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COALTION SPINNING INTO SHAPE

Will 'Defense Minister' Peretz & IDF Chief of Staff Halutz

See Eye To Eye Or Will There Be Fireworks?

In Likud, Stepped-Up Drive To Topple Party Leader Netanyahu

Labor is on the verge of joining a new coalition government headed by Kadima leader and Prime Minister Designate Ehud Olmert. Labor leader Amir Peretz and Olmert met in Jerusalem, but failed to put the final touches on a deal. Coalition negotiations are also underway with two religious parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, the Pensioners and Israel, Our Home.If Olmert corrals them all, he will command a majority of over 80 MKs in the 120 member Knesset. Meanwhile, former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has stepped up his campaign to oust Likud party leader Bibi Netanyahu.

Prime Minister Olmert is forging a coalition government that will be capable of implementing future West Bank withdrawals. Labor is Olmert's first choice for forming a broad based cabinet that can carry out the unilateral evacuations if there is no Palestinian peace partner.

Kadima and Labor are close but are still not ready to sign a coalition agreement. At their Jerusalem meeting, Olmert and Peretz could not iron out all the wrinkles although the biggest hurdle has been overcome.Defense Minister Amir Peretz is something Israelis will soon have to get used to. It will be the first time in ages that a full fledged civilian without a military background fills the position. It may be a rocky road ahead for the former trade union boss. Peretz, the champion for social equality, had his eye on the finance portfolio but Olmert dug in his heels against giving up control of the treasury purse strings. The very idea had sent the stock market into a tailspin. The other top position of foreign minister was signed, sealed and delivered to Olmert's side-kick the popular Zippi Livni. There was no way that Olmert would have tried to budge her, so the incumbent Shaul Mofaz got the boot.Peretz has no security credentials, other than serving in the IDF like everyone else. He will have to be a very 'quick study' in getting up to speed on facing the Palestinian violence and the looming Iranian nuclear threat on the agenda. Moreover, it is well nigh impossible to carry out social reform without a major slash in defense spending. Defense ministers always balk at pruning their budgets, pleading it will jeopardize national security. So, what position will Peretz take when he takes responsibility for state security? Will he be willing to lock horns with IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz and the General Staff when push comes to shove? Some pundits think Olmert may have taken a page out of Ariel Sharon's book; Sharon may have actually tripped up Bibi Netanyahu by handing him the Finance Ministry. Netanyahu was punished by many former Likud voters who blamed him for the tough belt tightening measures. .

Defense Policy: It is set by the prime minister and security cabinet with the defense minister serving as the link to the IDF. The Chief of Staff Dan Halutz oversees how the military implements defense policy and plays a much greater role than in most other democracies. For example, on the eve of the Yom-Kippur War, the then Chief of Staff recommended a mass mobilization of the IDF reserves and launching a pre-emptive air strike on the Egyptian missile batteries that violated the cease-fire agreement by moving into the Suez Canal zone. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was opposed for fear Israel would be blamed for starting the war. The issue was decided by Prime Minister Golda Meir and the rest is history. Most IDF Chiefs of Staff have never feared to speak their mind and General Dan Halutz, a former fighter pilot, is proving to be no exception. It follows that Chief of Staff Halutz may enjoy even greater clout if his boss is a newcomer to the defense establishment. The question is whether the Peretz and Halutz team will see eye to eye or not. If they do, it will be a true test of his ability to become a future prime minister. If not, there could be fireworks. Kadima newcomer Avi Dichter, a former Shabak security chief is in line for minister of public security after the Attorney General ruled Avigdor Lieberman the leader of Israel, Our Home. Lieberman is the subject of a police investigation.

Labor: Party leader Peretz is facing a lot of flak inside his party. On one hand, he succeeded in corralling the Education portfolio for MK Yuli Tamir but two of Labor's rising stars have been left out of the cabinet. Ami Ayalon, a former Shabak Security Chief and Prof. Avishai Braverman, a prominent economist, were brought on the Labor ticket as a drawing card for many voters. It was thought they were sure bets to serve as Labor cabinet ministers, but Peretz has apparently opted for Labor party veterans. Former party leader Amram Mitzna charges that Peretz will be guilty of deceiving the public if Braverman and Ayalon are not selected for the cabinet.

Likud Meltdown: Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has stepped up his drive to topple party leader Bibi Netanyahu. Shalom blames Netanyahu for the party's nosedive in the recent election and is calling for a new party primary for party leader. Netanyahu charges that Shalom is undermining the party for his own personal ambitions. The internal Likud feud continues.

David Essing

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