On Monday, Dec. 3, we had 30 people on the line with Meretz party chair and MK, Yossi Beilin, who spoke for about five minutes before we lost our connection. On Thursday, Dec. 6, we succeeded in completing our conversation.
Dr. Beilin judged Prime Minister Olmert’s speech at Annapolis as better than those of President Bush and Palestinian Authority President Abbas. In fact, he says it sounded as if he were a member of Meretz. But Beilin pointed out that there is a tremendous gap between his words and his deeds on the ground.
If Olmert were prepared to risk his coalition by agreeing to a substantive outline of what peace would look like, at least on borders, as had originally been intended for Annapolis, this might have been greeted with a real breakthrough by the Arab League in the form of opening a level of diplomatic relations with Israel. As it was, nothing dramatic happened, but basically all the parties got what they wanted by showing up: Bush got his conference with most Arab states in attendance and the US cast in the role of peacemaker. The Palestinians had an eye on a funding conference in Paris, Dec. 17; their attendance should help their appeal for the European Union to fund their 2008 budget, by showing that they are working for peace. Olmert got another year, Beilin said, to put off the “moment of truth” in confronting the “core issues” that Olmert fears would lose him the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party and Shas in the coalition.
At a certain point, he sees Olmert as having to risk losing Lieberman and Shas, although he does not see their loss as automatic. For example, Beilin indicates that Shas (the non-Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox party) may stay in the government due to the judgment of their “rabbi” (Ovadia Yosef) that they have a material interest, such as insuring government subsidies for their yeshivas.
But he sees Olmert as having the potential to survive the exit of both Shas and Lieberman from the coalition by looking at the math: according to Beilin, a Kadima-Labor-Pensioner’s party coalition would retain 55 seats, pick up the support of five Meretz MKs and retain the support of a majority of the 120 seats in the Knesset with the additional backing of as many as 10 Arab party MKs.
A further note of interest was his criticism of Foreign Minister Livni’s effort that the Palestinian negotiators declare their acceptance of Israel’s status as a “Jewish state.” He said that he sees this as “part of the package” that everyone agrees to at the end but that it should not become an issue that is an impediment to progress at this point.
In response to a question, he referred to his Washington Post op-ed article of Nov. 23, on the need for Hamas to be included in the process, at least in terms of arranging a cease-fire, but he does not believe that Hamas wants to be involved directly in the peace process. He fears that without a cease-fire in Gaza and southern Israel, some incident, some tragically on-target missile, for example, could cause Israel to again be mired militarily in Gaza. He does not see how Israel would negotiate with the Palestinians on the one hand, while fighting them in Gaza.
Also in responding to a question, Beilin stated that he does not know that Chaim Ramon is speaking for Olmert when he reportedly indicated that Israel would interpret a freeze on expanding settlements as pertaining only to those east of the security barrier/fence/wall; the evidence Beilin offered is that he knows from experience that Ramon is independent minded in his pronouncements. At any rate, he sees such a position as completely unacceptable to the Palestinians.