cabinet meeting wed.
(photo credit: AP)
Two and a half months ago, the consensus was that the government's days were numbered. Virtually all commentators, this writer included, were confidently predicting an election, or at the least, a new administration under a different prime minister. The troika in charge of the Lebanon War, Ehud Olmert, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz, were finished.
One of those prophets issuing assurances that the coalition was done for was Avigdor Lieberman. Now Lieberman is joining that very same coalition, prolonging its life. The chorus now says that Israel Beiteinu entering the government assures it a new lease on life, perhaps even for another year - an eternity in Israeli politics. This time, it seems wiser to take a step back and try to be a bit more skeptical of the accepted view.
Actually not that much has changed. A calm appraisal shows the obstacles still facing this government are many and that some of them can still trip the coalition up.
One has to hand it to Olmert. Bringing Lieberman on board was a political master-stroke. What only three weeks ago was dismissed as spin for the Succot holiday finished with an expansion of the coalition, creating a hitherto unbelievable cohabitation between Left and Right. Not only did the PM get 11 more MKs to back his government at a bargain price - just one new minister without even a ministry of his own - but on the way he managed yet again to humiliate Peretz and to sow discord within Labor's ranks. And get away with it.
But that still doesn't mean plain sailing ahead, not by any means. The imminent threat, if it ever really existed, might have been removed from the above the government's head, but the sharks are still circling, not too far off.
The first blow could come from many directions, but the nearest storm seems to brewing on the Knesset horizon, where the government needs to get the 2007 state budget through three readings and the treacherous committee stage.
The addition of Israel Beiteinu might give Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson more leverage but now Labor will be out for revenge. After being forced to swallow Lieberman, they want to prove that they've still got some of their old fight and ideals in them and they're about to exact a reckoning over the budget. Every item regarding social spending, especially the cuts and the Economic Arrangements Bill, will be eviscerated.
They still haven't lost their bargaining position. With 19 MKs in a 78-member coalition, they can block crucial votes. In the end, they'll have to give way or break up the coalition, but the next two months of warfare won't improve the government's health. Olmert might try to minimize their bargaining power even more by finally bringing United Torah Judaism into a grand coalition of 84 MKs, but that would only cause new problems over religious legislation and funding.
The next obstacle down the road is the ambition of the US and the Europeans to kick-start some kind of process with the Palestinians, if only for show. Once again, Labor will insist that the cabinet comply with international demands, this time also hoping to provoke Lieberman. Will he rise to the bait? And what will Olmert and Kadima's position be? The same dynamic could turn a few evacuated caravans at a couple of settlement outposts or the Saudi peace plan into an anti-coalition bomb. None of this promises much calm for the government.
Trouble for the government may be lurking even inside the ruling party, Kadima. Senior ministers like Tzipi Livni, Meir Sheetrit and Shaul Mofaz have been keeping a low profile and guarding their counsel in anticipation of changes at the top. The rumored re-defection back to Likud isn't in the cards, and if Olmert is seen as a liability, a palace revolt isn't unfeasible.
Having survived the terrible post-war months intact, should Olmert be worried about his personal standing? As far as the dismal opinion polls are concerned, he can afford to take the long-term view. He was way up in the charts not so many months ago, and experience shows that given time, anything is possible with the fickle public.
Real damage to Olmert - personal, political and legal - can only be caused now by Attorney-General Meni Mazuz. None of the four investigations being bounced back and forth between Mazuz and the State Comptroller's Office: Olmert's real estate deal; the allegations surrounding the sale of the controlling stake in Bank Leumi; political appointments by Olmert in the Small Businesses Agency; and his questionable aid as minister to former law firm partner Uri Messer, are slam-dunk cases. The suspicions are all open to interpretation and the real estate case already seems to be without serious merit, but any of them could still balloon into a full-fledged criminal investigation, crippling the Prime Minister's Office for months. Whatever the eventual outcome, that would cause Olmert untold public damage.
Another problem facing Olmert within Kadima ranks is the presidential vote, if President Katsav resigns. If Olmert fails to get a Kadima candidate elected, his political ratings will dip again, and he might have a hard time convincing the party's MKs to vote his way. And if he balks at endorsing Shimon Peres, he's going to have one very angry elder statesman to contend with, and Peres know how to hold a grudge.
Another interesting date on the political calendar in the Labor leadership race, which could take place as early as May. At least one candidate, Ophir Paz-Pines, will campaign on a platform of taking the party out of the coalition and working to force elections.
Doomsayers are predicting another war in 2007. If - God forbid - they're right, all these political predictions will be superfluous. Who can say how well the current team would handle another national crisis. But even if relative calm prevails on the borders, the last war still has left a few time bombs ticking. Even though the demands for a full-blown state commission of inquiry went unheeded, any of the teams currently investigating the war - the state comptroller's, the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and, of course, the Winograd Commission, might issue a report so damning that it would push Olmert, Peretz and company back to where they were two and a half months ago.