Barak shuffles the deck


JERUSALEM, Aug. 8 (JTA) — No longer having a majority in the Knesset, Prime Minister Ehud Barak moved rapidly this week to shift public attention away from his political weakness to his gritty determination to stay in power.

Barak filled four Cabinet positions that had been held by parties that left his coalition with members of his One Israel Party, and they set about purging officials put in place by the previous ministers.

At the same time, government sources intimated that informal talks with the Palestinians are continuing with a view to resuming the peace negotiations broken off at Camp David last month.

And, in a third step designed to shore up his power — or at least the perception of his power — Barak launched into high-profile discussions with possible new coalition allies with a view to shoring up his much depleted coalition.

The purge at the ministries included the peremptory dismissal — it was billed a “resignation” — of the director general of the foreign ministry, Eitan Ben-Tsur, and the recall of Likud-appointed envoys abroad, among them the ambassador to France, former Likud legislator Eliahu Ben-Elissar.

Barak, who took over the Foreign Ministry himself after the resignation last week of David Levy, plans to appoint a professional diplomat and close political confidant, Alon Liel, as director general. Liel served as Israeli ambassador to South Africa during the 1990s.

Levy reacted by claiming that Barak had “lost his senses” and was trying to ram through appointments while he still has power.

But Barak denied that he was “settling the score” with Levy, who resigned amid charges that Barak had conceded too much to the Palestinians at Camp David.

“It is natural for the director general to change when a new minister comes in,” Barak said at a briefing Tuesday. “As for the ambassadors, their contracts were up, and they had known this for a long time.”

In the reshuffling of other Cabinet assignments, Communications Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer took over the housing portfolio; Finance Minister Avraham Shochat assumed the Infrastructure Ministry; Cabinet minister Haim Ramon took over the Interior Ministry; and Justice Minister Yossi Beilin assumed the religious affairs portfolio.

These ministries had been held by the three parties — Shas, Yisrael Ba’Aliyah and the National Religious Party — that bolted the governing coalition on the eve of the Camp David summit.

Barak and his team of ministers soon made it clear that there would be a price to be paid for these defections.

After taking over the Housing Ministry, which had been held by Yitzhak Levy of the NRP, Ben-Eliezer vowed there would be far less money for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and much more for Negev development towns.

Moving into the Religious Affairs Ministry, Beilin ordered the transfer of a key rabbinical department to the Chief Rabbinate. This department, which is responsible for the appointment of hundreds of rabbis around the country, has traditionally been a fertile source of patronage for the political parties that have run the ministry — most recently Shas.

Beilin said he would like to dismantle the ministry entirely, subsuming its functions into the Interior Ministry and the local authorities.

For his part, Ramon, stepping into the Interior Ministry, formerly a Yisrael Ba’Aliyah fiefdom, deliberately nurtured expectations that heads would roll.

In these and other ministries, dozens of aides, advisers, consultants, secretaries and drivers that were appointed by the former ministers have been swept out by order of the civil service commissioner. The new caretaker ministers are now putting in their own people — to the great chagrin of the former coalition partners that previously ran the ministries.

Barak and his party are determined to create an image of business as usual, despite the premier’s perilous condition in the Knesset, where the coalition controls only 42 of the parliament’s 120 seats.

They believe that during the current three-month Knesset recess the premier cannot constitutionally be voted out of office by a no-confidence motion.

They therefore feel that they have a breathing space in which to reassert their control over the country and perhaps rebuild their coalition.

With this in mind, Barak met Sunday with Knesset member Roman Bronfman, who last year broke away along with one colleague from Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party to form his own party, Democratic Choice.

The premier also met with Haim Katz, a legislator from the One Nation Party, which also holds two Knesset seats and is also a possible coalition partner.

While the arithmetic still does not add up to a stable legislative majority — unless Shas, with its 17 Knesset seats, returns to the fold — Barak seems anxious to project confidence that he can keep the ship of state in motion while diplomatic efforts continue.

This effort to resuscitate the peace process received a boost from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat this week.

Touring the Arab world in an effort to garner support following the failed Camp David summit, Arafat said there might be another summit after the Democratic Party convention is held next week in Los Angeles.

Reactions in Jerusalem were equivocal. Indeed, Barak said this week that it is still too soon to talk about a new summit.

“I have not heard about the convening of a summit, and I doubt that conditions are right for such a summit,” Barak said Tuesday.

Just the same, he confirmed reports that Regional Development Minister Shimon Peres, an architect of the 1993 Oslo Accord, is involved in backroom talks with the Palestinians about Jerusalem, the issue that scuttled the Camp David summit.

Barak described Peres’ talks as “informal but important.”

For his part, Arafat has ample motivation to move forward with the peace process before the end of the Knesset recess. If Barak fails to shore up his coalition by then, and the opposition manages to get through a no-confidence motion, Arafat may find himself without a peace partner.

Opposition leader Ariel Sharon is likewise well aware of the ticking clock.

Trying to drum up the needed 61 Knesset members to topple Barak’s government, the veteran hawk met this week with legislators, including the erstwhile foreign minister, David Levy, to secure their backing.

(JTA correspondent Naomi Segal in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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