Analysis: Stars useful only in elections

Reichman might have benefited from Olmert's experience of Sharon's broken promises.

anshel pfeffer 298.88 (photo credit: )
anshel pfeffer 298.88
(photo credit: )
Ariel Sharon promised him a senior cabinet position in return for his political support but now after the elections, the coveted portfolio was going to a less worthy holder and he had to decide whether to make do with a lesser post or go back to his old job, which might have been lucrative but he had set his sights higher. If Prof. Uriel Reichman had deigned to attend his scheduled meeting Sunday, he might have benefited from Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's experience of Sharon's broken promises. Three years ago, it was Olmert, Sharon's most senior supporter within Likud, who felt betrayed when the Finance Ministry, that he believed was promised to him, was offered instead to arch-rival Binyamin Netanyahu. He threatened to relinquish his newly won Knesset seat and remain mayor of Jerusalem, but eventually was tempted to accept a portfolio cobbled together from the Trade, Employment and Telecommunications ministries and what seemed then as the merely ceremonial post of vice prime minister. Reichman could take heart from Olmert's disappointment. The Finance Ministry turned out to be a poisoned chalice for Netanyahu, ruining his relationship with large segments of the electorate, and Olmert was at the right place at the right time to slip into Sharon's shoes following his stroke. Reichman preferred to decline the offer of the Justice Ministry and return to the presidency of the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya in disgust at Olmert's breaking Sharon's promise to appoint him education minister. His conduct over the last few weeks shows a surprising naivete on the part of the professor, who was no stranger to politics before joining Kadima four and a half months ago. Sharon's promise notwithstanding, it was clear from the outset of the coalition talks that the Education portfolio was one of the weakest links in Kadima's negotiating position. Not that Olmert didn't want to fulfill Sharon's promise, but the basic fact is that the two people he can most afford to disappoint are Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Reichman. In an ideal political system, the prime minister could keep promises and appoint the most suitable candidates as his ministers. Instead, what usually happens is that he has no choice but to keep as close as possible those who have the biggest potential to cause him damage. Sharon appointed Netanyahu and Silvan Shalom as finance and foreign ministers in his cabinet, and not Olmert, because they both had wide support in the party. Olmert, on the other hand, barely scraped into the Knesset in 32nd place on the list. Reichman and Mofaz are learning the hard way that in politics, stars are useful only at elections. The rest of the time, there's no alternative to old-style networking, building a cadre of activists and finding islands of support in the party's grass roots. High-profile newcomers might look attractive on the candidates' list, but without backing among the rank and file, they won't go far. Mofaz was a popular IDF chief of General Staff who added cachet to the Likud in 2003, but after that he was totally dependent on Sharon's support. His hesitation to join Kadima five months ago cost him dearly and he will have no choice but to accept a downgraded portfolio. Reichman is on the way back to Herzliya, and former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Avi Dichter will count himself lucky if he gets a junior ministry. The same goes for Labor's shining stars, Avishay Braverman, who also gave up the presidency of a university, and Dichter's predecessor at the Shin Bet, Ami Ayalon. Amir Peretz isn't even considering them as ministerial material. Those are the facts of political life. Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Isaac Herzog and Ophir Paz-Pines were never Peretz supporters, he doesn't appreciate their skills or qualities, but they can create havoc in the party so they're going to be ministers. That's also why Olmert is going to make much more of an effort placating Meir Sheetrit, a wily veteran politician, after not appointing him finance minister, than he was willing to make for Reichman. The professor's indignation is understandable; he set his heart on reforming the education system, but he should bear in mind that politics is never a zero-sum game. His public insistence on fulfilling Sharon's promise painted him into an impossible corner. Olmert had to give Peretz a quid pro quo in exchange for relinquishing his ultimate claim to the Finance Ministry and that could only mean Education for the only Labor MK who supported him in the primaries, Yuli Tamir. Peretz as defense minister will have too much responsibility to find the time to make serious trouble for Olmert or even begin derailing Kadima's agenda from within the cabinet. Reichman's resignation might be unpleasant but, besides making headlines for a day or two, is unlikely to cause Kadima or Olmert lasting political damage. That's a small price to pay for quiet on the Peretz front.