handle the exploratory duties before Sharon's visit. He heads to Washington next week (by way of the European Union session in Brussels), having been led by officials in his ministry to expect the Americans to express anger over what they consider Israel's insufficient contributions to the advancement of the diplomatic process.

3. A tireless schemer

Arafat continues to try to trip up Abu Mazen: The security establishment has evidence that Arafat is hosting fancy dinners for key Palestinians public figures that end with their declarations of loyalty to him; he has renewed the flow of money to families involved in terror attacks; he controls a substantial number of appointments in the security forces; he has not eased his grip on the PA's official media; he has invested himself with certain authorities in the Palestinian Transportation Ministry and thus controls the arrangements at the entry points to the PA; he derogatorily portrays Abu Mazen as a collaborator with Israel and the U.S. and has sharpened the tone of his criticisms of his prime minister.

No change appears to be in the offing as far as the security establishment's approach to Arafat: They still believe the best way to try to influence him is through Europe and Egypt, and not to instigate any military operations against him, on the theory that if Arafat were forcefully removed, Abu Mazen would have to abandon all dialogue with Israel.

4. Front-page material

The Knesset decision this week on its position regarding the territories conquered in 1967 was buried in the inside pages of the newspapers, whose main stories focused on the single mothers' march and the dramatic rescue of cab driver Eliyahu Gurel. But given the diplomatic process to which the government has ostensibly committed itself, the Knesset vote should have made bigger headlines.

Coalition chairman Gideon Sa'ar submitted the proposal to the Knesset plenum, at the end of a long day of debate about the road map. At the same time, the opposition factions submitted a proposal of their own.

Sa'ar's version said: "The Knesset affirms that the Jewish people's right to the land of Israel is a national, historic, eternal right that cannot be questioned; the Knesset affirms that the territories of Judea and Samaria are not occupied territories, either historically or from the standpoint of international law, and not according to the diplomatic accords signed by Israel; the Knesset of Israel supports the settlers in Judea and Samaria and calls on the government of Israel to continue developing the settlement enterprise, also in accordance with what is set in the government's guidelines; the Knesset calls on the government, in any future negotiations, to stand firm on its red lines, including Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, the whole and united capital of Israel - that it never again be divided; maintenance of security zones that include a western security zone along the seam line, and an eastern security zone in the Jordan Rift Valley; absolute opposition to the entrance of Palestinian refugees into Israel; the dismantling of the terror infrastructure and cessation of incitement as a prerequisite for any negotiations on diplomatic accords."

This spectacle - of this vote at this time - is instructive concerning the validity of the positions espoused by the present Israeli government: On the one hand, the prime minister goes on diplomatic visits to Great Britain and Norway (and soon to Washington) ostensibly ready to talk about compromise and an accord; and at precisely the same time, his coalition - with the addition of Shas - submits a bill whose sole purpose is to reject an accord and oppose any concessions.

When asked a couple of days ago if he acted in accord with the prime minister's wishes, Gideon Sa'ar replied that this was a standard parliamentary step that derived from the debate in the plenum and did not require special approval from Sharon. He added that the responses he has received have been positive.

The Knesset voted in favor of the proposal by a margin of 26-8 (assuming there were no illegal double votes this time). Two of the MKs who voted yes were ministers Uzi Landau and Gideon Ezra.