Analysis: The battle begins now
IT WOULD have been a scene unimaginable in most democracies. The Prime Minister makes a major speech on an international stage, while back home, two of his senior cabinet ministers are on television ridiculing the whole performance. “Dreams,” says Shas leader Eli Yishai, referring to the launch of negotiations on a comprehensive solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Pathetic,” is the term Yisrael Beitenu chairman, Avigdor Lieberman, uses for the idea that this would be by 2008. Ehud Olmert cannot sack them. Together, they represent over 30 per cent of his coalition and, without them, he would head for highly perilous early elections.
The anodyne Annapolis declaration reflects Mr Olmert’s predicament. Any reference to final borders, settlements or Jerusalem would send his partners packing. He could replace Shas and Yisrael Beitenu with the small, leftwing Meretz party, and operate with a coalition of exactly half of the Knesset. But that would put him at the mercy of any single MK, an intolerable prospect. So on Sunday, when he reports to the cabinet, around the table will be at least six ministers intent on derailing those plans.
Mr Olmert had a constant reminder of his troubles right beside him in Annapolis. Waiting for him as he stepped down from the podium was Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who only five months ago committed himself to bringing down Mr Olmert after the Winograd Commission report, dealing with the Lebanon War, was delivered. Small wonder that Mr Barak got just a perfunctory handshake, following which Mr Olmert fell into Tony Blair’s outstretched arms.
But bringing Mr Barak to Annapolis was a major coup, together with appointing Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who in May called for his resignation.
Now that the diplomatic process appears back on track, neither of them will be eager to incur Washington’s wrath by precipitating a leadership crisis. Mr Barak will have to back down, while Shas and Yisrael Beitenu are not going to relinquish power so quickly.
Mr Olmert’s strategy now is to string out the negotiations with the Palestinians until the inevitable break with his right-wing partners and then try to survive with a minority, ultimately facing elections in the hope that a peace plan will sway enough of the electorate in his favour.
The battle for the hearts of minds of the Israelis has already begun. Mr Olmert is still distinctly unpopular, while the right wing is trying to motivate an apathetic public. They believe they have found a rallying point in the partition of Jerusalem, which is certain to be a component of any final agreement. Polls show three-quarters of Israelis are opposed to changes in the capital’s status. Anshel Pfeffer is a JC contributor and the Jewish World correspondent of Ha’aretz