Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni was to meet with Labor Party leaders late this week in her coalition building efforts, but she made it clear she will drive a tougher bargain than Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in peace talks with Palestinians.
Although telling foreign diplomats Sunday that “Annapolis would continue,” a reference to the latest round of peace talks that began last November, a Palestinian observer noted that she also attempted to cool expectations by saying Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was not politically strong enough to accept Olmert’s offer.
“Although she will keep the process going, she will not come out with a statement like Olmert did,” predicted Hana Sinora, co-president of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information.
He was referring to Olmert’s interview with an Israeli newspaper in which he said that in return for peace with the Palestinians, Israel would have to give up nearly all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. In addition, he said Israel would have to give up the Golan Heights in return for peace with Syria.
Sinora said he believed that Livni wants to have general elections in a year and that in the meantime she will continue peace talks but they would be inconclusive.
“It’s going to be an empty year,” he said.
Daniel Ben Simon, a former Haaretz columnist who is now seeking a Knesset seat as a member of the Labor Party, joined the chorus of those on the left and right of the political spectrum who were highly critical of Olmert’s actions. He claimed that Olmert “tried to screw Tzipi” and that she had little choice but to distance herself from his remarks.
“She was shocked by the interview,” Ben Simon said. “She’s in a problematic position. The whole negotiating architecture has fallen apart because he unveiled the cards of Israel. No sitting prime minister has ever spoken this way.”
Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, observed that Olmert is a “person who has no political future.” He said Livni’s comments Sunday came from a woman who “wants to be elected prime minister.”
“Since Israeli politicians always try to satisfy people from left and right to survive, you can say that the most important thing about this exchange of statements is that Olmert — a person who lost his political future — is more likely to be credible spelling out political truths than Livni.’’
Ezrachi claimed that what Olmert said every Israeli prime minister has privately subscribed to, except for Yitzchak Shamir. “It’s said there’s such a huge gap in what the leadership really thinks and what it can actually do or perform. This gap is a sign of the weakness of the political system. ‘’
Olmert said this week that he still hoped to finalize a partial peace agreement with the Palestinians before he leaves office but Abbas has been saying the Palestinians would not accept a partial agreement, noted Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
“My impression from public and private statements is that on the issue of refugees I can’t imagine Olmert agreeing to an agreement that does not include an explicit Palestinian renunciation of the Palestinian right-of-return,” he said. “And the Palestinians have been saying no to this condition. This is a key clause because this is an end-of-conflict issue.”
At the same Sunday conference at which Livni, who is also Israel’s foreign minister, pledged to continue peace talks, her Palestinian Authority counterpart, Riyad al-Malki, warned that without an agreement by the end of the year Hamas would usurp the PA’s control of the West Bank.
“Look at Hamas in Gaza,” he was quoted as saying. “Hamas objects to the negotiations and is using their stagnation as an excuse to return to violence. We are under immense pressure from the Arab League that wants to see us moving ahead with the peace deal. But right now there is no process in motion. We believed in what was promised: that this year would be different, but we are already in October and we are losing hope.”
Asked about that warning, Steinberg said: “The Israeli concern that even if there was an agreement, Hamas would take over and then where would we be on January 2?”
A week ago, Steinberg said he believed the odds were against Livni forming a new government but this week he put the odds at 50-50 because “she’s showing a lot of skill” in coalition building. He said the talks with the Labor Party are serious and the “fact that there is a crisis in the talks means they are making progress.”
Only after she brings in Labor with its 19 Knesset seats will Livni begin negotiating with the smaller parties. She will be negotiating directly with Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, himself a former prime minister.
“Barak understands that if he joins Livni’s government, the next election would be between Livni and [Likud Party leader] Benjamin Netanyahu,” Ben Simon said. “If he joins, he’s part of Livni’s tribe when, in fact, he thinks she should be working for him. That’s his dilemma.”
Her Kadima Party has 29 seats and she needs at least 61 seats to govern. It is believed that she wants to bring in the Shas Party — which is part of the current coalition – because it has 12 seats, and the two arms of the Pensioners Party, which together have seven seats.
But Steinberg said she has also put out feelers to the left-wing Meretz Party with its five seats should she be unable to convince Shas to join.
“She is manipulating between Shas and Meretz and telling Shas that if it doesn’t want to come with her, she will turn to Meretz,” he said. “She needs one of them, but she would have trouble governing with only Meretz and the Pensioners, and politically it would not make sense to go with Meretz.”
The stumbling block in bringing in Shas is that it wants increased funding for its supporters – families with a large number of children and yeshiva students. Labor has been strongly opposed to that, and this issue could make or break the coalition process.”
Asked if he believed Shas would give up its battle for more funding, Steinberg said it was possible if it could find a face-saving way out of it.
“With the financial crisis, how can the treasury increase funding for Shas when it is going to have to cut everything else?” he asked. “If Shas drops those demands it can cite the fiscal crisis as justification and she in turn could give it a ministry, such as the Religious Affairs Ministry.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer; Josh Mitnick is Israel correspondent.