Politics: The coalition's clock is ticking

Olmert and Co. will have to build coalitions with Meretz and Arab MKs before voting on convergence.

government 298 88 (photo credit: AP)
government 298 88
(photo credit: AP)
A mere few minutes after walking out of the Knesset vote on the first reading of the state budget on Tuesday - in protest against the bread price-rise rise - Labor MK Yoram Marziano was promising, "I won't be a rebel; I want this government to survive." Yet with his next breath he vowed to stick to his agenda. "If they raise the price of oil next, I'll carry on fighting," he said. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert couldn't have enjoyed that. On the previous day, he had said to another would-be rebel, Moshe Sharoni of the Gil (Pensioners) Party, "Every day we raise the price of petrol. Do you expect me to consult with you every time that happens?" The exasperation of Olmert and his senior ministers is understandable. Less than six months after breaking with the Likud in the hope that a new party would enable Ariel Sharon and his followers to pursue their agenda, the new coalition seems to be unraveling a mere week into its inception. "Kadima could disintegrate just like the Likud," was Interior Minister Ronnie Bar-On's warning. "We've still got a lot of work to do building this coalition," sighed coalition chairman Avigdor Yitzhaki. And Olmert rushed off to yet another meeting with United Torah Judaism, in an attempt to broaden his coalition base. If the purely technical phase of a first reading is causing Marziano and Labor MK Shelly Yacimovich so much trouble, one wonders how many MKs will start wandering when the crunch votes come along and the malaise that is inherent to any coalition starts setting in. What is the life expectancy of this coalition? What will trigger its downfall? Following a policy meeting on Monday, one member of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria said, "There are quite a few MKs in Kadima and the Pensioners Party who, when push comes to shove, can be relied on not to vote in favor of Olmert's withdrawals." Whether or not their optimism is misplaced, the government's downfall could come a lot earlier than even they anticipate - yet over a totally different issue. Olmert and Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson have no intention of pursuing the kind of fiscal agenda that Labor Chairman Amir Peretz promised his voters. The current budget will most likely pass without too many more difficulties; the alterations have already been agreed upon in the coalition accords. But the 2007 budget is just down the road. Even if there is still enough goodwill and spare money in the Treasury's coffers to see that through, Hirschson and his senior officials are going to argue that 2008 will be a period of belt-tightening. Furthermore, the "convergence" is going to suck up every extra shekel. ONE OF the hottest topics this week was the timetable of "convergence." Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Justice Minister Haim Ramon each quoted different dates for the plan's implementation. So when is it going to happen? It is clear that the bulldozers won't start rolling anytime in the next year and a half. The most we can expect by the end of 2007 is the evacuation of the some of the outposts. Olmert's team will have to maneuver through a long obstacle course before being able to get down to the main task of moving permanent settlements into the "blocs" inside the security barrier. The first hurdles will be diplomatic. For appearances' sake, at least, the government will have to go through the motions of trying to negotiate with the Palestinians. No one believes for a moment that anything resembling an agreement can be reached with the ineffectual Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas or a Hamas-controlled PA, but at least six months will have to be wasted on fruitless attempts just to get the US to concur that we tried and failed. The White House is crucial for the subsequent stages, as well. Before Israel can seriously consider concentrating settlers in blocs beyond the pre-1967 Green Line, some kind of tacit American approval is necessary. No one is under the illusion that the UN or the rest of the international community will recognize new Israeli borders anytime in the foreseeable future, but assurance that there will be no major outcry over the move to delineate them is essential. The government is also expecting the American taxpayer to foot part of the bill. The estimated cost of disengagement from the Gaza Strip - with the evacuation of 9,000 settlers - was about NIS 8 billion (though the fact that it took only 10 days, rather than the scheduled 12 weeks, saved a lot of money). The much wider-scale and more complex evacuation of about 70,000 settlers from most of the West Bank could end up costing 10 times that amount. Originally, Israel had been counting on $1 billion of aid for disengagement. But Hurricane Katrina convinced the policy-makers that it wasn't the best of times to be asking for more money from Washington. Finance Ministry officials will now be praying that another natural disaster doesn't strike the US, because if it does, "convergence" will wipe out Israel's dollar reserves without Uncle Sam lending a helping hand. None of these concerns will be on the official agenda of Olmert's "get-acquainted" trip to the White House at the end of the month, but they are certain to be implied. After the American OK is in the bag, a number of legislative steps will have to be taken, the first of which will involve altering the "national preferences" map that awards settlers living in the areas slated for evacuation a high level of tax exemptions and other benefits. This will be done by offering them a range of incentives to move to the settlement blocs. A comprehensive compensation package will have to be authorized, taking into account the lessons learned from the bitter experience of the Gush Katif refugees. The package will include a strict clause stating that no one moving to settlements outside the blocs after a certain date will receive compensation. Major planning programs will have to be drawn up and authorized for the construction of alternative homes and neighborhoods for the evacuees. These will also have to be budgeted in the billions. The most difficult legislative step will be to define the legal status of the separation fence, which will have to be moved in many places, as a quasi-border. The area of the West Bank that will remain under Israeli control will not be officially annexed, but some instrument of sovereignty will have to be determined by the Knesset for establishing law and order there. EACH OF these stages will spark a major battle in the Knesset. With a precarious majority and fickle coalition members, Olmert and his lieutenants will have to build ad-hoc coalitions with Meretz and Arab MKs prior to every vote. Somewhere during this process there will also be a series of traumatic evacuations of outposts, each with a potential for violence greater than that at Amona four months ago. It is impossible to predict what effect the serious injury or even death of a policeman or settler would have on public opinion and the future of the process. But a sudden escalation will become much more likely when the time comes for action against the "hard-core" outposts around Yitzhar, Har Bracha and Elon Moreh. Olmert has stationed his most trusted operators in the positions key to pushing the complicated process forward. Livni will be in charge of obtaining the guarantees from the international community; Hirschson will ensure necessary funding for every step; And Ramon will handle the legislative issues. But even the most Herculean efforts on the part of Olmert's A-Team won't reach and pass all the necessary milestones before the end of 2007. No permanent settlements will budge earlier than that. Meanwhile, back in the Knesset, Peretz will be growing restless. Kadima leaders hope he will derive enough satisfaction from bossing the IDF General Staff around. Obviously he will have no qualms about ordering the security forces to evacuate outposts. But will that suffice to calm his stormy disposition? How long will the "opposition firebrand" that is his essence remain dormant - especially when he sees that Olmert and Hirschson are still unreformed capitalists? But even if he does manage to control himself, what about the nascent Labor rebels? ALL INDICATORS point to November 2007 as a crucial month. Olmert will be coming under pressure on both fronts, finding it more and more difficult to maintain his Knesset majority for passing the 2008 budget and the "convergence" laws. It will also be the the final stint of George Bush's presidency and the prevailing wisdom is that his support and friendship is crucial for any unilateral process. At this point, Olmert's going to start wondering whether he wouldn't do better going back to the public for a renewed mandate. The main objective of every first-term prime minister is to ensure election for a second term. The last elections proved that Olmert is still an unpopular politician, lucky to have garnered enough votes for a just-bare victory before the "Arik factor" waned. To have any chance of winning the next time around, he needs a grand agenda. Some of Olmert's advisers are already thinking that his best course of action would be to lay the groundwork for "convergence" and then build an early-elections campaign around a promise to the public to finish the job. Their hope is that this will be enough to return Kadima to power with an enlarged majority, cancel the settlers' demands for a referendum on further withdrawals and pave the way for implementation. If Olmert adopts this course, he won't be going too much out of his way to placate Peretz. Both politicians see themselves as Israel's next prime minister, and thus their partnership can only ever be temporary. The script for Labor's next election broadcasts has already been written. Peretz and Co. will accuse Olmert of being an unfeeling social cannibal in bed with big business, who reneged on his financial commitments to Labor and the public. The last elections' results seemed to indicate that Peretz's social message was beginning to get through - albeit more to the benefit of Shas and the Pensioners than Labor. He has no plans to change tactics in the next round. Olmert knows this. And if his government falls in a year and a half, his strategy will be to trump Peretz, turn the coalition's short life to his benefit and accuse Peretz of jeopardizing the country's future for his narrow political interests. Barely one week into this government's term, the stage for its demise and the next elections has already been set.