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THIS WEEK (Dec. 19 2004)

Likud and Labor Wrap Up National Unity Government For Implementing Disengagement

PM Sharon Offers Palestinians Option Of ‘Carrot Or Stick’ In Run-up To Palestinian Election

U.S. President Bush Says Syria Will Have to Wait Until After Israeli-Palestinian Deal

MK Peres - PM Sharon (Photo: Amit Shabi)

After a week or so of wrangling, the ruling Likud party and Labor from the opposition have apparently wrapped up a new national unity government to carry out a withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and 4 West Bank settlements. However, at the same time that Sharon was building a cabinet to approve the evacuation, the Palestinian terrorists were escalating their attacks. The IDF hit back, launching an operation into the Khan Yunis area. Despite the Palestinian escalation, Prime Minister Sharon called on the Palestinians to take advantage of the ‘great opportunity’ for peace after the death of Yasser Arafat. U.S. President George Bush repeated that Israeli-Palestinian peace was at the top of his agenda; however, Syria’s President Bashar Assad would have to get in the waiting line.

THE LIKUD - Labor deal was never really in doubt. Left-wing Labor solidly supports Sharon’s withdrawal plan, far more than the Prime Minister’s right-wing Likud party. The cornerstone is being laid for what may be one of the most momentous years in Israel’s tumultuous history. This is David Essing in Jerusalem:

After a week or so of wrangling, the Big Two finally hammered out their differences in cabinet portfolios and some social welfare funding. As expected nearly all the actors played their parts to the hilt in the coalition drama. At one point, Labor’s Dalia Itzik upstaged everyone by declaring she did not want to hit Sharon ‘below the belt’ and then proceeded to do just that. She insinuated that Sharon did not want to give Labor the police or justice portfolios because of his personal legal problems and the Likud was actually ‘crawling to Labor’. This is actually a contradiction but never mind; Sharon rose to the occasion, taking umbrage and refusing to deal with Itzik, Labor’s chief negotiator. Enter Labor’s Shimon Peres who telephones Sharon in apparently the final act and the two old political warhorses can lead the cast in taking their bows.Although hauled over the coals by most of the media and naturally by Likudniks, Itzik shows no sign she’s worried about causing a brief halt in the negotiations. The outspoken Itzik is probably right when it comes to her standing inside Labor.

LABOR - ‘Too Many Chiefs, Not Enough Indians!’ Labor has 19 MKs who will support joining a Sharon coalition. Histadrut leader Amir Peretz and his side-kick Ilana Cohen cannot stomach what they see as Finance Minister Netanyahu’s anti-social policies. All of these 19 Laborites view themselves as candidates for the eight cabinet ministers and two deputy cabinet ministers. Either all of them are truly outstanding or, none of them are. Labor’s central committee now has the job of deciding how to pick its ministerial team. Shimon Peres has the only guaranteed, in fact tailored-made portfolio, that of acting or deputy Premier. Ehud Olmert already holds that title but the more the merrier! The Knesset will have to pass a special law for two deputies. It’s more serious than it may sound. If Prime Minister Sharon is abroad or incapacitated, who takes over. You can bet the Likud will insist it’s their man Olmert.

So with the exception of Peres and one other MK, the other 17 Laborites are chomping at the starting line for the race to a cabinet portfolio. (MK Eitan Kabel will be able to say later: ‘I didn’t run , so I didn’t lose like the other seven’. Dalia Itzik can probably relax; the Labor convention can be expected to give her a big show of support for taking on Sharon.

GREEDY LIKUD? The Likud is to keep all its plum portfolios, Defense, Foreign Affairs and Finance. Even second level positions such as Education, Justice, Public Security, Trade and Industry remain with the ruling party. Labor has to make due with ‘peanuts’ both in portfolios and increased social welfare of some $150 million. But when all is said and done, Labor has nothing to complain about. Who would have dreamed the ultimate Likud hard-liner Sharon would have co opted Labor’s policy of withdrawal, and even doing so under fire!

LIKUD But even if Laborites feel that Sharon has ridden rough-shod over them, they can take consolation in what the Prime Minister did to his own Likud party. Sharon refused to take a Likud ‘No’ for an answer to his disengagement plan and drove the Likud convention into finally bowing to his demands. Over in Labor, Peres had to cope only with a last minute try by Ehud Barak: Sharon had to slug it for months before Bibi Netanyahu finally blinked first.

UNITED TORAH JUDAISM & SHAS UTJ with its constituency of Ashkenazi Haredi Jews has a solid voter base more or less unconcerned about determining the issues of security and foreign affairs and focuses on its educational institutions, child allowances and religious legislation. The payback of some $70 million to its coffers went a long way to inducing UTJ to return to the cabinet fold.

SHAS, THE HOLDOUT If Likud, Labor and UTJ filled their roles, Shas has been the exception; the ultra-orthodox Sepharadi party faced a real dilemma. The next election comes in another two years at the latest. Shas vies for many of the same voters as does the Likud and Shas lost big time in the last election. To put it mildly, the natural constituents of Shas are not wild about the evacuation and Rabbi Ovadia Yossef has ruled against the withdrawal unless the Palestinians make some concessions. In addition, Shas had no leverage to force a major shift in Netanyahu’s cutbacks which Rabbi Ovadia condemns. And of course, Sharon chose the secular Shinui over Shas for his former cabinet. All of these are factors. It may very well be, that Rabbi Ovadia is waiting to see how the disengagement goes. If it falls through and there is more terrorism, Shas goes into the next election looking good. However, Rabbi Ovadia may not have given his last word yet.

SHARON After Labor finally figures out how to select its cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister should be able to present his new disengagement government within two weeks. Sharon will then have both the executive and legislative power to implement the withdrawal. His Herzliya speech about opportunity, compromise and peace could have been written by Shimon Peres. Israel is also preparing to release a number of Palestinian security prisoners. And despite the fact that five IDF soldiers were killed last week by a Palestinian tunnel explosion, the IDF did not interfere when another of the tunnels caved in on the terrorists digging underground and allowed the Palestinians to carry out a successful rescue operation. But if this is the carrot, the Prime Minister has also wielded his big stick in the Gaza Strip after the terrorists escalated by firing more than 70 mortars and Qassam rockets and blowing up the IDF position killing the five IDF soldiers and wounding six others. Although the mission of the Israeli operation into Khan Yunis was to take out the Palestinian firing positions, it also showed the Palestinians what they can expect if the terrorists keep escalating in the face of the evacuation. Apparently, more and more Palestinians are getting the message. Recently, twenty Palestinian families informed the authorities that their sons had been recruited by the terrorists as suicide bombers.

BUSH In an interview with the Yediot Ahronot newspaper, U.S. President George W. Bush reaffirmed his pledge to ‘go for broke’ on Israeli-Palestinian peace this year. But Bush is not enthusiastic about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s repeated calls to renew negotiations with Israel. The U.S. President says Assad is a ‘weak’ leader who will have to wait in line until Israel and the Palestinians work out a deal. Once again, Bush and Sharon appear to see eye to eye.

David Essing

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