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Surrounded by Domestic Pessimism, Olmert Forms a Coalition Government

May 2, 2006
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Just in time for Israel’s 58th Independence Day, Ehud Olmert has clinched his new coalition government. But while the prime minister promises to set the Jewish state’s borders and to calm, if not end, the conflict with the Palestinians, domestic realities post serious challenges.

Olmert’s Kadima Party on Sunday signed up a third faction, Shas, and thus gained control over 67 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. The government is to be sworn in Thursday.

Having a parliamentary majority is crucial for Olmert, who has vowed, in the absence of peace talks with a Palestinian Authority ruled by Hamas, to implement major moves in the West Bank — the evacuation of isolated settlements and annexation of major settlement blocs.

Ceding more land after last year’s Gaza Strip withdrawal is bound to be opposed by right-wing parties. Olmert would appear to have forestalled this obstacle by enlisting a range of coalition partners from the center-left Labor Party to the religious and rightist Shas.

But Shas joined up on the promise of getting key social portfolios in the Cabinet and without expressly endorsing the planned removal of settlements — raising the potential of a falling-out just when Olmert’s “convergence plan” kicks off.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party was briefly courted by Kadima, predicted that Olmert would be hobbled.

“It is clear to me that this government will not be capable of carrying out evacuations,” he said.

Another potential pitfall is in the nomination of Labor Party leader Amir Peretz as defense minister, a role crucial to what may be the most complicated military redeployment in Israel’s history.

There is also a possible flare-up of fighting with the Palestinians to worry about, not to mention Iran’s nuclear program. Yet Peretz, a veteran trade unionist, lacks any military pedigree. A Yediot Achronot poll found that 76 percent of Israelis do not want him running the Defense Ministry.

Sima Kadmon of Yediot Achronot wrote that Peretz’s nomination compounded a sense of unease over having Olmert as prime minister and his Kadima comrade Tzipi Livni as foreign

minister. Despite their evident talents, both Olmert and Livni are considered relatively new to national politics.

“This may be the most inexperienced leadership Israel has had,” Kadmon wrote.

Peretz has done little to mollify concerns over his own prospects. When building Labor’s roster of seven Cabinet ministers, he pointedly shunned Ami Ayalon, Danny Yatom and

Matan Vilna’i, three former members of the military top brass who might have lent him some gravitas.

The veterans in turn mounted an internal rebellion, trying to persuade the Labor Central Committee to require that ministers be chosen by a vote, rather than by Peretz. That resolution was beaten down, but only by a very slim margin.

Peretz received a boost from the freshest additions to Israeli politics, 79-year-old Rafi Eitan of the pensioners’ party, Gil. The former spymaster was quoted as saying he would back up Peretz in the Security Cabinet.

But Eitan has his own woes, in the form of a High Court petition lodged against his Cabinet appointment by Jonathan Pollard, the U.S. Navy analyst serving a life prison sentence in North Carolina for spying for Israel.

Pollard accused Eitan, his former handler, of “abandoning him in the field,” conduct he says is unbecoming of political office in Israel. Eitan, who took full responsibility for the Pollard affair when it broke in the mid-1980s, has pledged to lobby from the Knesset for the spy’s release.

The new Cabinet will see some old faces, however. Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old former prime minister, will hold the Negev, Galilee and regional development portfolios. Shaul Mofaz, who was ousted as defense minister, will take over the transportation portfolio and play a part in the Security Cabinet.

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