Corridors of Power / Squeezing Into Line

"In the end, you'll send me flowers," Dov Weisglass told Silvan Shalom when the beleaguered finance minister entered the antechamber to the Prime Minister's Bureau on Wednesday afternoon. Shalom didn't know that Ariel Sharon was about to make him an offer he couldn't refuse...

1. Olmert bypass

"In the end, you'll send me flowers," Dov Weisglass told Silvan Shalom when the beleaguered finance minister entered the antechamber to the Prime Minister's Bureau on Wednesday afternoon. Shalom didn't know that Ariel Sharon was about to make him an offer he couldn't refuse, but the remark by the prime minister's bureau chief was a good sign. And Shalom already knew that Benjamin Netanyahu had rejected Sharon's offer to succeed him as the next finance minister.

At the end of the wildly dangling loop that Sharon fashioned in the course of his maneuvering on Wednesday, the only possible conclusion to be drawn was that he had provided further proof of the conventional wisdom that he is a successful tactician but a poor strategist. It turned out that even this seemingly solid person, who is ostensibly so experienced, who is said to be so sophisticated in his political management, was seized by panic when confronted with a furious individual who also wields considerable power in the Likud Party. Or perhaps there was another, less obvious, motive for Sharon's retreat in the face of Silvan Shalom's undisguised bitterness.

In fact, Shalom was a beaten man and not a powerful politician as he made his way to the Prime Minister's Bureau. But Sharon knew that Shalom was wounded and that he has great sway in the party's central committee. Sharon was also aware that the decision to remove Shalom from the Finance Ministry had generated deep waves among the Likud activists, and that support of the party's Knesset faction was not assured. The prime minister took fright and improvised a solution: Shalom to the Foreign Ministry. Before that, he had tried to fill the breach with the help of Limor Livnat, but she did not accede to his importuning that she give up the education portfolio in Shalom's favor. Shalom's confidants afterward interpreted Livnat's move as stemming from her belief that by refusing to budge, she was dealing Shalom's career a death blow - but Shalom should send her flowers: Her refusal moved Sharon to offer him the foreign affairs portfolio.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign minister, repeated the mistake he made when the Labor Party left the government. At first he rejected Sharon's proposal that he move to the treasury; then he changed his mind and put forward a number of conditions. Netanyahu got another lesson in Sharon's ruthlessness, but he also sensed weakness: The prime minister did not burn all his bridges to Netanyahu. He was afraid of the power that the former prime minister has in the party and in the Knesset faction. Thus, after his initial refusal, which came amid tough talk by both of them (Netanyahu: Why shouldn't I stay in the Foreign Ministry? Sharon: Someone else will be there), Netanyahu raised the price of his consent to accept the finance portfolio.

Sharon then had to contend with the ire of former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert, who was convinced that he had the treasury post in his pocket. Olmert wasn't the only one who this week got a personal lesson in the way Sharon treats people like tin soldiers. He had good reason to feel betrayed, as it was he who had effectively put together the new government for Sharon.

2. `The SOB accepted'

One of the leaders of the Labor Party this week recalled the remark attributed to John Kennedy when he learned that Lyndon Johnson had agreed to become his running mate in the 1960 presidential race: "The SOB accepted." Kennedy was disappointed: He hadn't really wanted Johnson and had only made the offer out of a sense of duty, after believing that Johnson would reject it.

The association was evoked because of the way Ariel Sharon treated Prof. Jacob Frenkel, the former governor of the Bank of Israel. Seemingly, Sharon offered Frenkel the post of finance minister in the new government. In practice, though, he apparently had no intention of giving him the portfolio, but only made use of Frenkel to undermine the status of Silvan Shalom. Indeed, the urgent invitation to Frenkel to meet with Sharon and the reports that were leaked about the offer he had been made, put paid to any chance Shalom had of continuing to serve as finance minister. Sharon's behavior projected a clear-cut message: that he had no confidence in Shalom's performance as finance minister and that he was looking for a new horse to pull the Israeli economic cart out of the mud. A finance minister cannot do his job without the full backing of the prime minister.

Sharon had earmarked the treasury for someone else, not Frenkel. When he found that Frenkel was inclined to accept the offer, albeit with preconditions (channeling the confrontation with the Palestinians into a diplomatic course, and bringing the Labor Party into the government), he decided to torpedo the move. Sharon's aides let it be known to the media that the prime minister had not offered Frenkel the post. Frenkel got the hint and went back to his cozy and highly lucrative London-based job as a top official at Merrill Lynch, the huge investment firm.

There is circumstantial evidence to back up this account of the Frenkel episode. Contrary to the reports that emanated from the Prime Minister's Bureau to the effect that Sharon had not offered the treasury portfolio to Frenkel, he himself gave an opposite version. What happened, then? Supposedly, Sharon declined to accept Frenkel's conditions. Yet Sharon expressed himself in the spirit of Frenkel's ideas just last Friday, in an interview to the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth. However, on the very day that the interview appeared, Sharon found that his bypass move, which was the main axis of his efforts to form a coalition, was succeeding. So he no longer needed Frenkel - or the Labor Party, for that matter.

The main effort was managed by MK Ehud Olmert and was closely bound up with the finance portfolio. Last Friday, it became clear that Olmert had been successful in cobbling together a coalition based on the Likud, Shinui and the National Religious Party. Concurrently, Olmert consolidated his candidacy as the next finance minister. At the end of last week, Sharon had at his disposal both a new government (which was expanded during the week with the co-option of the National Union) and a new finance minister, in the person of Ehud Olmert. In the course of conducting the negotiations with Shinui and the NRP, Olmert gave their representatives the clear impression that he was slated to become the new finance minister and would play a central role in the Sharon government. His public posturing reflected this assessment: He resigned as mayor of Jerusalem before the new coalition was formed, and stated publicly that he was certain that Sharon would be generous to him when he distributed the government portfolios.

Then came Sharon's reversal. He did not want to leave Silvan Shalom and Benjamin Netanyahu with their claws drawn, thirsting for revenge, and in order to resolve the problem, he attacked the weak link: Olmert, who has no real power in the Likud Party Central Committee or in the party's Knesset faction.

3. The golden nose-ring

The foundation for the alliance between the Likud and Shinui and the NRP was laid as early as January 30, two days after the elections, when MK Zevulun Orlev arranged a meeting with Ehud Olmert, following which Motti Zisser, a trusted middleman of the NRP, was brought into the negotiations. Five days later, the three met at Olmert's house in Jerusalem and analyzed the possibilities of putting together a coalition. They decided to concentrate the effort on creating a partnership between the Likud, the NRP and Shinui.

The next day, Olmert, Orlev and Shinui leader MK Yosef Lapid met, again at Olmert's residence, and here it turned out that the NRP wants to return to its status as a bridge between the secular and religious publics. A day later, Orlev met with MK Avraham Poraz, Shinui's No. 2. The talks generated optimism and Orlev reported to his party that there was a good chance of forming a coalition with the Likud and Shinui. Not everyone in the NRP was enthusiastic about the Shinui connection. Later in the week, Olmert hosted a joint team of the NRP and Shinui, which was making progress in working out the elements of a coalition agreement.

The participants agreed that formulas had to be found that would bridge the gaps on five subjects: organization of the religious services to the public; annulment of the priority given to large families in the form of child allowances; the prohibition on various individuals from marrying for a variety of religious reasons; the declaration of a second day of rest; and the so-called Tal law, involving army service by the ultra-Orthodox. The negotiating team was expanded and included, in different combinations, NRP leader MK Effi Eitam, MK Yosef Paritzky (Shinui), Yitzhak Maron, Motti Zisser and MK Eliezer Sandberg (Shinui). The final meeting was held at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. The discussions took place in a cordial atmosphere, based on a common effort to find compromises that would make it possible for each party to announce that it had not betrayed its principles. On some days the negotiations went on from morning to evening. The sanction according to halakha (Jewish law) for the NRP's positions was supplied by Eitam, who was put in charge of maintaining contact with the party's rabbis.

The result is reflected in the government's policy guidelines and in the coalition agreement. The NRP claimed afterward that the negotiations had been tough, but that the party had not deviated from the precepts of halakha. In matters of procedure, the party was given latitude, which found expression in its readiness to reorganize the religious services available to the public and to change the administrative status of the Religious Affairs Ministry and the religious councils in the municipalities.

To ensure that nothing substantial would be changed in state-religion relations, it was agreed that the NRP and Shinui would append to the agreement between them letters in which each party undertakes not to sponsor or join an initiative for a change in the status quo on religion, with the following exceptions: Shinui may absent itself from a vote in the Knesset when motions to introduce public transportation on Shabbat or civil marriage are debated; the NRP may absent itself when motions to amend the Law of Return or change the face of the Sabbath are voted on.

Sources in Shinui said this week that they had come up with reasonable achievements on subjects in which they had the support of the Likud, and that compromises are essential in coalition negotiations. Shinui views its major success in the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties are out of the government.

Shinui and the NRP achieved a desirable result from their point of view: They were eager to enter the government; they sought to create political facts quickly and thus thwart the possible formation of an alternative government (they were especially apprehensive of a coalition consisting of the Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and the National Union); they received hefty portfolios that will enable them to extend their influence (in retrospect, giving the Interior Ministry to Avraham Poraz was viewed in the Likud as an excessive price paid by Olmert to Shinui and as a source of problems for Sharon); and they both struck at Shas, thus serving their ideology (Shinui) and their concrete party interests (NRP).

The state, though, received a full-fledged far-right government in which the chiefs are Sharon, Eitam and MK Avigdor Lieberman, head of the National Union; Yosef Lapid is the gold ring in the nose.

4. Covered by an alibi

On Wednesday, after it became clear that Sharon had a coalition consisting of 68 MKs, Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna still believed that the prime minister had conducted serious negotiations with him and had wanted with all his might to ground his government in a partnership with Labor. As Mitzna analyzes the situation, the reason this effort failed was not because Sharon used him only to improve Olmert's bargaining power in the bypass route, but because Sharon recoiled at the idea of accepting Labor's conditions on their merits. Maybe. The confidence of Shaul Mofaz that he would continue to hold the post of defense minister goes some way toward refuting Mitzna's thesis: After all, the defense portfolio would have been earmarked for the leader of the Labor Party if Sharon had really and truly wanted Labor in the government.

Be that as it may, Mitzna was flabbergasted at the sharp zigzagging Sharon performed. On one occasion the prime minister spoke about his readiness to evacuate settlements, his understanding that it is essential to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians, his awareness that only he is capable of that, and the importance of safeguarding the Jewish character of the state. On another occasion, he stated his admiration for the settlers, objected to the idea of assisting the residents of Rimonim - a secular settlement in the West Bank - to return to inside the 1967 Green Line, spoke about the importance of the Gaza Strip settlements of Netzarim and Kfar Darom and of the Jewish presence in Hebron, was disparaging about the efforts of the Quartet to achieve a cease-fire and launch a political process aimed at bringing a Palestinian state into being, and declared his complete and total lack of confidence in the Palestinian leadership and the possibility of reaching reliable understandings with them.

Mitzna thinks that Sharon did, in fact, want Labor in the government, because of the support it could provide for the serious economic measures the government will have to implement, and because of the moderate image it would project in the international arena. Sharon, though, was not ready to pay the political price this entailed, Mitzna believes: to change some of his positions and agree to compromise formulations. The truth is that Labor eroded its opening positions by dropping its demand for an immediate unilateral withdrawal and the dismantlement of settlements in the Gaza Strip, making do instead with a declaration of intent to realize the principles of U.S. President George Bush's speech of June 24, 2002, in the government's policy guidelines. Sharon, who initially agreed - that, at any rate, was the impression formed in Labor - to include in the policy guidelines a declaration of readiness for the establishment of a Palestinian state and for moving settlements as a result of the negotiations on a permanent solution, reached an agreement with Shinui, the NRP and the National Union according to which the citation of Sharon's "Herzliya speech" (in which he effectively agreed to a Palestinian state) is offset by a statement that entering into concrete negotiations relating to the contents of the speech will depend on a decision by the government.

Sharon made sure to cover himself with an alibi in each of his moves. He issued declarations about his approaches to Mitzna (to join the government, despite the signing of the agreement between the Likud and the NRP) and to Netanyahu (to accept the treasury portfolio), and he reiterated (at the President's Residence, among other occasions) his desire to establish a broad government that would incorporate all the Zionist parties. In practice, he followed a wily plan that left Labor and the ultra-Orthodox parties on the outside and left him with a homogeneous government in terms of its political and security conception (though larger than promised, scandalous in terms of the internal division of portfolios and fraught with deep personal animosity).

On the face of it, Sharon can claim that he genuinely strove to reach an understanding with Labor - but that is an unconvincing argument: There is no way to reconcile the world view of Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman with that of Labor MKs Yuli Tamir and Avraham Burg. Therefore, the negotiations Sharon held with Mitzna would appear to have been no more than a gambit. In any event, his decision to prefer a coalition with the fanatic right attests to his aim: In the years ahead, he apparently wants to be the head of a right-wing, hawkish, extremist government and with its help, try to rebuff the emerging international agreement on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

5. American-European unity

The international pressure is already being felt. On Wednesday, President Bush delivered a speech in which he emphasized his commitment to the "road map" calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and a stop to the settlements. The international Quartet has drawn up a blueprint that translates the road map into concrete stages of implementation.

According to the first stage, which was prepared in London last week, Israel is to agree to the convening of the Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) and of representatives of the council of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in order to approve a reform in the structure of government in the Palestinian Authority. The linchpin of the reform will be the upgrading of PA leader Yasser Arafat to the status of symbolic president and the appointment of a new leadership, based on Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, Salam Fayyad and Mohammed Dahlan. Israel has made clear that it will permit these steps provided that no one tainted by terrorism takes part.

The Palestinians have not yet submitted a request to convene the two councils. The view in the defense establishment is that Arafat is in no hurry to drop any of his powers; in addition, the four individuals who are supposed to replace him are not rushing to stand for election.

Be that as it may, Sharon assumed that the timetable for implementation of the Quartet's plan will not begin, if at all, until after the conclusion of the American offensive in Iraq. As Israel sees it, structural changes in the leadership of the PA are an essential condition to reduce the level of intensity of the conflict and to set in motion a political dialogue - and this will happen in conjunction with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the implications that event will have throughout the Arab world.

Still, Bush's remarks on Wednesday came at an inconvenient time for Israel. According to informed sources in Jerusalem, Bush said what he did against the background of the entanglement that has occurred in the international relations of the United States. Washington now finds itself in a dispute with some European countries because of its determination to attack Iraq and to minimize the damage, it is displaying a readiness to respond to the expectations of those countries in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. This is also being urged by Britain, whose government is caught up in a fierce internal political debate because of its support for President Bush's stance vis-a-vis Iraq.

The result is that Israel, which has been asked by Bush to keep the conflict with the Palestinians on a low burner until the conclusion of the Iraq crisis, is liable to be dragged to center stage to help the president lift the European resistance to his moves in Iraq. If this should come to pass, it will not be consistent with the plans and expectations of Ariel Sharon. He will have to deploy for the possibility with renewed forces, with Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman to his right, Yosef Lapid in front of him and Benjamin Netanyahu breathing down his neck.