On the Stairs in Sderot

Arie "Lova" Eliav is living proof - in fact, thriving proof, that youngsters like Vice Premier Shimon Peres, age 82, still have a future. In recent months, Eliav, who is two years older than Peres, has been running back and forth from his Youth Village in Nitzana to Amir Peretz' election headquarters. This is not the first time that he has been nearby when power slips from Peres' hands at the last moment.

In elections for the 11th Knesset more than 20 years ago, he led a personal list ("Lova Eliav for Knesset") that came within a hair of crossing the threshold of votes necessary to enter parliament. Labor, led by Peres, earned 44 seats, and the Likud earned 41 seats. Peres maintained that Eliav grabbed the seat that would have prevented the rotation with Likudnik Yitzhak Shamir. Last week, when Peretz delivered his victory speech, Eliav stood behind his shoulder, grinning from ear to ear.

A victory for the Moroccan-born Peretz, a pioneer supporter of a Palestinian state, finally settles Eliav's historic account with Golda Meir, who said that the Equality in Israel - Black Panthers group was not nice, and that the Palestinian people did not exist. Some say that Eliav discovered Peretz in the "Negev League" and propelled him to the "National League." Eliav, who served two years as Labor's secretary general, slammed the door on his way out in 1975 and returned only a decade later. In those days in the mid-1980s, his wandering in the Negev desert led him to the peripheral and impoverished town of Sderot. There he met Peretz and his wife, Ahlama.

"There really is no need to exaggerate," Eliav says modestly before describing his warm relations with the new Labor Party leader. "I arrived at the Sderot community center as a volunteer teacher of housewives and day laborers. Our apartment was across the hall from the Peretz family, when he was the head of the town council on behalf of the young, local [Labor] list. We cleaned the stairwell together and quickly found that we had a common language. To my great surprise, I discovered that a young, untarnished leader shared my beliefs and expressed them openly and without fear in the midst of an undeniably right-wing town. He was one of the first to join Peace Now and played a prominent role in conferences organized by the new movement. I was already aware of his potential and supported him in his role as an MK." Peretz made his Knesset debut the same year Eliav made his return - 1988.

Now that Eliav is advanced in years, he offers Peretz his rich political experience. "I told him he was entering a garden full of thorns, with mines at its center, surrounded by a gang of knife-wielders. I told him to steer clear of sycophants, and he is already surrounded by no lack of those. I expected that there would be people who would wait until five minutes before the announcement of [election] results to jump on the victor's bandwagon, and they are now waiting in line. He will need a few of these people, but he must exercise caution and continue to look in all directions."

Bilateral agreement

If Amir Peretz weren't there to pull the Labor ministers out of Sharon's government, the disengagement, their reason or excuse to be there in the first place, would have done so in Peretz's place. If the Labor ministers are not quick, they will become senior partners with responsibility for the disintegration of the Gaza Strip and the estabishment of the first Arab entity controlled by a faction of the Muslim Brotherhood. Their senior minister, Shimon Peres, is responsible for the civilian aspects of the disengagement. Formally, he must make certain that Israel does not turn the Gaza Strip into the central Hamas soup kitchen. In practice, the security forces dictate the (lack of) decisions.

A politician with an average pain threshold would have thrown his keys on the desk of Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz long ago. Peres, an unsurpassed forgiver, relinquished his honor. He was unable to extricate from Mofaz an agreement with the Palestinian Authority on the Rafah border crossing. This came only after direct pressure from United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the prime minister. Following endless disagreements and precious time wasted to no avail, attorney Dov Weissglas, senior diplomatic advisor to the prime minister, reached an agreement between both sides. Not between Israel and the Palestinians - between Peres and Mofaz. After examining the language of the agreement, a copy of which arrived at Haaretz, it is difficult to decide if one should laugh or cry.

The agreement declares that a permanent staff should be established to discuss matters on the agenda and formulate a united position. The staff will include representatives of the vice premier's office, the Defense Ministry and the senior diplomatic advisor's office. The vice premier will coordinate and orchestrate negotiations, in consultation and collaboration with the defense minister. The vice premier and the defense minister will set the minister or group of ministers who will direct contacts with the Quartet envoy, or with the Palestinian Authority. If the issues are diplomatic and economic/civilian in nature, negotiations will be directed by the vice premier in conjunction with representatives of the defense ministry or other ministries chosen by the vice premier. The defense minister will lead deliberations on security issues in conjunction with the vice premier. In the event of disagreement, the prime minister will decide between the sides.

The document states that Quartet Gaza envoy James Wolfensohn will be asked to report to the prime minister in a timely fashion regarding future dates of his visits and issues that he believes should be discussed. It is known that Wolfensohn agreed without hesitation. He has already discovered that coordination among ministers is no less exasperating than attempts to coordinate between them and the Palestinians. Pressure from Wolfensohn turned out to be insufficient in bringing about an agreement from Mofaz over Peres' demands to open border crossings.

Occupation for beginners

At least from one standpoint, the brief collaboration within the government represented a fair deal for Labor. Two new ministers, Ophir Pines-Paz and Yitzhak Herzog, had the opportunity to study one or two chapters in occupation for beginners. The interior minister and housing minister, respectively, got a chance to witness at close range what the State of Israel has done to benefit the residents of the territories that it has controlled for 38 or more years, and the circumstances under which it left the Gaza Strip, and what it has done (or not done) as meager penance for these injustices. Pines-Paz and Herzog found out that partners to the disengagement plan would be incorporated into the Sharon-Mofaz plan to eliminate PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).

Like Peres, Pines-Paz discovered that government decisions and policy are one thing and realities in the territories are another. Officially, the Interior Ministry is responsible for operating Israel's border crossings, in particular those between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Practically, the Defense Ministry decides which and how many Palestinians will (not) be permitted to enter Israel. In a letter he wrote last week to Mofaz, Pines-Paz said the number of workers now entering Israel from the Gaza Strip does not exceed 100 per day, creating a "pressure cooker" that does not serve Israel's security interests.

"This policy is unacceptable to me, as the minister charged with the operation of the border crossings," Pines-Paz wrote, noting that the disengagement was supposed to have benefited residents of the Gaza Strip as well, and was not intended to be a plan to push them into the hands of extreme political movements.

Last week, Herzog heard first-hand about reports of the oppression of Gaza construction workers from Palestinian Authority Public Works and Housing Minister Dr. Muhammad Shtaya. Shtaya told Herzog that not only does Israel not permit these workers to be employed in Tel Aviv, Israel does not permit them to work in Gaza. The limits placed on trucks crossing into Gaza have diminished the supply of raw materials at construction zones. Shtaya reported an immediate shortage of 50,000 housing units.

The PA has already issued tenders in the areas where the Morag settlement was located, in Rafah, in Khan Yunis and in Gaza City. The United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Japan have agreed to contribute NIS 300 million to underwrite the establishment of 6,500 units on the ruins of the 7,000 houses destroyed by Israel during the years of the intifada. Shtaya also complained that Israel refused to permit the paving of a highway in the northern West Bank to facilitate a vital infrastructure project.

Olmert, too

Last week, we reported on the decision of the Ministerial Legislative Committee to adopt a proposal by MK Ephraim Sneh to free agricultural land on kibbutzim and moshavim to build homes and businesses. It was noted that the decision was made at a time when the professional staff, led by Finance Ministry Budgets Director Kobi Haber, was diligently at work on a position paper and recommendations pertaining to the very same issue. Haber was appointed by Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, who was given authority over the Israel Lands Administration. It appears that the same minister who appointed that staff was in a hurry to join the wall-to-wall coalition supporting the proposal, which was opposed by two legal advisors to the government. Olmert did not participate in the meeting, but sent a note confirming his support for the proposal.

Haber did promise to complete his report before the end of the year, and the High Court, which heard the appeals of 15 cities that oppose the rezoning, will not permit the politicians to dismiss the opinions of the professional staff. Perhaps that is the very reason that it was important to everyone, including Haber's boss, to let members of kibbutzim and moshavim know that these politicians had supported them.