Behind the Lines: Man plans, God laughs

This summer provided a reminder of how quickly the national agenda can be totally reshaped.

idf soldier lebanon 298  (photo credit: AP)
idf soldier lebanon 298
(photo credit: AP)
Summer is finally, officially over. On Sunday, the kids will be back in school (teachers' unions allowing). It's only three weeks before Rosh Hashana, and while it's a bit too early for annual reckonings, a seasonal summary is in order. Which shouldn't be too hard, since a single sentence suffices: There was another war in Lebanon, the IDF's back in Gaza and the government's in deep trouble. But there's another side to this encapsulation. This summer provided a reminder of how quickly the national agenda can be totally reshaped; how fickle even the best-laid plans can be; and how easily journalists' predictions can be confounded. Just look at where we were only two months ago. At the start of the summer, the new Kadima-Labor government was settling into office. The center party that had been set up only half a year ago by a now comatose leader began making its plans for a lengthy stay in power. Ehud Olmert had just completed his first round of international visits, where his realignment plan had been greeted with skepticism, but other than promising a token period for an attempt at negotiations with the Palestinians, he was undeterred. Six months behind schedule, the 2006 State Budget was passed by the Knesset, amid grumblings from the Labor MKs, and promises that next year's budget would be drastically different - with an emphasis on social concerns, alleviating poverty and upgrading the education system, and with Amir Peretz forcing the military for the first time to accept some real cutbacks. As the last week of June began, Peretz was adjusting to his new job as defense minister, and finalizing plans to evacuate four settler outposts, whose members were accused of lawlessness. Aside from upholding law and order, the operation against the outposts had two main objectives: The first was to prove both to Peretz's constituency on the Left and to his opponents on the Right that the new minister meant business - that despite inexperience in his post, would push through his policies, no matter what. The second was to fire the opening shot - or hold a dress-rehearsal - of Realignment, to show that the new government was serious about its plans to continue unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the Land of Israel. Other major reforms were in the pipeline. Justice Minister Haim Ramon entered his new office bullishly, issuing veiled threats of doing away with the seniority system in the Supreme Court, thereby jeopardizing Dorit Beinisch's sure-fire chance to become chief justice and opening up the selection process to public scrutiny. Another reform, more in the background, but also directly connected to Ramon, was a radical change to the electoral system which, among other things, would make the prime minister less reliant on the Knesset and create a presidential-style government. Aside from Ramon, another supporter of the plan was President Moshe Katsav. Entering his last year on the job, Katsav was already planning a return to politics, cultivating Likud activists, whose weddings and bar-mitzvas he began attending dutifully. His strategy was to take advantage of the demoralization in the party and the feeling that Binyamin Netanyahu had become unelectable. Further to the right, the settlers were planning the first anniversary of disengagement, amid fears of further evacuations, a feeling of being disconnected from the Israeli mainstream and dark talk of an unbridgeable chasm that had opened between an entire community and the establishment, including the IDF. On the last Sunday in June, Corporal Gilad Shalit was captured in a Hamas raid on a military outpost at Kerem Shalom. Three days later, the IDF was again operating in the Gaza Strip. At this point, the government's stalwarts still thought that nothing had yet changed significantly. At a seminar in Tel Aviv, Ramon said that what was happening was only proof of how important it had been to remove the settlements from Gaza and of the necessity of further such steps. But two weeks later, the war in Lebanon began and put an end to all that. Olmert did make a last stab at his master plan. At the height of the war, he said that a successful outcome would create "new momentum" for Realignment. But the public backlash this comment created, not only from the Right - and his immediate retraction in a phone call to MK Effie Eitam - proved that the plan was now dead in the water, to be resurrected - if at all - in a totally different political climate. While further withdrawals have been shelved, the settlers have been welcomed back into the fold, both out of recognition for their disproportionate share of the war's casualties, and as an admission that perhaps they may have been right about the evils of disengagement. There were calls among the settlers not to go off and fight in "Olmert's war," but these were of the lunatic fringe and went unheeded. Calmer heads prevailed, and both sides of the political divide heaved a collective sigh of relief when it turned out that, last summer's trauma notwithstanding, the reservists from the settlements all arrived to fight with their units. Some settlers expressed dismay with Israeli society when the anniversary of disengagement went by almost unnoticed. But at least they can end the summer with the knowledge that another round of pullbacks isn't in the offing. Peretz's plans for a new social agenda, too, seem like a distant fantasy. Instead of pushing for cuts in military spending, the former union leader is now presenting the government with an unimaginable NIS 30 billion price-tag for this war and the next one, sowing the seeds for open rebellion among the ranks of Labor. Peretz is in an impossible position. There appears to be no way he can survive as party leader, other than relenting to internal pressure and prompting a coalition crisis over the 2007 budget. In either case, the coalition would be finished, and Kadima would have to look around for new partners. But will there still be a Kadima? The party that was built to revolve around one core person, Ariel Sharon, initially survived his disappearance because an election had to be won. And so the party members all rallied around Olmert. But Kadima has yet to set up a real party structure, and it has to come to terms with forming a new agenda, now that realignment is obsolete. But why? The questions Tzipi Livni, Avi Dichter, Shimon Peres, Shaul Mofaz, Dalya Itzik and other senior members are asking themselves are: Why make an effort for a party that received almost 50 MKs in the polls eight months ago, but now has dropped to a mere 12? And why continue backing a prime minister whom 63 percent of the public want to see resigning? The dissension has yet to come out in the open. But no one imagines that if Kadima were an unarguably viable party, and if Olmert commanded his ministers' loyalty, that some of them would feel free to talk about emergency national unity coalitions, support a national commission of inquiry over the war, or recommend talks with Syria - all against Olmert's express wishes. One especially restless minister is Meir Sheetrit, who, hours after being appointed interim Justice Minister (to replace Ramon, who resigned due to sexual harassment charges), immediately overturned his predecessor's plans for the future of the court by affirming Beinisch's appointment and making sure that the selection committee deliberations would remain confidential. There could be no better sign of a lack of unity among the Kadima leadership, or of an absence of resolve to carry out radical reforms. The same goes for Katsav's other ambitious plans. The think tank on electoral reform set up under the president's auspices will be looking for another patron, if it continues to exist at all. Nor does it look as if he'll be taking the Likud by storm. He'll count himself lucky if, by resigning, he manages to extricate himself from a messy trial. Furthermore, Netanyahu's leadership doesn't seem so shaky anymore. Suddenly he's topping polls for prime minister, yet another spanner thrown into plans that were made before the summer began.