Barak grin 224 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
When Ehud Barak becomes the voice of caution in political or diplomatic affairs, then something is wrong with that picture. So it was yesterday, when the Labor chairman spoke at a meeting of his party faction.
Earlier, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in a Kadima faction meeting, had declared to his colleagues there "is no way I will allow us to miss any opportunity for peace," the same message he expressed at his speech to open the Knesset winter session later in the day.
But Barak, while also endorsing the chance to open serious negotiations with the Palestinians at the Annapolis summit, sounded a distinctly less enthusiastic and more cautious note, saying Israel must move slowly and carefully to "protect our own security interests."
This was too much for some of the political analysts on Israel Television's Knesset channel, who sputtered that perhaps Barak would have been better served taking his own advice when he went to negotiate with Yasser Arafat at Camp David in 2000.
But perhaps Barak at least deserves credit for speaking this time with the benefit of hard-won experience - not only of having the Oslo Accords collapse in the wake of Camp David, but seeing his own government begin to crumble even before he got on the plane to Washington.
The conventional wisdom among many of our political pundits is that Olmert begins the Knesset winter session with one of the most stable coalition governments in years. That good news for the PM is coupled with recent reports that the Winograd committee will not draw "personal conclusions" regarding senior governmental figures (i.e. suggesting they resign), and that the wheels of justice in police investigations of the type now beginning against the PM tend to move very, very slowly.
All this suggests that Olmert can look forward to relative peace on the political domestic front as he heads off to try and make peace in the region next month.
But the same conventional wisdom that puts the premier on stable political footing today also had him basically written off just a year ago. Having overestimated the danger to Olmert then, the pundits may be doing just the opposite now.
Just ask Barak. After what at the time was a highly popular withdrawal from Lebanon in the spring of 2000, the former Labor prime minister felt confident enough to head to Camp David just months later, ready to make some very politically risky concessions. Just a month before he met Arafat though, the Barak government began to immolate from within - with the prime sparks being set off by Shas.
Resigning from governments (or threatening to do so) is a Shas specialty. It left the Rabin government over Oslo. It first left the Barak government two months before Camp David over religious/budgetary issues - returning only after forcing the resignation of Meretz - and then did so again permanently a month later, together with Yisrael B'Aliya and the National Religious Party, over what it said was the unwillingness of Barak to draw clearer red lines on such issues as the status of Jerusalem.
Although Barak's government survived (with Meretz's outside support) the Shas defection, this was the first brick in the crumbling of the Labor-led coalition later that year.
Despite the occasional dovish pronouncement of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and its willingness to stand by Ariel Sharon during the Gaza disengagement, the Shas party's working-class Sephardi base will only go so far in making concessions to attain a final-status agreement with the Palestinians.
Up until now in the Olmert government, Shas has been quiet - or, as they used to say about the natives in those old movies set on the edge of the British Empire, too quiet. With the recent talk by Vice Premier Haim Ramon about dividing Jerusalem, and Olmert's own increasingly vocal determination to discuss final-status issues with Mahmoud Abbas, it's no surprise that some Shas figures have started talking to Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman about bailing out on the Kadima government if red lines aren't more firmly drawn before the prime minister heads to Annapolis.
The good news for Olmert is that with his plus-sized coalition he has a bigger political cushion than Barak did in 2000; the loss of a diminished Shas poses no immediate danger to the government, if it comes to that.
But it will become increasingly uncomfortable for Israel Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman if he is isolated on the right at the cabinet table, a prospect that likely accounts in part for his recent outbursts against the Left, as he seeks to cover his conservative flank.
The biggest internal political danger to Olmert may well be leadership challenges within his own party, especially from Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who in recent months has increasingly expressed reservations about moving too quickly in negotiations with the Palestinians. Mofaz is also the one Kadima leader who might conceivably look toward attracting some of the Shas constituency in a general election if he can shift Kadima rightward; a Shas defection might well provoke him to more aggressively seek ways of usurping Olmert.
None of this is to suggest that Olmert - or even anyone who might replace him, no matter what the circumstance - is not going to show up ready to do business in Annapolis. The Bush administration is determined to make a good show of this event, and no Israeli government is going to risk annoying the White House - especially this one - by doing otherwise.
But the prime minister knows he has to steer a careful course in the next six weeks to make it there with some air in his tires. That's why, although he talked about concessions and compromises, the word "Jerusalem" didn't pass his lips at any time in his Knesset speech yesterday.
He did speak of "obstacles and pitfalls" to be faced on the way, presumably meaning from the Palestinian and Arab side. The complications in his own government are more like speed bumps on the way to the summit - nothing that will stop the Olmert government from arriving there, but enough to make him go slower on the way, lest he shake up the coalition a little too much on the road to Annapolis.