The End of a Beautiful Friendship

Their last meeting was short, difficult and bitter - it symbolized the end to their friendship. It had lasted years, a very intimate friendship that was strengthened by infinite mutual alliances and political moves. On Sunday night, when Ehud Olmert and Dan Meridor sat down facing each other in the Prime Minister's Office, summing matters up in some strange and pointless way, all that was left were the memories.

Olmert and Meridor have quite a few mutual friends. None of them can explain why Meridor is sitting today at his desk in his Tel Aviv law office rather than in the government cabinet. The various theories they raise do not give Olmert the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he has been pressured, they surmise, or perhaps blackmailed. Perhaps he would feel threatened by Meridor's presence in the cabinet. After all, it was Olmert who more than once declared during the election campaign that he intended to make use of the talents Meridor possesses in various fields: strategic, security and diplomatic affairs.

But when the moment of truth came and he set up his cabinet, Olmert overlooked Meridor. When Olmert fell into the position of acting premier, there would have been nothing more natural than for him to include his close buddy among the top candidates on the Kadima Knesset list. Kadima was their joint project even before it became known as Kadima. More than a year before Ariel Sharon split the Likud party, Olmert and Meridor sat down and drafted the plan to establish a center-right party for Likud deserters. It was taken for granted that Meridor would be one of its central figures.

After Sharon left Likud, Olmert demanded that he put Meridor on the list. Meridor and Sharon's relationship had been fraught with difficulties since the Lebanon war and had seen many ups and downs. Sharon's sons, Omri and Gilad, vetoed Meridor. The father, whether because his hands were tied or out of his own free will, accepted this. A few days before Sharon collapsed, he indicated that he would be prepared to go against his sons' wishes and allow Meridor to join the list. Sharon and Meridor were supposed to meet, with Olmert mediating, but Sharon fell ill.

When Olmert failed to put Meridor on the Knesset list, senior Kadima members said this could be tied to Omri and Gilad. People who spoke to Olmert at the time tried to be reassuring. "As soon as he is elected and can stand on his own two feet, he will know what to do," they said. But that moment arrived and nothing happened. Now people in Kadima recall that Olmert has friends who dislike Meridor, friends such as Aryeh Deri and David Appel. Perhaps they also have a finger in the pie.

One must not forget that Olmert got only 29 Knesset seats, other Kadima members say: He did not want to dismiss any of the incumbent ministers and replace them with Meridor, who was not a Knesset member.

But it must not be forgotten that even with 29 Knesset seats, Olmert felt quite secure: He appointed his friend Abraham Hirchson as finance minister, moved Meir Sheetrit from the transportation ministry and removed Shaul Mofaz from the defense ministry. He did not give Marina Solodkin, the most senior of the Russian-speaking representatives on the party list, a cabinet post, and broke an explicit promise from Sharon to appoint Prof. Uriel Reichman as education minister. But when it came to Meridor that his strength failed.

It would be an understatement to say that Meridor was not expecting things to end this way. He most certainly expected to be on the Kadima Knesset list (by the eve of the elections, he had received offers from almost all the other parties, including Likud, Labor and even Yisrael Beitenu) and he was convinced he would receive a ministry. True, he has had many disappointments in this respect, but this time it was too much even for him.

What Gafni doesn't know

"During the previous government, the parties that I most enjoyed working with were Yisrael Beitenu, Shinui and United Torah Judaism," one of Ariel Sharon's close associates said with longing this week. The associate is now serving in the Olmert coalition.

Alas, not one of those parties is in the current coalition. Shinui no longer exists. Olmert had wanted Yisrael Beitenu as a partner but it did not work out. But UTJ was considered from the get-go a party with which negotiations were a mere formality: The Knesset Finance Committee would go to Yaakov Litzman, there would be another two deputy ministers and, there we are, the rest would be in the Creator's hands.

But two weeks after the coalition was established and the government was sworn in, matters with UTJ are still dragging on.

"Olmert considers himself an expert on the ultra-Orthodox," said a party activist. "He indeed has a hold with us, unlike Sharon, who used to wander around the courtyards of learned rabbis but never formed a close connection with us. But the basic mistake of Olmert stems from the fact that he believes that UTJ on the municipal level, which he knows from his days as mayor, is the same as the national UTJ. And they are completely different. That is why the negotiations with us are not serious. Perhaps only now they are starting to get serious and will continue when the prime minister returns from the United States."

One of Olmert's close aides said this week the prime minister believes that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, spiritual leader of Degel Hatorah (one of the two factions that comprise UTJ - the other is Agudat Yisrael) will support the convergence plan when the time comes. In Olmert's opinion, that will not only keep the two Degel Hatorah MKs, Avraham Ravitz and Moshe Gafni, in the coalition, but will also persuade Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has the utmost respect for Elyashiv, to alter his halakhic ruling against a unilateral withdrawal.

"I have no idea where he gets that from," MK Gafni said this week. "I have never heard such a thing."

Mrs. Olmert has her say

Three days after he assumed his position as interior minister, Roni Bar-On announced that he was introducing less stringent criteria for granting citizenship to the children of foreign workers who are living illegally in Israel with their parents. The minimum age for receiving citizenship was lowered from 10 years to first grade, on the condition that the child has been in Israel for at least five years. This is indeed a humane and sensitive decision.

Bar-On did not make the decision alone. When he arrived at the ministry, he was handed a detailed working paper on the subject that included an unambiguous recommendation to introduce the new arrangements. The paper had been prepared while Bar-On's predecessor - Ehud Olmert - was in office.

Informed government officials assert that it is Olmert's wife who is behind this decision. Aliza Olmert has for years dealt with children in distress and the status of the children of foreign workers. She is aware of how the children may suffer when they are faced with deportation to a poor and often dangerous country that they hardly know.

Last week the prime minister's bureau was asked to comment on the issue. Hours passed until a response was published, apparently because of prolonged consultations about its wording. "Aliza Olmert," the first section of the response stated, "did not participate in any meeting or professional discussion on the subject, and therefore clearly did not take part in the decision-making process."

The second part of the response is more interesting: "Mrs. Olmert has taken a clear and firm position on these issues," it added. "She has for a long time been involved in volunteer work with youth in distress and foreign workers' rights. Her views on these subjects are known. She has expressed them, and she has the right to express views on this and on other subjects on the agenda."

What can one learn from this response? First, it is not really a denial; second, Aliza Olmert does not just paint and arrange flowers at the prime minister's official residence; and third, it is extremely important to her that everyone know this.