Analysis: Can a coalition of 67 withdraw to '67 lines?

While Shas may tolerate talks on Jerusalem, an agreement is still far.

knesset 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
knesset 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
US President George W. Bush's visit to Israel last week was not only intended to discuss Iran and nudge forward the diplomatic process, according to a senior Western diplomatic official. It was also designed to give the president a good reading of the strength of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's coalition so he could make a decision regarding how much of his own time and energy - to say nothing of his political capital and presidential prestige - to put on the line in pressing forward the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. That was the purpose of Bush's meeting last week with Olmert's senior Kadima ministers and the heads of his coalition partners at the time: Avigdor Lieberman (Israel Beiteinu), Eli Yishai (Shas) and Rafi Eitan (The Pensioners Party). Bush's conclusion was simple: The coalition is stable, Olmert is not going anywhere. How do we know this? Because Bush said publicly that he would make another trip to Israel in May, a clear sign that he believes Olmert's government won't fall, that the bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will continue and that it is worth pushing them along. It is safe to say that Bush knew well of what he spoke and was convinced by Olmert - and his ministers and other government officials - that the coalition would survive. Lieberman, who Bush spoke to at that dinner, obviously thinks differently. By bolting the government this week, Lieberman - someone credited over the years with almost supernatural political instincts - is betting Olmert will not survive the final Winograd Committee report into the Second Lebanon War, due to be publicized at the end of the month. As such, he believes it is in his political interest to get out of the government now and couch this exodus in ideological, rather than purely political, terms. It is obviously much better for Lieberman to go back to the electorate as one who left the Olmert government on "principle" rather than as one who remained inside the government until the bitter end. But what about those core-issue negotiations? What will Lieberman's decision to leave the government, bringing it down from 78 to 67 Knesset seats, do to the bilateral talks? Can Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, in the name of the government, continue to negotiate on the core issues - Jerusalem, the settlements and refugees - knowing that Shas, and its 12 seats, could very well follow Lieberman if the talks center on Jerusalem? The answer is simple: Livni can, and most likely will, continue the negotiations, assuming that for Shas, negotiations are one thing, and reaching an agreement is quite another. The government's working assumption is that Shas, whose stock has just risen enormously inside the government and will be able to get more from the government now than it has for years, will not tip the government just because of talks. An agreement, however, is another matter. The widespread feeling inside the government is that D-Day for Shas is not now, but a number of months down the line when an agreement is signed. Then it will have to decide whether to back the government and sign an agreement with the PA or resign. But what's the rush? In the meantime Shas can enjoy that enviable position in Israeli politics - one it knows very well - as kingmaker. Shas leaves, the government falls; it stays, and the government survives. Let the courting begin. Indeed, it already has, about two weeks ago when the religious affairs minister was reinstated, albeit re-named the Religious Service Ministry, with a Shas minister as its head. But what of the negotiations themselves? On the one hand, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is probably heaving a sigh of relief that the main opponent to the Annapolis process is now outside the government and will now be relegated, like Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, to screaming and shouting, but little else. Yet on the other hand, Abbas has to be concerned about dealing with a government that may very well be on its last leg. Any agreement with Israel on the core issues will necessitate some degree of compromise from the Palestinians - on the refugees, on Jerusalem, yes, even on building in the settlement blocs - and any such compromise will bring upon him the wrath of large segments of his public. Why incur that wrath, Abbas must be thinking, if in the end the process may be brought to an end because of the election of a different Israeli prime minister - Netanyahu, for instance. The same can be said of the rest of the Arab world. Bush and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice roamed the Persian Gulf this week looking, among other things, for shows of support for the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. Their success was limited, to say the least. It is safe to say that Lieberman's move is not going to make it any easier for an already extremely reluctant Arab world to make any overtures to Israel. Such overtures, obviously, would be widely booed on the Arab street. As a result, why risk public reproach by making overtures to a government that might not last, and then face a government that might not back the whole Annapolis process.