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After last week's empty gestures and pointless "consultations" between the parties and the president over who should form a coalition, while the real business was going on in secret meetings between Ehud Olmert and Amir Peretz, we're in for a second week of political farce. The "coalition talks" that started Sunday in Kfar Hamaccabiah are no more than a meaningless courtship ritual that has virtually no relationship to the final outcome.
This is the hour of the lawyers and various other power brokers, who have met each other across the same table in countless similar negotiations. The only difference now is that some who used to be on the same team are now sitting opposite each other.
Premier league attorneys David Liba'i and Ram Caspi were once permanent fixtures of the Labor team, but Caspi moved with his old friend Shimon Peres and is now on the Kadima bench. The same goes for spin-doctor Eyal Arad, who met his former Likud teammates Limor Livnat and Gideon Sa'ar - this time as adversary.
Only David Glass gave a sense of permanency; Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's lawyer and confidant has been chief Shas negotiator since the party's first election campaign in 1984. When reporters asked him how the talks were going, he gave his usual half-smile and said, "They [Kadima] want us in. We can be finished in 10 days, by the end of Pessah."
He knows that it could actually be over in less than 10 hours, and that's what is going to eventually happen. After the empty meetings and artificial crises, Olmert will get down to business in a few quick, one-on-one meetings with Peretz, Eli Yishai and Avigdor Lieberman, and the coalition will be cobbled together in time to be sworn in before the deadline.
Olmert's choice among one of three possible coalitions - Labor-Lieberman-haredim, Labor-haredim and Lieberman-haredim - will not be determined by the outcome of this week's talks but by the political calculations of each party leader, who will have to decide between leading the way into the wilderness of opposition and going back to his colleagues or his rabbi with a raw deal.
So why go to all the trouble of conducting endless rounds of talks? Why go into the nitpicking details of coalition guidelines, state budgets and imaginary peace plans? One reason is to provide time for the leaders to get their own houses in order. Rebellious MKs have to be put in line, hatchets buried and power shared between rival factions before the political establishment can settle down after the elections to another few years of misrule.
The Kfar Hamaccabiah talks are also a useful smoke screen for the real negotiations, which need time. The leaders want to wear out the wanna-be ministers in their parties and bring down their demands.
But the talks are most of all a charade aimed at us, the public. By spending endless hours on principle and policy, the negotiating teams create a semblance of order and reason. They want us to have the illusion that the country isn't being run on a hit-and-miss system of governance by circumstance. A month from now, there will be a new administration that, like most Israel has known over the years, will try to survive from day to day. But for now it seems as if a group of responsible grown-ups are making plans for all of us.
Well, at least these talks aren't costing us more than the price of the orange juice and rugelach. The lawyers, who usually charge $500 per hour, are doing this for free, as the prestige they gain from taking part in the talks is priceless.