peretz gestures 298 88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What's surprising about Amir Peretz's capitulation to Israel Beiteinu joining the coalition is that it's so unsurprising.
A year ago, his first promise as newly elected Labor chairman was to take the party out of Ariel Sharon's government. Although Sharon's administration had just carried out the disengagement from Gaza, Peace Now veteran Peretz still declared that Labor must be an alternative to the government - not its spare wheel.
At least that promise, he fulfilled. He took Labor into the opposition and sounded the starting shot of the elections.
A year later, Peretz is still Labor leader but he's a totally different politician. Throughout his campaign, he promised the voters that he was interested in social legislation and that he planned to demand that in any coalition negotiation. "I'm not interested in seatology," he repeated at every stop on the campaign trail.
But that doesn't mean he's prepared now to give up the Defense Ministry rather than sit around the cabinet table with a man who ostensibly holds the opposite views from him on just about every issue.
Or perhaps Peretz is not such a left-winger as we were led to believe, just as Avigdor Lieberman apparently isn't as staunch a rightist as he seemed a couple of weeks ago. What's clear is that both of them share, together with Ehud Olmert, the ideology of political survival.
Years ago, Kadima MK Haim Ramon, then a senior Laborite, began talking about his big-bang theory, according to which the "mainstream" wings of Likud and Labor would break away from the old parties and form a new political body in the center of the map, which would win the elections by a landslide.
Ramon's vision was only partly realized. Sharon broke off a large chunk of Likud which Ramon, Shimon Peres and a few other Labor members joined, but the big-bang lost momentum shortly after Sharon's stroke.
Kadima might currently be in power, but it is at the mercy of its coalition partners to an extent not envisaged by Ramon. On a different level, the convergence of the political scene towards some ill-defined center is happening at an accelerated pace. Kadima, Labor, Shas, Israel Beiteinu and the Gil Pensioners Party - almost two thirds of the Knesset - are now part of a coalition that isn't notably left or right in any of its main policies. And the Likud in opposition is styling itself as center-right, and according to reports this week, Binyamin Netanyahu was also prepared to enter coalition talks with Olmert. It might be a bit premature to announce the end of ideology in mainstream Israeli politics, but it doesn't seem to be playing any kind of role in today's scene.
Everyone's talking about how the deal with Lieberman has saved Olmert's government and ensured its stability. The obvious reason for this, of course, is the coalition's size - 78 Knesset seats with a possible expansion to 84 if UTJ joins as expected eventually.
But it's not only the government's wide parliamentary base, it's also a dynamic that has become evident over the last few weeks. The leaders of the main coalition parties: Olmert, Peretz, Lieberman and Eli Yishai, all have a fundamental need to remain in their posts, not just the usual politician's urge to hold on to power.
Olmert and Peretz will not survive as leaders if the coalition ceases to exist. Both are under threat by growing groups of rivals in their own party. Their only chance is to overcome the disastrous first six months of their administration and prove they are capable of better. Lieberman and Yishai are not leaders of democratic parties, but they also need cabinet status.
Lieberman believes that only by establishing himself as a responsible national leader through a high-profile ministerial post, can he hope to break out of his immigrant constituency and take his party to the next level where it can be a serious contender for power. Yishai knows that only as a member of the coalition can Shas ensure the flow of funds needed by the movement's education network. If he fails in that, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef will find someone who won't.
None of them really like each other. But as things stand now, this political quartet have little choice but to cling together.