Regarding the title: It’s a line from a well known Israeli song. Arik Sharon used the same line when he was questioned about his pragmatism as PM. To fully understand, you have to know that the next line is “you don’t see from there” (dvarim sheh ro’im mi kahn, lo ro’im mi sham). Since I’m writing about the Israeli political scene as an Israeli in the US, I thought it was appropriate.
On the same day that a young Palestinian blew himself up in Tel Aviv, killing at least 9 people and wounding many more, the members of the 17th Knesset were sworn in. And Ehud Olmert’s efforts to form a ruling coalition slipped into high gear. Olmert has publicly committed himself to making the Labor party and its chairman Amir Peretz, the senior partners to his own Kadima party in a coalition that nominally stresses the need to advance Olmert’s “convergence plan” to withdraw settlements from parts of the West Bank. His current negotiating tactics apparently place the nationalist Israel Beitenu (IB), the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, and the Pensioners party as coalition candidates. This would give him a coalition of 84 members, 70% of the 120 MKs, and also provide a cushion of safety in case right wing (ex-Likud) MKs from Kadima and the IB withdraw their support when the government decides to take steps to move forward on his plan.
Olmert does not need such a large coalition to guarantee that a vote for withdrawal passes in the Knesset, as he can count on Meretz and the three Arab parties as a bulwark against right wing moves to defeat it. His reason for cobbling together such a large and unwieldy coalition is more to prevent Labor from gaining strength. Olmert has agreed to Labor demands to remove unauthorized settlements immediately, but opposes Peretz’ demands to raise the minimum wage to $1000 a month in a short period of time. So Olmert is adamant about including Avigdor Lieberman and his IB party in the coalition, mainly to be a counter-balance to support that Labor’s social & economic concerns will receive in the cabinet from the Pensioners, and possibly Shas.
Olmert will try to muddy the issue of Peretz’ opposition to including Lieberman in the coalition, saying that by including a right wing party he prevents the formation of a strong and united Likud-led front against steps meant to bring peace. But Olmert is a consummate politician, and he strongly believes in the old saying “divide, and conquer.” He knows his own position is assured only if he his able to keep his rivals under control, or off balance. This is true both within Kadima, and as prime minister. In a time when the vast majority of Israelis actively or passively support disengagement from the Palestinians, Olmert must deliver on this, even if this means withdrawal from most of the occupied West Bank.
But to maintain support for his traditional pro-business policies, he needs to prevent the social & economic agenda espoused by Amir Peretz from becoming the main focus of the government’s agenda. This is the main reason why Meretz has been shut out of the coalition negotiations, as it would be Labor’s (natural) ally. Together with the Pensioners and Shas, these parties could push through a more populist economic agenda in the new cabinet, raise Amir Peretz’ popularity, and make him a stronger rival in the next elections.