Probes and politics Friday, September 01, 2006
By Robert Rosenberg in Tel Aviv at http://www.ariga.com
Updated exclusively for subscribers
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is confident that he will easily win government approval for his plan for three separate committees to examine the management of the recent war against Hizbollah. True, he has the support of almost all his Kadima ministers, the Pensioners Party ministers and the Shas ministers. And until yesterday he thought he had Defense Minister Amir Peretz's support. But yesterday it became evident that Peretz is throwing his weight -- what little remains of it -- behind a judicial commission of inquiry, not the toothless committees that Olmert wants. Peretz won't bring down the government, but the threat of the disintegration of the coalition is in the air. The 2007 state budget is coming up and this morning, Peretz convened his party's Knesset faction and ministers at party headquarters to discuss social problems. It's not even certain they discussed the Peretz decision. At one point, Simhon, the agriculture minister off and on since the Barak administration,
There was no formal announcement of a decision in the fractious faction. Technically, a decision by the Knesset faction only obligates the MKs, who are almost entirely behind a judicial commission, and not the party's ministers. According to Israel Radio, reporting from the scene (but not from inside the meeting, which Peretz closed to the press) Ben Eliezer attacked Peretz at the opening of the meeting, saying his leadership on the issue was zigzagged.
The Peretz decision to back a judicial commission is based on two elements. The first is that a commission will find it difficult to blame him for his inexperience, and will have to take into consideration that he had only been defense minister for a little more than two months when the war broke out in the wake of Hizbollah abducting two soldiers from inside Israeli territory.
The second element is part of his resolve to beat back opposition within the party to his leadership. Thus, his insistence on a judicial commission, combined with an expected Labor revolt against the 2007 budget being prepared now by the treasury, is being seen as a plan to try to restore his credibility as what Israelis call a ‘social' leader, meaning someone who takes the side of the middle and lower classes, while Olmert, with his thousand dollar watches and two thousand dollar suits can't help but appear to be the prime minister of the rich. Peretz might also become a much stronger voice for engaging the Arabs, rather than just fighting with them, which has always been a Revisionist trademark(except for Menachem Begin).
It's populism, of course, but that often works best in Israel. In other words, Peretz is playing a brinkmanship game, aware that Olmert would like to bring Peretz arch-enemy Ehud Barak in as defense minister and move Peretz to a social affairs role that would likely not have much power. He knows that Netanyahu is counting on Kadima collapsing and many of its ex-Likudniks will come back to the party and he'll be able to make a Rightist-Religious coalition.
But while there are only a few reservists and 'Quality Government' demonstrators, some supposedly on a hunger strike, thousands have signed the petitions, and it is a movement looking for leadership. Peretz might be reckoning, a coalition shakeup might be the only way to restore his much diminished popularity in the wake of the war, and if he plays his cards right, he could not only win back the social crowds but also some of the reservists if he quits the government -- or suddenly demands the empty social welfare minister ministry.
Meanwhile, after 60,000 people rallied last night in Tel Aviv to show solidarity with the three Israeli soldiers being held by Hamas and Hizbollah, there were reports this morning that a deal might be closer than it currently seems. True, Olmert is still reluctant to sign on to an Egyptian-brokered deal that would return Gilad Shalit, not because of the price of such a deal, said by a Saudi paper to be 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, but because he wants PA President Mahmoud Abbas, not the Hamas, to get credit for the deal. And it is also true that Olmert's office has been saying it won't negotiate with Hizbollah, only with the Lebanese government, for the release of soldiers Goldwasser and Regev.
On the other hand, Abbas and Haniyeh are reportedly closer than ever to a national unity government deal that they believe will break the international embargo against the Hamas government, and force olmert's hand to release the diminishing millions of shekels Israel collects every month on behalf of the PA, to maintain a single customs envelope. The donor nations promised $500 million today and appear poised to begin the flow of monthly salaries to the Palestinian Authority's 150,000 employees. The only PA employees supposedly paid in the last six months since Hamas was elected are about 10,000 employees apparently close to Hamas, many of them armed men in Hamas militias.
According to reports this morning, Ofer Dekel, Olmert's point man for the negotiations with to free Goldwasser and Regev, was said to be in Germany, while the German federal government's intelligence chief was apparently planning a Beirut trip. Germany has been the mediator in at least two prisoner exchanges over the last two decades, and it seems that despite earlier speculation that the new Italian government in Rome would take up that role, Berlin has asserted its primacy.
Neither Hamas nor Hizbollah has offered any proof that the three soldiers are even alive. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been refused access to the abducted soldiers, and all Israel has to go on is Rev. Jesse Jackson's word about what he was told during a visit to Damascus, where he met with President Bashar Assad and with Hamas leaders, and in Beirut, where he met with Prime Minister Fu'ad Siniora and one of the two Hizbollah ministers in the Lebanese government. Jackson, like UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, said he from what he heard, there is no reason to believe that the soldiers are not alive.
Annan meanwhile has strongly condemned Israel's use of cluster bombs in south Lebanon, while the U.S. is said to be investigating whether Israel violated restrictions on the use of the bombs. The bombs release hundreds of mini-bombs, many of which go unexploded until they are picked up, and are forbidden by U.S. law for use in areas inhabited by civilians. Israel says it did not violate any restrictions on the use of the weapons, but according to UN envoys in south Lebanon, there are thousands of the bomblets scattered throughout the south. The UN is said to be demanding Israel provide details on where the bombs were used, so those areas can be cordoned off and the bomblets collected and destroyed. There have not been any protests in Israel about the use of the cluster bombs in and around the villages where Hizbollah took up positions to randomly launch some 3,000 rockets into northern Israel.
Despite the tension between the UN and Israel on the cluster bomb issue, the handover of territory held by Israel in south Lebanon goes on. Much of the western sector of the 70-kilometer stretch inside Lebanon held by Israel from the Mediterranean eastward has reportedly been cleared. The IDF hands over the area it evacuates to the UNIFIL forces, which are growing by the day and the UNIFIL forces then hand it over to the Lebanese Army, whose patrols in some places are already said to be visible from the Israeli side of the border. Israel is also said to be negotiating, through the UN, with Indonesia and Malaysia about those two Muslim countries sending troops to the UNIFIL mission. Israel's concern is that neither of those two countries have diplomatic ties with Israel. On the other hand, the troops aren't being positioned inside Israel, they are Lebanon's guests.
Annan was meeting Syrian President Assad this morning, pressing Damascus to join the efforts to halt arms supplies to Hizbollah. It seems like a foolish request, since Damascus has been the main arms supplier as an Iranian proxy to Hizbollah for years. True, when Assad's father, Hafez, was in charge, he held the reins over Hizbollah, but since Hafez's death, it seems Hizbollah's Hasan Nasrallah holds the reins more than Bashar Assad. Still, there is a growing sense in Europe at least that something has to be done to pry Syria out of Iran's clutches, not only to help resolve the Lebanese-Hizbollah-Israel issue, but to isolate Tehran. Assad of course said he endorsed 1701, and would try to hem the flow of arms to Hizbollah. Sure.
Assad says he is against UNIFIL patrols on the Lebanese-Syrian border, meant to prevent arms shipments from Syria into Hizbollah hands, because it would be a violation of Lebanese sovereignty -- as if Syria has cared about Lebanese sovereignty over the years. Annan, however, might have been carrying a message from Olmert to Assad. Despite the denials routinely emanating from Jerusalem, there is still much speculation that the only recourse Olmert now has to restore confidence in his leadership would be a major breakthrough toward peace with Syria. On the other hand, reports of an attempt to revive the Saudi Arabian peace initiative of 2002, which was issued almost simultaneously with one of the worst of the suicide bombings that took place during the second intifada, have prompted Jerusalem to suddenly assert that the roadmap is the only peace plan on the table. Annan's spokesman said after the meeting that Assad said Syria supports UNSCR 1701.
None of this, by the way, seems to interest the public, or at least its media. It's back to school on Sunday for Israeli children, and the tabloids, radio and TV were mostly devoted to last minute arangements and negotiations guaranteeing that the school year opens as normal -- with heartwrenching tales of poor families barely able to equip their kids with a pencil, as well as the latest fashions in backpacks for shlepping books. Nobody was fired on the eve of the school year's opening, no strike looms. But within the month, the month-long holiday season of the Jewish New Year begins. Olmert, Peretz and Halutz all must be thinking, 'if I can only make it to the holidays, I might last, after all.'
Copyright 2006 by Robert Rosenberg, www.ariga.com
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