Weakened Olmert Now Forced To Haggle
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Weakened Olmert Now Forced To Haggle

Jerusalem Now the horse trading begins.

As Ehud Olmert seeks to assemble a coalition government this week following his Kadima Party’s poorer-than-expected victory of just 28 seats in Tuesday’s election, he will not have the free hand he expected just a month ago when polls were showing Kadima winning 40 or more seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

"Their expectations were too high," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "He’ll now have less room to maneuver because he will have to put together a broad coalition. Kadima is a centrist party, and to maintain its legitimacy it must put together a coalition that reflects a centrist approach."

Eran Lerman, head of the Jerusalem office of the American Jewish Committee, said unofficial results of the election indicate that "it will be impossible for Olmert to govern based on a center-left coalition. He needs to bring in one of the right-wing parties. … And if Labor makes it difficult for him, he could create a center-right coalition."

Labor won 20 seats and the left-wing Meretz four in an election in which fewer than 63 percent of the electorate voted: the lowest in history. Observers attributed it to several factors, including a lackluster campaign and the fact that this was the fourth national election in seven years.

In its worst showing ever Likud, which with Labor had dominated the Israeli political scene for three decades, won just 11 seats and thus became only the fifth largest party.

Finishing third with 13 seats was Shas, the party of fervently Orthodox Sephardim that stressed social and Jewish values and placed a special emphasis on the underprivileged. That was one more than the Yisrael Beitenu party, most of whose members are Russian Israelis.

Yisrael Beitenu, headed by Avigdor Lieberman, promised a crackdown on crime and wanted to maintain a Jewish majority in Israel by transferring some areas populated by Israeli Arabs to the Palestinian Authority.

Although some commentators said that Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu should submit his resignation and allow the party’s former foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, to take the helm, others suggested that the mantle of right-wing leader could fall to Lieberman if he wants it.

Calev Ben-David, an Israeli columnist, said it would be "fascinating to watch over the next four or five days" to see just how right wing Lieberman is.

"He can either replace [Netanyahu], or he can become a major player in the new government and be the minister of Internal Security," Ben-David said, referring to the post Lieberman has said he wanted. "You can’t dismiss him. He has become a major player in Israeli politics."

Olmert made it clear during the campaign that for Lieberman to join his coalition he would have to accept Kadima’s platform, which calls for carrying out a withdrawal from wide swaths of the West Bank.

That includes the forcible removal of between 60,000 and 100,000 Israeli settlers, depending on the areas to be uprooted.

Israelis would be moved behind the security barrier that would delineate Israel’s eastern border.

Olmert said he was prepared to carry out this withdrawal and set Israel’s borders unilaterally by 2010 if he could not negotiate a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

That became increasingly more difficult this week when a government led by Hamas, which Israel, the United States and Europeans consider a terrorist organization, was accepted by the Hamas-led Palestinian Legislative Council.

In an address to the council, new Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called on the Quartet to begin a "dialogue" with Hamas "to strengthen stability and regional peace."

A State Department spokesman rejected the suggestion, saying the Quartet (the U.S., Russia, the European Union and the United Nations) had made clear that Hamas must first recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous Palestinian agreements with Israel.

That is something Hamas has refused to do, and Olmert also said those conditions must be met before he would talk with the group.

Shadow Of Sharon

Olmert, 60, has served as acting prime minister since a massive stroke Jan. 4 left Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a coma. Kadima is a party Sharon and Olmert created in November after Sharon found that he no longer had the support of his own Likud Party.

Large pictures of a smiling Sharon hung on either side of the platform at Kadima headquarters outside of Jerusalem Tuesday night, and Olmert made special mention of him in his acceptance speech.

As Olmert and party leaders confer on the makeup of their new coalition (they have up to 45 days to assemble a new government) the AJCommittee’s Lerman said they should consider the surprise winner of the election, the new Pensioners Party, which won seven seats.

Headed by Rafi Eitan, a former senior official of the Shin Bet security service, the party calls for an expansion of medical insurance to include subsidizing vital medicines, better health care and increased pensions. "It will probably ask for the welfare [ministry] and maybe deputy minister of finance," Lerman said.

He added that he hoped Olmert would shy away from including Shas because "it is very destructive in terms of social policy."

"They want child allowances and the transfer of funds to non-productive members of society," he said.

In deciding on which right-wing party to include in his government, Lerman said Olmert has a choice of either Shas or Yisrael Beitenu. But he questioned whether Meretz leader Yossi Beilin would sit in a government alongside Lieberman, who has been widely criticized for what many consider racist views.

Menachem Ben Sasson, a newly elected member of Kadima, agreed that his party’s smaller than expected victory would complicate assembling a coalition. Had Kadima won 40 seats, he said, it could have kept the number of ministerial positions to 18.

Now, he said, it will probably have to grow to 24 or 25 because of the larger number of parties that will be brought into the coalition.

Sasson said Kadima would have perhaps 11 ministries, including the key ones: Finance, Foreign Minister, Defense, Education, Interior and Law.

He noted that Labor Party leader Amir Peretz said before the election that he wanted two key ministries, either Education or Finance.

"He said he wanted two, but he’s not going to get two," Sasson said. "He’ll get seven in all, the question is which ones. It’s a question of give and take. I’d say that Finance is almost unacceptable, but that was true the day before yesterday."

Sasson said he viewed Shas as a possible coalition partner and that it would ask for either the Interior or Labor ministries. And the Pensioners, he said, "may want Labor [ministry], or maybe legislation would be enough" for them to join the coalition.

Another possible coalition partner, Sasson said, is United Torah Judaism, which won six seats. The party, which represents an alliance of several fervently Orthodox Ashkenazi factions, seeks to represent its communities in government and promote traditional Jewish values.

Sasson said its leaders do not want any ministries but would take vice ministerial positions.

"They also want money for their schools," he said. UTJ is headed by Yakov Litzman, who Sasson said has headed the Finance Committee in the Knesset.

"He’s very well trained, and if that is what is needed [to bring it into the coalition], then maybe," he said.

Colette Avital, who was re-elected to the Knesset as a member of Labor, said it was too early to know for sure all of the portfolios Labor would seek in the coalition talks.

"It depends on how many parties are in the coalition," she said. "We’ll demand a program based on social issues, and as a result of that we’ll demand" the Finance Ministry at least.

Avital said her party took a "big risk" by basing its campaign on socio-economic issues.

"In this country people were more concerned with security," she explained, adding that voters sent a message Tuesday that "they want to change priorities in Israel."

"Now we have to deliver," she said.

Ben-David, the columnist who is also director of the Jerusalem office of the nonprofit Jerusalem Project, which promotes security, freedom and peace, said it is ironic that Olmert’s difficulties as he takes office "will be not over the disengagement [he has proposed] but over social and economic policies."

"In order to carry out the disengagement, he will have to pay a price," Ben-David said. "He’ll have to raise the minimum wage to $1,000 a month [as Labor wanted] and perhaps give Peretz Finance. And maybe he will roll back the cuts in child allowances and give Shas increased funds for its yeshivot."

But Steinberg pointed out that at the beginning and end of his acceptance speech shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday, Olmert spoke about domestic issues. He talked about the need for national unity and economic changes, so Israelis will not have to scavenge for food in garbage cans and children will not have to live below the poverty line: as do one-third of the country’s children.

"I will do everything I can to narrow the social gap, and in the next few weeks I will present a plan for a more just society and a fair society," Olmert said.

He added that he wanted to see a reorganization of the health-care system, "so that the rich and poor, Jews and Arabs, enjoy equal treatment. The time has come to put this into practice." Steinberg said the emphasis on "healing wounds is not consistent with going forward with another disengagement in the short term."

First 100 DaysChaim Ramon, a leading member of Kadima, said the party’s first 100 days in office would be "dedicated to trying to see if it’s possible to resume peace negotiations based on the ‘road map’" to peace adopted by Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

"We’ll demand from [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] that he implement his promise to the international community and to the Israeli government that after the election its [Palestinian Legislative Council] will pass a law that there will be one army, one weapon, and that the Hamas government will abandon terrorism, recognize Israel and respect agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel," he said.

Ramon said the new government also would demand that the Palestinian government "start to implement the first phase of the road map," which calls for the disarming of all Palestinian terrorists.

"We will give a reasonable time for Abu Mazen to meet these demands," he said, using Abbas’ nickname.

But Ramon said that if in "six months or a year" Israel and the international community conclude that "nothing is happening," Israel would seek the support of the international community in unilaterally withdrawing from parts of the West Bank.

He noted that the international community was behind Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.

"We will not let the Palestinians decide what will be the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state," Ramon vowed. "We will take our destiny in our own hands. Also in the first 100 days, Ramon said Kadima’s coalition would "pass a new budget that would not be capitalist like Netanyahu’s or socialist, as Peretz wants. It would be a moderate, European social democratic budget."

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