The Alchemy of Politics

Ariel Sharon is saying that we now have a window of opportunity and that he is not going to let the opportunity slip by. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer describes the present period as propitious and vows to take proper advantage of it.

1. No one to talk to

Ariel Sharon is saying that we now have a window of opportunity and that he is not going to let the opportunity slip by. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer describes the present period as propitious and vows to take proper advantage of it. In practice, both of them are observing the ongoing events and letting them unfold at their own pace, in the belief that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's end is near.

Neither the prime minister nor the defense minister think well of each other. That, at least, is the impression one gleans from the comments they make to confidants. In practice, however, they are executing a shared policy. Sharon is telling senior members of the political community that he cannot rely on the positions taken by Ben-Eliezer because they are constantly shifting and are influenced by internal rivalries at the senior level of the Labor Party. The prime minister also complains that Ben-Eliezer is leaking information to the media (this is the same prime minister whose foreign minister, Shimon Peres, read in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth about a conversation that reporters had with the prime minister, that quotes the transcript of an important policy meeting held by Sharon in Washington, which Peres learned about for the first time from the article).

Ben-Eliezer is whispering to colleagues in his party that the real reason Sharon doesn't want to expel the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, from the territories is that his presence frees the prime minister of the need to decide on the future of the territories. According to Ben-Eliezer, the events of the past few months afforded Sharon more than one opportunity to be rid of Arafat, but he ignored them.

These barbed exchanges do not prevent the two from continuing to run the state's affairs together.

To all appearances, they are in disagreement over how to exploit the current respite that has been generated by the policy speech of U.S. President George Bush and by Operation Determined Path. Sharon is looking at the present phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in retail terms: He is ready to make a few humanitarian gestures toward the besieged population in the territories, to permit a few thousand workers to enter Israel gradually, and to release a bit of the money collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, on condition that a way is found to ensure that the money does not end up underwriting terrorist attacks. Sharon is also allowing Peres to meet with a limited number of carefully chosen members of the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

Ben-Eliezer, in contrast, wants to take a wholesale plunge: He is ready to hold talks with all the leaders of the Palestinian public indiscriminately, apart from Arafat. He also plans to meet with leaders from the Arab world. The defense minister believes that this is the time to present to the Palestinians a sweeping political plan that will be an incentive for them to return to the negotiating table and abandon the road of terrorism.

Despite their differences of approach, the two are in practice implementing the policy espoused by Sharon and not the enlightened views of Ben-Eliezer. On Tuesday of this week, they held a meeting in which it became clear that the prime minister has no intention of coming out with an innovative plan at this time. Ben-Eliezer accepts that position. He will not present to the Palestinians or to the Arab leaders he will meet (if he meets with any) his political plan (which is based on the Clinton parameters and the Saudi initiative), but will stick to the miserly line being advocated by the prime minister. At most, he has been authorized to inform his Arab partners in the talks that an opportunity has arisen to develop new political ideas in relation to the conflict. Ben-Eliezer is taking consolation in the fact that he will continue a dialogue with Sharon in which he will try to get the prime minister to see things his way.

Shimon Peres, too, is satisfied with a few crumbs: He got the go-ahead from Sharon to meet with a few Palestinian senior officials and views the meetings as a new beginning. He is drawing encouragement from Sharon's declaration that he accepts the principles of the Bush speech and, in the meantime, is waiting for better days. Until they come, the Israeli leadership finds itself confronting the consequences of its moves in the past year: to its surprise, it now discovers that there is no one to talk to. Arafat has indeed been pushed into a corner, but Israel has been unable to find an alternative to him. "Everyone has disappeared," Ben-Eliezer was heard groaning this week.

Abu Mazen is in Saudi Arabia, Abu Ala is abroad, recovering from heart surgery, Mohammed Dahlan is in London, Mohammed Rashid is in hiding, Marwan Barghouti is in an Israeli prison, Jibril Rajoub has been neutralized. Behold the wonders of the alchemy of politics: First it was impossible to conduct serious negotiations with the Palestinians because Arafat was not considered a true partner; now there is no partner of any kind.

2. Our decisive cabinet

On the face of it, the decision by the cabinet this week to support a bill by MK Haim Druckman (National Religious Party) stipulating that Arab citizens of Israel will be barred from acquiring land in Jewish communities built on state property is a story with a happy end: The cabinet referred the decision to the study of a public committee and thereby effectively shelved it. In practice, the way in which the government handled the affair sheds a frightening light on the quality of its decisions and its judgment, and on the place of hypocrisy and negligence in the conduct of the state's affairs.

The initiative for the decision came from Education Minister Limor Livnat (Likud), who was seeking to undercut a decision by the ministerial committee on legislation, which had decided against supporting Druckman's bill. It all began in July 2001, when the cabinet decided to support this bill, which was intended to bypass a High Court of Justice ruling asserting that the state may not directly discriminate, on a religious or national basis, in the allocation of state land. On December 2, 2001, the ministerial committee on legislation approved the cabinet's position and decided that the government would support Druckman's bill in its preliminary reading in the Knesset. The next day, cabinet minister Dan Meridor appealed the committee's decision and on December 24, the committee accepted the appeal.

Only three cabinet ministers took part in the meeting of the committee that addressed the appeal: the chairman, Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit (Likud), and ministers Meridor (Center Party) and Matan Vilnai (Labor). Sheetrit was in the minority. Six days later, Livnat submitted an appeal to the full cabinet on the committee's ruling. The subject was not placed on the cabinet agenda until the Knesset presidium decided that, notwithstanding the bill's racist thrust, it could be submitted to the Knesset. The subject was then added to the cabinet agenda. A few months ago, the cabinet began a discussion of the subject, which had not been completed as of last week. Last week, the cabinet was supposed to deal with the subject but was prevented from doing so by a heavy workload. The prime minister stated that MK Druckman should be asked to wait another week for the cabinet's decision and that if he refused to wait, the government would decide not to support the bill in the Knesset.

This week, after the cabinet took its leave of the outgoing chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, and after it considered ongoing political and security matters, the prime minister left the meeting in order to meet with Omar Suleiman, the head of Egyptian intelligence. The defense minister also rushed off to the meeting, and in their wake, all the Labor ministers apart from Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh left, too, to pursue their business, though some of them sat themselves down in the corridor outside the cabinet room. Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) took over as chairman of the meeting.

When the appeal of Limor Livnat came up for discussion, there were 19 ministers in the room. Livnat presented her position: The High Court decision was a grave precedent; we have to strike a balance between a democratic state and Jewish state; Jewish settlement in certain regions is a Zionist and national necessity. Livnat cited the minority opinion in the High Court ruling. Other ministers reacted to what she said and offered their opinion. All of them supported the education minister's view.

Only Dan Meridor assailed the bill: It took the name of security in vain; the establishment of homogeneous communities can be encouraged by other means; what is the wisdom in getting Israel branded a racist state; we are not a state in the making that is engaged in redeeming land, we are the government of a sovereign state that controls the state's lands for the benefit of all its citizens.

Only the attorney general, Elyakim Rubinstein, supported Meridor. When the time for the vote came (the discussion had taken 45 minutes), Transportation Minister Sneh also left - not before handing the cabinet secretary a note stating that he was voting against Livnat's motion. (Sharon had also left a note, stating he was in favor.) None of the other Labor ministers bothered to leave a note on their vote. The result: 17 ministers voted in favor of Druckman's bill, two voted against, and one (Justice Minister Sheetrit) abstained.

The public furor followed immediately and reflected the local political culture faithfully: Meridor (unusually for him) took the initiative and alerted the media to take an interest in the decision and its serious ramifications. Cabinet ministers, especially the Labor ministers, panicked. Embarrassed and bewildered, they claimed the vote had been an "ambush." Ben-Eliezer rushed to announce that he would demand that Sharon place the subject back on the cabinet agenda. The attorney general released a statement critical of the decision. Livnat defended her position vigorously and was backed up by cabinet minister Tzipi Livni (Likud).

There are very few saints in this story. President Moshe Katsav, who has called on the public and its representatives to avoid generating internal tensions, was a signatory to the Druckman bill when he was still a member of the Knesset; Meir Sheetrit, who abstained in the cabinet vote, supported the legislation when it was discussed by the ministerial committee on legislation; the Labor Party ministers, who were caught red-handed shirking their duty and looked for others to blame instead, tried to make the public forget that they knew in advance that the subject was on the cabinet agenda that day. They also concealed the fact that in the first vote on the question by the ministerial committee on legislation, they did not oppose the bill.

The real Gordian knot comes in the form of another decision made by the cabinet this week: to establish a public commission, headed by attorney Ya'akoo frame a constitution. On Wednesday, it was decided that Druckman's bill would be referred to that commission - a decision suggesting that thcommission will not produce a constitution but will successfully fulfill the role of the disposal chute for burning public issues.

3. School daze

Last week, the Council for Higher Education rejected a request from Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem to grant it academic recognition. The reason was not political but administrative: The university did not accede to the council's request to provide it with documents on its economic situation, including its sources of income. The university supplied the council with the data it requested on its academic status, but without the information about its economic resources, the council cannot grant it academic recognition.

Without any connection to that development (or perhaps with connection), the university was hurt by another decision by an Israeli authority: Public Security Minister Uzi Landau on Wednesday ordered the university's offices in Jerusalem to be shut down on the grounds that they are a governmental arm of the Palestinian Authority. Landau stated that any other minister - from Dan Meridor and Ephraim Sneh to former minister Avigdor Lieberman - who read the intelligence reports about the connection between the university and the PA would have made the same decision. The decision, Landau said, applied to the university and not to its president, Dr. Sari Nusseibeh (who is considered a political moderate). Asked whether new information had been received recently concerning the university's activity in the service of the PA, Landau replied that the information on this subject was consistent and continuous. In other words, there was nothing new and hence no explanation for the timing of the closure order.

Ephraim Sneh, who was outraged by the closure of the university's offices, recalled that during the negotiations on the Oslo accord, the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, sent him to London to meet secretly with Nabil Sha'ath in order to formulate a joint understanding on the meaning of the agreement according to which Israel would not intervene in the activity of the Palestinian institutions in East Jerusalem. The two agreed (as Sneh tells it) that the PA would not maintain any governmental institutions in East Jerusalem or conduct governmental activity there. Sneh was sent without the concurrence of Shimon Peres and was intended to apprise the Palestinians of the prime minister's interpretation of the agreement. Without asserting that the activity of Al-Quds University is included in the agreement he reached with Sha'ath, Sneh stated on Wednesday that Landau's decision is an act of folly because it runs contrary to Israel's interest.