Budget pass - calm before the storm?

Analysis: The coalition is looking unexpectedly stable... for now.

The relatively peaceful agreement within the coalition over the 2007 state budget is deceptive. Rather than being a sign of the government's strength, it shows the weak state of the coalition parties - none of them can afford a major political crisis right now. Everyone was looking for excuses after the announcement on Monday night of the truce which stipulated that all parties were relinquishing their various demands and would work together to push the budget through on time. Suddenly, the threats to oppose the bill if hundreds of millions weren't added on for the elderly and the poor sounded hollow.
  • Budget zips through Finance Committee
  • Don't forget we still have to pay for the war, reminded the MKs, who also said the coalition is too fragile and no single party can have its way. And anyway, they mentioned, the budget isn't that bad, it could've been much worse if we weren't in the government. All the standard cop-outs. The truth is that the "Treasury Boys" once again had their way and the budget is almost exactly as they proposed before the politicians got their hands on it. The MKs will try to exact their revenge on the attached Economic Arrangements Bill but the fact remains, the Knesset lost out once again to the better organized executive branch. Labor, the major opponent within the coalition to the budget, is gripped in the opening stages of its leadership contest and will remain spellbound over the next five months. Some of the party's members accused chairman Amir Peretz of wanting to provoke a showdown with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over the budget during the last week, in an attempt to boost his flagging popularity among the party membership. That may well be a Peretz tactic as the final budget vote looms closer. But for the time being, he's not going to give up his job as defense minister, a platform that promises him a constant supply of prime time appearances. Ami Ayalon and Ehud Barak, the other two major contenders within the party, want Peretz's job for themselves, so they won't put the coalition in danger. The other two original coalition partners, Shas and the Pensioners Party, didn't get what they were asking for, but ever since Israel Beiteinu entered the coalition, they've come to terms with the fact that they are now expendable; therefore, for now, they are prepared to be content with their ministries. The budget was pushed through the Knesset finance committee in record time by Chairman Yaakov Litzman, still an opposition member but compliant after receiving 290 million NIS for Haredi special interests. It now appears set to sail through the final votes next week and Olmert can finally let out a sigh of relief. With the budget battle almost over, Labor occupied with itself and a wide, if weak, coalition backing his government, Olmert has achieved what seemed almost impossible four months ago when he was reeling from the Lebanon War's aftermath of recrimination and accusation. Then, politicians and pundits were scrambling to write him off and bets were already being made over his resignation date. A series of deft political maneuvers, including avoiding a national commission of inquiry, media management that saw much of the blame for the war placed on Peretz and Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, a clever campaign against his nemesis State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss and the coup de grace, bringing Avigdor Lieberman into the government, seems to have bought him a longish period of political quiet. The Winograd Commission isn't due to deliver its preliminary report for a few months, the investigations into his financial dealings have lost momentum and he can realistically hope that the May 28 Labor primaries will replace Amir Peretz with a defense minister more to his liking. But while the government might have improved its chances of marking a year in office, it still has no real agenda save for survival. There is no coherent diplomatic plan toward the warring Palestinians and the confusing Syrians, the grand plan for changing the system of government has little chance of gaining a majority, there is no social affairs minister let alone a social policy for helping those left out of the economy prosperity and we still have no idea how Israel's leadership plans to deal with the Iranian bomb. Olmert might have bought himself a period of political calm, but he is still trailing badly behind Binyamin Netanyahu and Lieberman in the polls, with little prospect of regaining popularity. Five months from now, unless Peretz stages an incredible comeback, there will be a new and ambitious Labor chairman. If the government and its head retain their current level of unpopularity, this new Labor leader will start getting ideas, as will Lieberman. The temptation to break the coalition and go for elections may grow irresistible. Olmert urgently needs a real agenda that can capture the public's imagination. If he doesn't find one quickly, the next few months of calm might presage a veritable political storm.