Explosions Around the Corner

What could topple the new government? How will Omri Sharon compensate Likud activists for the loss of the Interior Ministry? And why did Labor forgo the tourism portfolio?

The cabinet that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon intends to present to the Knesset this Thursday or next Monday is one of the most bloated ever to have served here. In the first stage it will consist of 22 to 23 ministers, representing only two parties: the Likud and Labor. The third partner, United Torah Judaism (UTJ), will not be represented by ministers. If Shas joins the coalition, Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin will have to lug in an additional table from the basement to the plenum hall. Although there have been larger cabinets before, they consisted of more parties. Apparently, to get the boys out of Gaza it was necessary to get as many boys (and girls) as possible around the cabinet table.

The weakest link in the foreseeable future could be the UTJ. Shas and the National Religious Party (NRP) will exert streamroller pressure on the ultra-Orthodox UTJ in state and religious issues. How will the UTJ act, for example, if NRP chairman Effi Eitam presents a no-confidence motion next week because Haifa's Grand Kanyon shopping mall is open on Saturdays? Is it conceivable that UTJ's deputy ministers will refrain from voting on the sanctity of the Sabbath? Of course not.

This will also be the first cabinet without a religious minister. Even Ehud Barak was left at the end of his days as prime minister with one skullcap-wearer, Rabbi Michael Melchior, at the cabinet table that was rapidly being deserted. Perhaps Haim Ramon, should he be elected minister at Labor's central committee this week, will agree to wear one.

Sharon has no illusions about the extent of his new-old partner's loyalty. Twice in the past Labor dismantled Likud-headed national unity governments: in the March 1999 cliffhanger (a.k.a. "the stinking maneuver") and in October 2002. In 1990 it was Peres who hoped to form an alternative government to Yitzhak Shamir's, but this move was foiled by Sharon. In 2002 it was Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was then pushed out by Amram Mitzna and Ramon in the Labor leadership primaries.

Several time bombs could shorten this government's days. The first is scheduled to go off on June 28, 2005, the day of Labor's primaries. Anyone who is elected, except Shimon Peres - but he will probably not contend - will aspire to get Labor out of the government and into the opposition after the disengagement, to improve its election prospects.

The second bomb might go off between September and October 2005, a few weeks after the disengagement, over the state's budget for 2006. If after the disengagement the government does not embark on a significant political move, along the lines of the U.S. road map plan, the budget will provide the most convenient and available pretext to break up the government.

Along the way the usual malfunctions in this kind of government will surface. Silvan Shalom will squabble with Peres. Benjamin Netanyahu will bicker with Dalia Itzik. Everyone will be trying to impress their parties' respective central committees, to improve their chances in the primaries. Sharon will let them fight and scuffle, as he likes to do.

The whinging and whining in the cabinet session already began yesterday. Health Minister Dan Naveh complained that Labor was being credited for various social achievements, although some of them were agreed on earlier. "Certainly, what you're saying is very important," Sharon told him. "Why don't you say it outside, to the media? You appear there a lot."

Sharon's aides stated repeatedly yesterday that Ehud Olmert and Silvan Shalom have nothing to worry about. Peres' title of "deputy prime minister" is merely a title, to be used on stationery and to get VIP treatment overseas. Quite right, Labor sources confirm. But Peres needs that kind of treatment. Winning the Nobel Prize and serving as prime minister are not enough for Peres. He is convinced that without the title of "deputy prime minister," the peace process will get bogged down.

As for the foreign minister's status, Sharon's aides say, nothing written in Peres' list of authorities will detract from Shalom's. "Peres will gnaw at Shalom's powers every day in any case, so why put it in writing?" one of them asks. Peres' aides say this is not accurate: If everything that was agreed on in the negotiations was put in writing, Shalom would not have been able to accept it lying down. Why did the parties decide that Peres' authorities would be determined only after Labor's ministers are sworn in at the Knesset and not earlier? To prevent Shalom from organizing a rebellion in the Likud's Knesset faction.

Itzik's two requests

On Saturday night - after all the essential issues between Labor and the Likud were settled a day earlier by Peres, Ramon and lawyers Yoram Rabed and Ram Caspi - the negotiating teams met in Rabed's Tel Aviv office. Itzik, whom Sharon had turned into a martyr in the eyes of Labor's central committee members, had only two small requests beyond the issues already settled. She asked that five of the 11 political appointments in the foreign service (which are made by the foreign and prime ministers) be given to Labor. Cabinet secretary Yisrael Maimon rejected that request out of hand.

Itzik's second request was that the prime minister and his deputy - namely, Peres - decide together on the appointments of the next chief of staff, Mossad and Shin Bet security forces chiefs, police commissioner, Israel Bank governor and ambassadors to the U.S. and the UN.

Ben-Eliezer, who sat beside her, almost passed out. "I was defense minister. Do you think I would have agreed to have the leaders of the coalition factions interfere with the appointment of the chief of staff?" he asked.

Likud sources said they persuaded Itzik to drop the subject.

Omri and the lost kingdom

Omri Sharon did not like his father's renunciation of the Interior Ministry portfolio. Sharon, Jr., who maintains the ties with Likud members for his father, has recently drawn much fire from activists for what some call "Arik's surrender to Dalia Itzik."

Omri thought his father should have done more to keep the portfolio in the Likud, but he is not convinced that Labor would have given it up, so perhaps there really was no choice. Now that the portfolio is on its way to Labor, perhaps to Ben-Eliezer, Omri has no intention of leaving that kingdom entirely to the minister, whoever he is. In private conversations Omri is promising angry Likud activists and mayors that while the party lost the portfolio, the Prime Minister's Office and the prime minister will devote a lot of attention to it. In other words, Omri is promising the activists that Sharon will function as a sort of super-interior minister.

That, too, has the potential to cause a little explosion along the way. Ben-Eliezer is not entering the Interior Ministry to help Likud mayors. He is contending for Labor's leadership on June 28 and has his own people to look after.

Ramon and the green votes

Labor's last-minute surrender of the Tourism Ministry in favor of the Environment Ministry was the brain child of Ramon, a member of the coalition negotiation team. Peres wanted tourism because of its "new Middle East" appeal. But Ramon believed that politically Labor would benefit more if one of its people, perhaps himself, would serve as environment minister.

Labor's voters are interested in environmental issues. Various organizations, such as the Greens, are a potential lever for enlisting new voters for the dwindling party - perhaps at the expense of Shinui and Yahad-Meretz. These last two parties are Labor voters' reservoir.

Yesterday morning, after it was determined that Labor would get tourism, the party changed its mind and asked for environment. The Likud hurriedly agreed. Not everyone in Labor liked this move.

"Granted, the Environment Ministry portfolio has an Ashkenazi, clean, moral image, but the Tourism Ministry can be used for making political profits," a Labor source says. "The tourism minister decides exclusively on directing development funds to sites and tourism projects all over the country. The ministry invests in various projects. Mayors are constantly at the minister's door, seeking favors, pleading for development budgets. Cities like Tiberias, Nazareth, Acre, not to mention Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, have received over the years tens of millions of shekels from the Tourism Ministry. Benny Elon of the National Union managed, in his term as tourism minister, to direct considerable funds to `tourism projects' in the territories. A political momentum is expected to come in the wake of the withdrawal from Gaza, and the Tourism Ministry is expected to revive in the next few months. Why shouldn't we be there, to pick the fruit?"

"Nonsense," responds Ramon. "The Tourism Ministry depends entirely on the treasury officials. It should be no more than a department in the Industry and Trade Ministry. By comparison, the Environment Ministry affects huge segments of the population. The awareness concerning the quality of the environment is growing in Israel. Like every properly run state, a government is judged by what it does in environmental issues. In this ministry we can conduct struggles for the people, for the air they breathe and the water they drink. What's more important - the tourists that aren't coming anyway?"