Analyze This: A cabinet meeting all too fitting

Troubling signs for Olmert's successor as his gov't collapses.

September 8, 2008 01:16
4 minute read.


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One of this Kadima-led government's last meetings before the party goes to the polls to decide on its successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert proved to be in some ways a fitting capstone to its two-and-a-half years in power. It also provided some hints on what possible changes are in store the coming months - signs that don't bode particularly well for the next Kadima leader, who may have to assume the reins of power sooner rather than later, given the police recommendation to indict Olmert on bribery and other charges. It was all-too-appropriate that the main business at hand scheduled for the meeting - discussion of Vice Premier Haim Ramon's "evacuation-compensation" plan for settlers in Judea and Samaria - was put off for another day, if that day ever comes. This postponement is emblematic of the fact that what this Kadima government defined from the very start as its primary policy goal - to resolve or at least significantly advance the process of deciding the political fate of the West Bank - also ended up almost entirely a subject for future consideration. The Hamas takeover of Gaza, and the prospect of a similar development in the West Bank, ended any possibility of a "Disengagement II" plan once viewed as a central policy plank of this government. The failures of the Second Lebanon War also sapped it of sufficient political support needed to arrive at agreement with the Palestinian Authority, in negotiations that came a little too late in the game to resolve any of the more contentious final-status issues blocking the way to a final-status deal. If this cabinet could not even get around to start discussing a strictly internal Israeli matter such as the proposed evacuation-compensation - never mind actually forging a consensus on it - what realistic chance did it ever have of coming to a decision on such issues as the future borders of both Israel and a Palestinian state? It could also be seen as not inappropriate that the subject that pushed the discussion over evacuation-compensation off Sunday's agenda was the cabinet debate and vote on Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's proposals to restrict the authority of the Supreme Court, especially over Knesset legislation. Much can be said about Friedmann's efforts pro and con regarding the substance of his suggestions, and the way in he and his supporters - and the court and its defenders - have gone about arguing their cases. Heated controversy over the powers of "judical review" which are the central target of Friedmann's court reforms are by no means limited to this democracy - and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't been paying particular attention to the US presidential campaign, especially heated Republican attacks on "judicial activists legislating from the bench." Certainly, critics of Friedmann's proposals are not out of order in arguing that to bring such a crucial governmental matter to a relatively hasty vote in a cabinet that may soon find itself dissolved, has the air of a frantic attempt to create a fait accompli (the same would have been no less true if the evacuation-compensation proposal had come to a vote on Sunday). Still, the fact that even at this late date the matter came up for serious cabinet consideration says something worth mulling about the Olmert government, which it's successors might want to consider - that this happened largely as a result of Friedman being appointed justice minister. In retrospect, the prime minister's decision to reach outside the political sphere altogether and choose an unaffiliated academic to fill a key cabinet post, is likely to end up being viewed as one of the few bold and creative steps Olmert took while in office. While the justice minister's critics still view his reforms as a frightening attempt to curtail the court's role as a defender of individual civil and human rights against a possible legislative tyranny of the majority, Olmert was able to effectively use Friedmann's appointment to blunt criticism that the chief advocate of these proposals was somehow being motivated strictly by ulterior political or partisan motives. It is a tribute of sorts to Friedmann's intensity and effectiveness in pursuing these reforms that his opponents regard him as such a dangerous champion of these ideas. Future prime ministers might take this example as a useful precedent of the value of sometimes placing qualified political outsiders in certain cabinet postings in order to pursue specific policy goals. That the leading contenders in the Kadima primary race - Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Internal Security Minister Avi Dichter - all voted against Friedmann's proposals, raises serious doubts as to how far they will proceed to full implementation beyond today's cabinet vote. Ironically, that process is more likely to be continued by a successor government headed by the Likud, where there is broader consensus in favor of limiting the Supreme Court's authorities. Within Kadima itself, the division between its ministers evident in Sunday's vote on the court reforms is a symptom of its broader ideological differences, and growing lack of party discipline. That certainly doesn't bode well for the chances of the winner of next week's primary to hold the party together effectively and reconstitute the government. Even if Livni or Mofaz succeed in doing so, they can hardly have been encouraged in their hopes of keeping this present coalition together, or forming a new one, by the bitter criticism spewed over the cabinet table between Olmert and Defense Minister/Labor leader Ehud Barak, and between Barak and Kadima's Ramon. At what was likely its last significant cabinet meeting, this Kadima government looked like not only like a coalition running out of steam - but a not-very-promising foundation on which the prime minister's successor can build a new government in its place, without having to go to new elections.

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