Olmert Plants Seeds of Discord in Government and Party – Ahead of First Cabinet Meeting

The one million-strong Russian community feels it has been used and swept aside by both senior partners of Ehud Olmert’s new government coalition which took office Thursday, May 4, in Jerusalem. Their bitterness focuses on the prime minister’s failure to place any ministers of Russian origin in his government or devote any thought to this community’s special problems and needs. Marina Sorotkin, who won sixth place on the Kadima list, is the only member of the top ten to be left off the cabinet line-up.
Amir Peretz’s Labor placed no Russian immigrants at all in realistic places on its Knesset list.
Two days before chairing his first cabinet meeting Sunday, May 7 in Jerusalem, the incoming prime minister put up the price of bread by seven percent. This was a slap in the face for his three new coalition partners and, in particular, the incoming industry, trade and labor minister, Eli Yishai, head of the ultra-religious Shas. All three, especially Shas, are party committed to raising the living standards of the poor, for whom bread is a staple.
In presenting his new government to the Knesset Thursday, Olmert declared intolerable a situation in which large parts of Israel’s population cannot support their basic needs. He vowed to address this situation without delay and with “compassion and sensitivity.”
Less than 24 hours later, he raised the price of standard bread, with immediate impact on the monthly income of some half a million elderly and needy citizens and large families.
Although his speech omitted mention of his predecessor on the job, Ariel Sharon, the new prime minister has taken at least one leaf out of the Sharon manual for would-be rulers: Use bombastic rhetoric and a show of vigorous authority to disguise inaction and incompetence. Sharon was fond of declaring loudly: “I have ordered the government to… (crack down on terrorists, fight crime, beef up the police force, reform education, fight poverty etc). None of those orders was executed or even crystallized into official policy planning.
The Sharon administration was distinguished for implementing two major decisions. It pushed through savage cutbacks in state allowances for the lowest income strata, keeping the minimum wage level at rock bottom, while permitting unbridled corporate profiteering – especially by banks and a handful or rich families.
This policy was carried forward by finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu – before he led the Likud party to a humiliating electoral crash in March. He now leads the opposition. As a member of the Sharon government, Olmert like Netanyahu zealously backed this economic policy and as prime minister has promised more of the same.
However, Kadima’s three partners in government ran on the reverse tickets – Labor promised to improve the conditions of the working man and raise the minimum wage to $1,000.However, its leader Peretz neglected to push this demand through the coalition negotiations and settled instead for 7 government posts.
The Pensioners Party pledged legislation for universal pensions and their restoration to pre-cutback levels, but reneged, for the sake of two cabinet posts.
Shas has yet to show its colors as representative of a constituency dominated by families with many children. None of those three “social” parties yet show signs of staging a bread revolt ahead of the first cabinet meeting Sunday, May 7.
The Sharon government’s most notable action was the controversial evacuation of the Gaza Strip in 2005. Olmert proposes a follow-up on the West Bank to “set Israel’s final borders” on the East.
His detractors remark that the removal 8,500 Israelis from the Gaza Strip was a wrenching, near-impossible feat and a daunting test of national leadership. They question whether the new prime minister is up to this test which, according to the concept he has outlined, potentially involves removing ten times that number from their West Bank homes and expanding the large settlement blocs. Few credit him with the clout to force his will on a reluctant Knesset (in which his coalition commands 66 out of 120 seats, barring further expansions) – as did Sharon. And even he had to sack half his ministers and divide Likud to get his way.
Olmert’s government is already 12 votes down in a future Knesset ballot. Shas claimed and won an escape clause in the coalition accord permitting its non-support of settlement removals. On this issue, the religious party reflects a body of opinion broader than its direct adherents.
Drawing on another of his predecessor’s stratagems, Olmert is counting on shouting down domestic resistance by holding up the blessing of the White House when he meets President George W. Bush on May 23, and winning European endorsement in a subsequent tour.
But international support for a unilateral Israeli pullback is very much up in the air.
And even if the Israeli prime minister can jump over every international hurdle, he would still have to call on the IDF to back up the police action required to force evictions through against massive resistance.
The scars left on the armed forces by the non-military expulsion operation imposed on the troops in Gaza are still very much in evidence, showing through the veneer of official efforts to quell signs of discontent.
On Israel’s Independence Day, a sergeant singled out for excellence in combat could not bring himself to shake the hand of the chief of staff who sent the tractor to knock over his grandfather’s home in Neve Dekalim. He is certainly not alone. His gesture dominated the national celebrations last Wednesday, May 2, and bodes ill for the chances of the prime minister’s chances surviving an operation that may prove unilateral on both the Palestinian and domestic fronts.
The rise of Hamas to power in Palestinian government, the use made by Palestinian terrorists of evacuated Israeli villages as missile-firing positions, and al Qaeda’s leap up to Israel’s borders, are seen by many as sequels to the Israeli pull-back from Gaza.
Punishing an outstanding soldier, Sgt. Hananel Dayan Meged, for venting his view on a political action, by dismissing him from his armored unit is not the way for chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz to pull the IDF’s command and ranks together. Unity will not be achieved by muzzling or coercing opinion in a highly individualist armed force, or by forcing a nation to accept dictated policies.

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