Striving For Normalcy


Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was to unveil his new cabinet this week in a move to solidify his strength in the Kadima Party and herald a new era after a year of crises, while the opposition Likud Party advanced the date of its own primary and the Labor Party selected Ehud Barak as its candidate for prime minister in the next election.

Olmert selected a trusted ally, Roni Bar-On, currently the interior minister, to head the Finance Ministry, replacing Abraham Hirchson, who is currently the subject of a criminal investigation. And Haim Ramon, who was recently convicted of indecent assault, was expected to return to the cabinet. He had been forced to step aside as justice minister when the charges were filed against him, but Israeli media reports said he would now be named vice premier in place of President-elect Shimon Peres. It was reported also that Ramon would become a member of the political security cabinet and be at Olmert’s side in other restricted forums.

Other appointments were expected, but Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, dismissed the cabinet reshuffling was “unimportant.” He said it was certain to lead opposition parties to shrug it off as nothing more than “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.”

“The appointment of his friend Bar-On, who is not considered to be a heavyweight, and the fact that the kidnapped soldiers are still being held, along with the anticipated release of the complete Winograd Committee report [on last summer’s war with Hezbollah] and a separate report expected to be critical of the building of new shelters in the north, leads to the anticipation that there will be early elections by early 2008,” Steinberg said. “Olmert is going to be under pressure, even though it looked like he was improving in his standing,” he added. “Olmert was benefiting from the chaos with the Palestinians. But now, with the first anniversary of the war and his refusal to go to the [memorial] ceremony, let’s see what happens.”

Olmert announced this week that he was releasing to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas $118 million in taxes and fees that Israel had collected for the Palestinians and withheld while Hamas was in power. But now that the unity government of Hamas and the Fatah Party headed by Abbas has dissolved, Olmert released the money in a bid to strengthen Abbas. He also announced that he was preparing to release 250 Palestinians from Israeli jails.

Silvan Shalom, the former foreign minister who is vying with Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the Likud Party, criticized the moves.

“It is well known that Fatah is responsible for more attacks than Hamas and Islamic Jihad together,” he said. “To try to portray them as boy scouts is wrong. They are terrorists and their history has shown us that.”

Shalom said goodwill gestures by Israel should be reserved until after the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Palestinian terrorists in a cross-border raid from the Gaza Strip a year ago, and after Abbas “takes measures against extremists and disarms” Palestinian gunmen.

“He is not doing much,” Shalom said. “He has to do more.”

Although Moshe Feiglin, who heads the Jewish Leadership faction in Likud, is also running for the leadership of the party, Shalom is expected to be Netanyahu’s chief contender. Shalom declined to discuss the race, but Limor Livnat, who served as education minister when Netanyahu served as prime minister a decade ago, said she was supporting Netanyahu in the Aug. 7 party primary.

“Netanyahu is very strong and members support him strongly,” she said. “They understand that he is the only candidate who can bring Likud back to power. They understand that he is the right man, in the right place. He is the one who predicted the existential threat of Iran. He predicted it is far ahead of any other world leader. He understood that not only was Iran part of the axis of evil, as Bush said, but that it is a threat to the existence of the Western world.”

Livnat said it was Netanyahu who “came up with the answer to boycott all of the companies that work with Iran.” And she noted that as finance minister earlier in the 1990s, “he saved the Israeli economy. … He is the best man for the state, not only for Likud.”

Meanwhile, Barak, just three weeks after being voted the Labor Party leader, was able to avoid a party primary this week by getting Labor’s Central Committee Monday to designate him the party’s candidate for prime minister.

National elections are not slated to be held again until 2009 and despite all of the maneuvering by the Labor and Likud parties, Mordechai Kedar said he is not convinced there will be early elections.

“There will only be early elections when more than half of the Knesset members think it is in their interests,” said Kedar, a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. “This situation does not exist yet.”

Should the Winograd Committee’s report be very critical of Olmert, as expected, he might be forced to resign but his Kadima Party can replace him without the need for new elections. “According to the law, the president [of Israel] will put the burden [of forming a new government] on the Knesset member who has the most chance of getting a stable coalition,” he explained. “That is usually given to somebody from the largest party because mathematically it has the most chance, but it is not compulsory. And if we look at the situation, [Foreign Minister] Tzipi Livni may replace him as prime minister. … So there is a distance between the resignation of a prime minister and new elections.”

There were also reports this week that an increasing number of Palestinians were discussing the possibility of some sort of link with Jordan rather than establishing their own state in the near future. Shmuel Rosner, a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, wrote that the “Jordanian option for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once more assuming a central position on the agenda.” It might take the form of a confederation with Jordan, even though Jordan’s King Abdullah flatly ruled it out last Sunday. He told an interviewer, “We reject the formula of confederation and federation and we believe that proposing this issue at this specific point in time is a conspiracy against both Palestine and Jordan.”

And a recent survey by Khalil Shikaki’s Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 42 percent of Palestinians would support a confederation while 52 percent opposed it.

But Kedar said it is “highly doubtful” the proposal would ever be accepted by the Jordanians because more than half of Jordan is comprised of Palestinians, whom the Jordanians view as “foreigners.”

“The Jordanians know that the ‘foreigners’ are the majority in their country and they are not looking for more,” he said. “They don’t need it and they need even less to become policemen in the West Bank because they would be depicted as collaborators with the Zionists who helped to push the Palestinian cause under the carpet. … Jordan detached itself from the West Bank in 1988 and it did so not in order to come back.”