Politics: Principal players, playing with principles

Unlike Avigdor Lieberman, Amir Peretz doesn't have the luxury of Labor support to leave the coalition.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN
October 26, 2006 21:23
Politics: Principal players, playing with principles

peretz gestures 298 88. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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When the Mishkenot Sha'ananim Newsmakers Forum invited hundreds of foreign media to a Jerusalem press conference with Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman during this summer's war in Lebanon, fewer than 10 journalists showed up. Lieberman has come a long way since then, from protesting against the government in the opposition to commanding a seat at the cabinet table. Chances are that if such a press conference were held today, there would be a lot more interest, now that threatening photos of Lieberman have been splashed on the pages of newspapers around the world. The incoming deputy prime minister used the July press conference to slam Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for agreeing to an international peacekeeping force in Lebanon and to rule out his party's joining the coalition. "We don't want to be part of this government," Lieberman said at the event. "We don't believe in this government." He later clarified to Israel Radio that his party "would join the government only if the Labor Party leaves." Asked why he had changed his mind, Lieberman said this week he had decided it would be wrong to rule out sitting in a government with any party, and that he wanted to have an impact on crucial decisions being made about the country's future. The fruits of joining the government already paid off on Wednesday, when European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana made a meeting with Lieberman his first stop on his trip to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Solana told reporters ahead of the meeting that he "disagreed with Lieberman on everything," but the very fact that he met with him granted Lieberman legitimacy from a key international figure. The New York Times deemed the new appointment significant enough to merit an editorial slamming Olmert for his "unwise move" in adding Lieberman to the cabinet. The paper went as far as comparing Olmert's addition of Israel Beiteinu to the cabinet to the Palestinian voters' decision to elect Hamas, calling both "obstacles to peace." Lieberman told The Jerusalem Post in an interview on Thursday that he does not feel the need to bend over backwards to improve his image in the eyes of the world. He said he was not bothered by his international reputation as Israel's far-Right fanatic, a slot the world once reserved incorrectly for former prime minister Ariel Sharon. "I don't have to correct the world's ignorance," Lieberman said. "I intend to be consistent no matter what they say. It has been 13 years since the Oslo process began. We have lost thousands of Jewish lives; it caused grave economic damage; and peace is still far away. The New York Times and the Left must realize that maybe they were wrong, and maybe their understanding of history was incorrect." Lieberman's criticism of the Right is equally harsh. He believes the Right should shift its strategy from opposing all territorial concessions to initiating them, in an effort to maximize what Israel will maintain long-term, an approach that associates of Sharon said he employed as prime minister. "The Right has to change its approach," Lieberman said. "The Right has been in power since 1977. Since then, we have given up the Sinai, Gush Katif, Hebron, part of Judea and Samaria and Amona, and the Right has not succeeded in stopping a single withdrawal. If you keep failing, chances are your approach is wrong." By speaking out against Israeli Arabs, yet endorsing significant territorial concessions, Lieberman found a way to attract support from across the political spectrum in the March election. He hopes that formula will work twice as well after he has served in a security capacity as a minister-without-portfolio in charge of strategizing for the Iranian threat. Lieberman is gambling that he will be rewarded later for joining the government now, without receiving portfolios. He hopes United Torah Judaism will follow him into the coalition and that Labor will leave sooner rather than later, making Israel Beiteinu a senior coalition partner. "We won't remain without portfolios until the end of the term," Lieberman said. "As a faction with 11 seats, we deserve at least two ministries. Any portfolio that becomes open goes to us, and that includes the welfare portfolio." LUCKILY FOR Lieberman, he does not have to face stiff opposition in his party the way Amir Peretz does in Labor. Peretz could only wish he had had enough power to get away with joining the coalition without having to worry about satisfying his party rivals. Six months after the formation of the government, Peretz has still not subdued Labor MKs who are angry at him for not giving them portfolios. Some of them formed part of the group of Labor rebels who became so unreliable in key Knesset votes that Olmert felt he had no choice but to expand the coalition. Sources close to Peretz said his decision about whether to remain in a government with Lieberman was a case of "you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't." Had he decided to leave the coalition, the Labor central committee would have overruled him, and it is likely that other Labor ministers would have remained in the cabinet against his will. By caving in, he was able to maintain the Defense portfolio that he needs as a base for a very difficult Labor leadership race expected to be held in May. But he lost some of his remaining credibility, and undoubtedly some of his remaining supporters in the party's left flank. Peretz's zigzag was much more damaging than Lieberman's, because Lieberman did not make opposing a coalition with Labor part of his election campaign the way Peretz did with Israel Beiteinu. In a Labor faction meeting, Peretz described his party's differences with Israel Beiteinu as "an ideological chasm," and said that adding Israel Beiteinu to the coalition "would help the government survive, but would deepen the stalemate on every issue." He even ordered the IDF to dismantle outposts, in a step Olmert's office called "political spin." LABOR FACTION chairman Ephraim Sneh did not fare any better in maintaining his integrity. Two weeks before agreeing to become deputy defense minister in a cabinet with Lieberman, he met with Olmert and warned him that Lieberman's addition would prevent the government from fulfilling its objectives and the promises he made to Labor when the government was formed. The big winner in Labor this week was Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ophir Paz-Pines, who remained the only Labor minister opposed to the expansion of the coalition. In doing so, Paz-Pines positioned himself as an alternative to Peretz on the Left in his party, and a serious candidate to challenge the two men that polls show are the top candidates to succeed Peretz as party leader, MK Ami Ayalon and former prime minister Ehud Barak. Ayalon has positioned himself to the right of Peretz, saying that if he is elected Labor leader, he would keep the party in the coalition for as long as possible, so he could rehabilitate the army as defense minister and the party as its chairman. He took a neutral stance on Lieberman, to ensure that he would be able to attack Peretz no matter what he ended up deciding. Sunday's Labor central committee meeting, which was intended to answer the question of whether Labor would sit in a government with Israel Beiteinu, has instead become a preview of the Labor leadership race, and an opportunity for Peretz's challengers to attack him on prime-time television. The Labor Party's house committee began the process of setting a date for the Labor race on Thursday. Peretz's fight for his political career has begun. It is a battle he must win, after not succeeding in battles to obtain the Finance portfolio in April, to secure the North in July and to prevent Lieberman from joining the government in October. If Peretz fails again, he could have to join his predecessor, Amram Mitzna, in exile in a southern development town. If that happens, it won't be too long before fewer than 10 reporters come to his press conferences.

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