Sunday, May 14, 2006

The coalition's clock is ticking

From Jerusalem Post, May. 11, 2006 by ANSHEL PFEFFER ...

.... Less than six months after breaking with the Likud in the hope that a new party would enable Ariel Sharon and his followers to pursue their agenda, the new coalition seems to be unraveling a mere week into its inception. ...

...What is the life expectancy of this coalition? What will trigger its downfall?

Following a policy meeting on Monday, one member of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria said, "There are quite a few MKs in Kadima and the Pensioners Party who, when push comes to shove, can be relied on not to vote in favor of Olmert's withdrawals." Whether or not their optimism is misplaced, the government's downfall could come a lot earlier than even they anticipate - yet over a totally different issue.

...ONE OF the hottest topics this week was the timetable of "convergence."
Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Justice Minister Haim Ramon each quoted different dates for the plan's implementation.

.... The most we can expect by the end of 2007 is the evacuation of the some of the outposts. Olmert's team will have to maneuver through a long obstacle course before being able to get down to the main task of moving permanent settlements into the "blocs" inside the security barrier.

The first hurdles will be diplomatic. For appearances' sake, at least, the government will have to go through the motions of trying to negotiate with the Palestinians. No one believes for a moment that anything resembling an agreement can be reached with the ineffectual Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas or a Hamas-controlled PA, but at least six months will have to be wasted on fruitless attempts just to get the US to concur that we tried and failed.

The White House is crucial for the subsequent stages, as well. Before Israel can seriously consider concentrating settlers in blocs beyond the pre-1967 Green Line, some kind of tacit American approval is necessary. ... assurance that there will be no major outcry over the move to delineate them is essential.

...The most difficult legislative step will be to define the legal status of the separation fence, which will have to be moved in many places, as a quasi-border. The area of the West Bank that will remain under Israeli control will not be officially annexed, but some instrument of sovereignty will have to be determined by the Knesset for establishing law and order there.
EACH OF these stages will spark a major battle in the Knesset. With a precarious majority and fickle coalition members, Olmert and his lieutenants will have to build ad-hoc coalitions with Meretz and Arab MKs prior to every vote.

Somewhere during this process there will also be a series of traumatic evacuations of outposts, each with a potential for violence greater than that at Amona four months ago. It is impossible to predict what effect the serious injury or even death of a policeman or settler would have on public opinion and the future of the process. But a sudden escalation will become much more likely when the time comes for action against the "hard-core" outposts around Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Elon Moreh.

Olmert has stationed his most trusted operators in the positions key to pushing the complicated process forward. Livni will be in charge of obtaining the guarantees from the international community; Hirschson will ensure necessary funding for every step; And Ramon will handle the legislative issues.

But even the most Herculean efforts on the part of Olmert's A-Team won't reach and pass all the necessary milestones before the end of 2007. No permanent settlements will budge earlier than that.

Meanwhile, back in the Knesset, Peretz will be growing restless. Kadima leaders hope he will derive enough satisfaction from bossing the IDF General Staff around. Obviously he will have no qualms about ordering the security forces to evacuate outposts. But will that suffice to calm his stormy disposition? How long will the "opposition firebrand" that is his essence remain dormant - especially when he sees that Olmert and Hirschson are still unreformed capitalists? But even if he does manage to control himself, what about the nascent Labor rebels?

ALL INDICATORS point to November 2007 as a crucial month. Olmert will be coming under pressure on both fronts, finding it more and more difficult to maintain his Knesset majority for passing the 2008 budget and the "convergence" laws. It will also be the the final stint of George Bush's presidency and the prevailing wisdom is that his support and friendship is crucial for any unilateral process. At this point, Olmert's going to start wondering whether he wouldn't do better going back to the public for a renewed mandate.

...Some of Olmert's advisers are already thinking that his best course of action would be to lay the groundwork for "convergence" and then build an early-elections campaign around a promise to the public to finish the job. Their hope is that this will be enough to return Kadima to power with an enlarged majority, cancel the settlers' demands for a referendum on further withdrawals and pave the way for implementation. If Olmert adopts this course, he won't be going too much out of his way to placate Peretz. Both politicians see themselves as Israel's next prime minister, and thus their partnership can only ever be temporary.

The script for Labor's next election broadcasts has already been written. Peretz and Co. will accuse Olmert of being an unfeeling social cannibal in bed with big business, who reneged on his financial commitments to Labor and the public. The last elections' results seemed to indicate that Peretz's social message was beginning to get through - albeit more to the benefit of Shas and the Pensioners than Labor. He has no plans to change tactics in the next round.

Olmert knows this. And if his government falls in a year and a half, his strategy will be to trump Peretz, turn the coalition's short life to his benefit and accuse Peretz of jeopardizing the country's future for his narrow political interests.

Barely one week into this government's term, the stage for its demise and the next elections has already been set.