Monday, January 14, 2008

Israeli Foreign Ministry Opens Jerusalem Status Talks. Olmert Government Coalition Crisis Looms

An Israeli negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni today opened discussions with their Palestinian Authority counterparts on the so-called "core issues" of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in the process may have triggered the coalition crisis that will finally bring down the government led by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima party. Those core issues include settlements, refugees, borders, security, water resources and, most importantly, the status of Jerusalem.

As reported in the Jerusalem Post, initiation of the core issues negotiations poses a clear challenge to Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (pictured above left with U.S. Secetary of State Condoleeza Rice), who heads the 11-member Israel Beiteinu ("Israel our home") party faction in the Olmert coalition government. Lieberman had previously said that he would leave the government if the core issues were discussed. Israel National News reports that two of Lieberman's faction members, Tourism Minister Yitzchak Aharonovich and MK Yisrael Hasson, have already said that Yisrael Beiteinu would have to leave the coalition. A more recent Israel National News analysis states that Lieberman is scheduled to meet with Prime Minster Olmert on Tuesday, and is likely to resign on Wednesday.

Olmert's government depends on the 11-member Israel Beiteinu and the 12-member Shas (Sephardic Torah Guardians) factions for its majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Both parties had previously threatened to resign if the Olmert government opened discussions on the status of Jerusalem. Without their votes to stave off no-confidence motions, Olmert will have no choice but to call for new elections.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud Party, criticized both Israeli Beiteinu and Shas for remaining in the government after the opening of core issues discussions. "The parties in the coalition from the nationalist camp, Shas and Israel Beiteinu, our friends, understand the dangers. I call upon them to reach the necessary conclusions and stop these processes by leaving the government immediately," Netanyahu said.

He added that "these concessions will harm Israel's security and future, and this lays a grave responsibility on the shoulders of those parties which remain in the coalition."

"Until now the unilateral negotiations were tactical. But from today, [they're] not tactical, they are strategic and they affect our national security," he added.

The fall of the Olmert government while President Bush continues his Middle East visit would be a profound embarrassment to the Bush Administration, which has spared no effort to prop up Prime Minister Olmert, whose unpopularity in Israeli public opinion polls makes President Bush's approval ratings look robust by comparison. As the above photo suggests, the Bush Administration had tried to woo Lieberman. Israel National News reported that as soon as President Bush disembared from Air Force One in Israel, Olmert introduced him to Shas party chairman Eli Yishai. "So I understand that you are the one I have to convince not to leave the coalition?" Bush reportedly said to Yishai: "Tomorrow we will have a long, intensive talk in the course of which I will try to convince you not to leave the government, despite the planned evacuation of the outposts in the Territories."

Although obviously briefed on the importance of Shas to the Olmert government, his mission had little assurance of success. Israel National News reports:

Shas spiritual leader and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef told Yishai earlier in the week not to participate in negotiations with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas “since Abbas has lost control over the territory.” Rabbi Yosef referred to recent attacks by PA “security police officers” who murdered three Israeli citizens in two separate incidents. “What good will the talks do when Kassams are falling in Sderot and Israelis are being murdered by Palestinian security officers in the West Bank?” said the former chief rabbi.

Nonetheless, Prime Minister Olmert made clear this week that he would amply reward Shas loyalty to the coalition. In a move widely criticized by secular-minded Israelis, Olmert's cabinet voted a week ago Sunday to recreate a Religious Affairs portfolio, to be held by Shas Knesset Member Yitzhak Cohen, who is currently a minister-without-portfolio responsible for religious services in the Prime Minister's Office. That action requires Knesset approval, and is opposed not only by the left-wing secular Labor party and the right-wing secular Israel Beiteinu party, but also by some Likud and National Union/National Religious Party MKs also announced they would vote against the cabinet decision.

Critics of the move claimed that reestablishing the ministry and placing it under Shas's control could lead to corruption. Cohen, who would be given the power to appoint neighborhood rabbis, heads of religious councils and other religious council employees, might be tempted to hire according to political affiliation instead of skills, they said.

Those of us who oppose further movement toward the creation of a Palestinian terrorist state in Yehuda and Shomron (the so-called "West Bank"), to match "Hamasistan" in Gaza, hope that new elections will bring to power a right-wing coalition under Bibi Netanyahu, ending the "long national nightmare" of Kadima Party rule.


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