Analysis: Olmert going to US with a precarious coalition behind him

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will be arriving in Washington in a week, but for all purposes his visit to the White House begins today, when his advance team begins meetings at the State Department to iron out remaining differences and prepare the closing statements in advance. One of the team's members seems to have left some unfinished business back at home. "Yoram Turbovich [Olmert's chief of staff] is conducting negotiations in Washington, but he seems to have forgotten that he promised to be in the middle of coalition talks with us," said MK Ran Cohen, the head of Meretz's negotiating team. Meretz isn't the only party complaining of the disjointed talks. "Their whole timing is weird," according to United Torah Judaism's MK Moshe Gafni. "We reached agreements last Thursday that could have been made three weeks earlier, and now everything has been postponed again." The date for Olmert's trip was decided months in advance. It seemed reasonable to assume that the coalition and government would be wrapped up a month and a half after the elections, and Olmert would be able to lean back and enjoy his flight. Olmert kept to his schedule, but the coalition that he achieved is limited and precarious. Last week it was the Labor budget rebels, who gave him a taste of the troubles ahead over crucial votes. This week he found himself at the Sunday cabinet meeting telling off ministers for talking with the media. But there is little Olmert and his lieutenants can do. In a coalition of 67 MKs, the prime minister is always on the verge of a hostage situation. Olmert will be visiting a president at his lowest point. President George W. Bush's approval ratings are under the 30 percent mark, the Republicans are running scared six months before the congressional elections and despite having more than two and a half years to go, all talk is of prospective successors. And still, no cabinet secretary would dare to openly question a major policy of the president, as did Tourism Minister Yitzhak Herzog, who said over the weekend that he wouldn't necessarily support the convergence plan. His American counterpart would be out of a job in half an hour. No US defense secretary would even dream of going to the press with his own diplomatic initiative without notifying and receiving the president's approval. Amir Peretz had no problem announcing his support for transferring $50 million to the Palestinians for medical needs, contrary to Olmert's policy. Olmert will soon make a swing also through Europe and meet Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street. Blair also is at his low point, with a significant portion of his party demanding he announce a resignation date. Still Blair had the power to reshuffle his ministers at will and no one in his cabinet, even his bitter rival Gordon Brown, will openly contradict him without resigning first. Obviously the difference in cabinet loyalty between Israel, the US and the UK is mainly a result of the different systems of government, but you would expect that a newly elected prime minister would command a minimum of respect from his cabinet colleagues, at least during the first month of his administration. This situation isn't that different from previous Israeli governments, but this is Kadima, the party that was founded by Ariel Sharon, and pushed on by Olmert, to create a new reality in Israeli politics - one in which small, special interest parties wouldn't be able to hold the government's policy hostage. Olmert is going to Washington to receive Bush's agreement to his convergence plan. Most observers believe that he will return home with the appropriate assurances. But does Olmert have Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's blessing for this traumatic and controversial plan? Obviously he doesn't or Shas wouldn't have insisted upon and received a letter exempting it from the clause in the coalition guidelines about leaving settlements.