Thursday, January 17, 2008

Olmert Coalition Shaken, but not Broken, by Departure of Israel Beiteinu

The forecast of the departure of the right-wing Israel Beiteinu ("Israel our Home") party from the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, reported on this blog on Monday, was accurate. As reported this morning in the Los Angeles Times, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman has resigned, and withdrawn his 11-member Knesset faction from the Olmert coalition government. That leaves Olmert and his Kadima party with a still-stable majority of 67 votes (out of 120 members of the Knesset), provided that neither the Labor Party, on the left, or Shas (Hebrew acronym for "Sephardic Torah Guardians"), on the right, decides to abandon Olmert to his fate, leading to new elections.

Olmert is desperately courting Shas. He has incurred a great deal of criticism from Israeli secularists by resurrecting the previously abolished Religious Affairs ministry and handing it to Shas. He is promising generous support for Shas-sponsored schools and seminaries. And, according to a report in the Jersusalem Post, he is about to give in to a demand by Shas that the question of the status of Jerusalem be deferred until the very end of negotiations with the Palestinians over core issues. The unity of Jerusalem has been a redline for Shas's participation in the coalition government, and Shas is betting, foolishly in my view, that by deferring the issue until the end of negotiations, discussion of splitting control over the city will never take place.

Olmert is also courting two other Ashkenazi (descendents of Eastern European Jews) Haredi (fervently religious) parties, United Torah Judaism and Degel HaTorah ("Flag of the Torah"), to try to bolster his shaky coalition. However, those parties will just as adamantly oppose negotiations over Jerusalem as Shas. Contrary to the impression one gets from secular pundits in the media, this opposition from the Hareid religious parties is not based on the holiness or sanctity of Jerusalem, but rather on the very practical, sensible and rational concern that giving the Palestinian Arabs control over Jersualem neighborhoods will expose Jewish neighborhoods to terrorist attacks, just as the abandonment of Gaza led to constant rocket, mortar and sniper attacks on Sderot and the Western Negev.

Regardless of his political machinations, the days of Olmert's government may be numbered. Looming immediately on the horizon is the report of the Winograd Commission on the 2006 South Lebanon War. Depending on how harsh its criticism of Olmert's wartime leadership turns out to be, he may be compelled to resign. Nonetheless, given Olmert's ability to maintain power over the 18 months since the end of that disastrous war, despite single-digit public approval ratings, one can never count him out.


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