Coalitionscape: Olmert's hamstrung status quo coalition

Olmert exempts Shas from backing convergence, in spite of contrary promise to voters.

anshel 88 (photo credit: )
anshel 88
(photo credit: )
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon founded Kadima almost half-a-year ago following years of frustration at his difficulty to rule Israel at the head of an unruly Likud party. His successor Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is set to finally take control officially on Thursday of an elected Kadima government, and the obstacles facing him and his agenda seem just as insurmountable as they were for Sharon in the days of the great Likud rebellion. Olmert promised before the election that only parties who agreed to support his plan to evacuate settlements into blocs would be allowed to join his coalition. This week, he gave Shas a letter effectively exempting them from the commitment to reduce settlement areas in the coalition guidelines. Even if he manages to bring Meretz into the government, the conduct of the haredi parties during the negotiations make it quite certain that in his coalition he'll have no more than 60 MKs in favor of any plan involving pullbacks and no choice but to rely on the Arab MKs. Once again, Olmert will be in the same position Sharon was during disengagement, with one official coalition and a second ad-hoc coalition based on the left-wing and Arab parties. That's no way to start a term. But not only will Olmert find it next to impossible to push radical territorial initiatives, he's not going to find much support for further financial reforms. He insisted on keeping the Treasury in Kadima's hands, but that doesn't mean that he'll have total control of policy. New minister Avraham Hirchson might keep the public purse safe from wild schemes and spending sprees, but the combination of big business-friendly Olmert and social-democrat Amir Peretz - who will probably be backed up by Shas - is a recipe for an drawn out fiscal stalemate. The long overdue 2006 budget will probably pass without a hitch next week, but the 2007 budget is right round the corner and could well turn into Olmert's first major coalition crisis. Olmert and Peretz see more or less eye-to-eye on issues such as legislation to allow civil marriage and streamline the conversion process, both measures to help the eagerly sought after "Russian" vote, but the partnership with Shas and probably also United Torah Judaism will render impossible any advance on matters of state and religion. The same will probably be true for any serious attempt at electoral reform. Small parties like UTJ and the Gil Pensioners Party will have nothing to gain and everything to lose from such a reform and together are powerful enough to bring the government down. Is there any way out of this hamstrung coalition for Olmert? Ever since March 28, we've been hearing Kadima people blaming the electorate for the impossible jigsaw puzzle that Olmert's been trying to put together. He should thank his lucky stars that an unbelievable sequence of events made him prime minister - when only a couple of years ago he was planning his retirement from politics - and make the best of the situation. If Olmert is serious about his settlement blocs plan, or about any other radical agenda, the only possible conclusion is that we're looking at a short-term coalition. One that's designed to stabilize affairs, allow Olmert a year or so of breathing room and to get used to power. If he lasts a year in power and still have strength left for a grand scheme, there will be no choice but to form a new coalition, specifically designed to carry out the task. The only thing Olmert's first coalition is capable of is maintaining the status quo.