Out on a limb I – Navigating Israel’s Political Waters
I'm going to make some far ranging political predictions.
The Olmert govt is currently dealing with a crisis in Gaza, but it is symptomatic of a much greater malaise. Olmert's stubborn refusal to re-visit the disengagement idea despite its obvious lack of public support is a colossal mistake. This is compounded by the fact that the plan has not even been formulated yet, no plan tabled as of yet..
If anything now is the ideal time for humility in this regard, but Olmert can't seem to the the forest through the trees. The result is in my own opinion going to be a three pronged political attack that may topple the precarious Kadima govt.
Added to all this mayhem Olmert is dealing with, is his begrudging partner Labor. He's been pretty fair to Labor as a coalition partner, much more courteous than usual in Israeli coalition land. This is clearly due to the fact that Olmert decided early on that his so called 'natural' partner is the only one with enough weight to enable Olmert to carry out his political agenda. The reality is that the natural partners are unraveling before Olmert's very eyes. He gave defense to Labor's Peretz, and he towed that line.. Unfortunately he reeled it out WAY too far. Peretz numbers have fallen off a cliff, and they were not something to write home about in the 1st place. With them, Olmert's own numbers are tanking as well. There are a number of no confidence motions in the Knesset.
His own trolling line is now entangling the PM, on top of the political unpopularity & general malaise of policy, he's now being dragged down on defense too. After the famous 'Iron Fist' speech and policy outline came a few months of apologetics by his defense minister with nary a word coming out of Kadima, the result is that now no one particularly takes Olmert's defense words seriously. He's tried to micro manage this crisis recently, but again the diplomacy aspects of it and the hard left tilt sappedthe strength & tough image he desires. He's been a victim of poor political strategy IMHO.
Olmert himself saw the reality early in the coalition negotiations, he at first was keen on embracing more right & center right parties, but quickly panicked out when he thought it would cost him his 'natural partner' Labor. Wrong gamble, Labor would have joined regardless I believed and even if it didn't join, he could have zigged when he zagged and still put together a coalition. I think he was brow beat into it by his advisers who frankly suck as is evidenced by the results thus far.
Olmert's government is going to take it from the right which is a no brainer, but also from the left in a political shocker. IMHO the Labor party is seeing Peretz as a disaster, an anchor sinking them and fast.. The gamble was to make him Defense Minister and pump him up hard for a potential Israeli leadership play in the next round, it has failed totally.
Eitan Cabel & Ben Eliezer (Fuad), two of the bigger players in Labor are in my opinion preparing to seize the advantage from Peretz & Olmert's ineptitude, they've gone right of Peretz' traditional positions in brief statements recently, in my opinion this is just the beginning, a prelude. They smell the blood in the water. Eitan Cabel has been a real power player at Labor behind Peretz since the election in my view, he's a weasel of the best kind – He's laying the foundations to make a move IMHO.
Opposition from the left via Cabel / Ben Eiezer - who are going to join with the Labor rebels from about two months ago.. There are some big names in that rebel group, who emerges strong is yet to be seen. They're going to try and ride the disapproval of Peretz within the Labor traditional vote, plus ever obvious disapproval in the public at large and oust him – maybe even going for the full Govt, together with right parties and the Likud and Israel Our Home. Seems tenous perhaps, but opportunities abound and in politics where there is opportunity there are strikes.. Ehud Barak himself waits quietly for his own return to Labor politics. Don't expect him to wait forever in light of Labor's current leader's standings.
Olmert's unseen threat – From within
On top of Labor activity, Olmert is also going to face the traditional challenge from Likud & Israel Our Home, but there's an even greater threat building steam. The former Likud ministers that make up Kadima, the same core that Olmert himself comes from.
There's not much unity in any party that is formed from all sides, these are politicians who were fragmented even before Likud blew apart, there has been little to gel them since the passing of the torch from Sharon to Olmert. If anything the united on disengagement front within Kadima is unraveling at a record pace, Meir Sheetrit and possibly others are now eyeing the Kadima throne.
This is the 3rd prong and coming from within it is particularly dangerous. Olmert cannot purge this inner threat with a strong hand, doing so would topple Kadima out right. This is not a guy who can start tossing senior members, he's lost the fickle base Kadima had as well; the local mayors across Israel. His only option is to pull back from his set in stone positions towards the political positions of his internal rivals which are more palatable to the massive Israeli center, thereby subduing the threat temporarily. Of course, he appears as stated above as of yet unwilling to budge.
I'm giving my prediction a 6 month ceiling to play out, a fair bit of time but I think it will come much sooner than that. This may sound far fetched, but if you know Israeli politics you know this situation is more than it appears. The Olmert govt is floundering with no plan, and has lost total confidence of the public, and worse – The General staff of the military.
The loss of Meretz recently was not heavily reported, but this fringe party has changed the equation dramatically, they have pulled their support in the Knesset for disengagement, citing that they will only support movement of settlers back INTO Israel 67 lines, not a single new home in the big blocks. This pulls the Arab parties with them, and Olmert's plan already dangerous for relying on this wildcard sect in the 1st place, is fully sunk. I'd wager Kadima top officials are wrestling this very scenario even now. There is no mathematical possibility to pass Olmert's plan in the Knesset as things stand now. The notion of moving settlers anywhere but into the BIG West Bank blocks is a no sale in Israel even to the center, PERIOD END OF THAT STORY.
The ways out – Olmert can try in my opinion one of two viable options.
Depending on both the Labor, and political waters. No matter which direction he chooses, it involves re-working disengagement. The only determination is which side of the political fence he plays his hand with..
Option 1 – Coalition games
This week was a major test, it is going badly.. I predict Olmert tries Sharon magic in both instances. When he perceives a Labor play should one evolve, or an internal one he might try to return to his initial plan of going center right in the coalition, by ousting Peretz. Labor would fall from coalition and Olmert could try to rejig his disengagement plan to somehow allow Lieberman in, Likud in.. or both and salvage Kadima! Under this option Peretz is the fall guy, Olmert escapes the political hammer.
It is not uncommon at all in Israeli politics to re-coalition mid-stream. Sharon did it a few times himself, Olmert would have to have supreme confidence I think to try it, it doesn't appear he holds such confidence or his advisors don't appear to at least. This salvage operation holds the benefit of subduing the right, and his internal 3rd prong in one big fell swoop. Bibi's recent comments today point to a tiny opening in the door for this type of strategy, if he was really smart Olmert could capitalize and rebuild the REAL natural partner bridge - back to a Likud with a bit of a more moderate tone having suffered dearly in its own intransigence against Sharon.
Option 2 – External topple
Another possible alternative. He may gamble and go for the full Hamas topple, and hope to install Abbas in for his rejigged disengagement, ballsy as all hell but it could also work..
If that played out Olmert would in time unveil the new 'negotiated unilateral disengagement' with Abbas and this would quell the internal 3rd prong he is facing within Kadima as well. In this manner he might try keep Labor to ram it through. Also in this scenario I'd wager Meretz might come back in despite settlement growth within the blocks, as they are opportunists.
This would allow him to try & tap into goodwill internationally which is non-existent for his current plan as tabled, citing the new 'negotiated' aspects of the unilateral move a la Gaza under Sharon, with an emergency Abbas govt. (Incidentally, I'd view this as a strategic mistake for Israel, but I'm not getting into that aspect now, just the speculation on Olmert possible moves.)
In this scenario which relies less on internal coalition politics, he'll first need US approval
When he was in Washington a few weeks ago, I'm wondering what the time frames were for US / Israel discussions on the trial period for Hamas to 'come around'. We are nearing about six months soon, did he get a tentative quiet nod that soon he'd be given US support to topple Hamas, and is that the the reason for such active shadow US involvement in recent activity? This never ending approval Olmert is seeking internationally?
Haniyeh is still on his feet, if this plan wasn't an option in the drawer, I think Haniyeh would be targeted by now. If he is killed out right, it makes it highly improbable, almost impossible for Abbas to maintain legitimacy in the Palestinian public for such events to carry out. Hamas must be toppled with Haniyeh alive, arrested or something even more crafty.
If it is playing out this way, we may see high level envoys either coming to Israel shortly, or high level envoys going to Washington shortly. But someone, will be on a jet plane. In fact, two high level envoys are coming shortly it was announced this weekend..
The great unknown is how the current Gaza crisis plays out..
So far, things are very dicey for Olmert and he's unwilling to give on his plan. He has no choice but to jig it that is certain, the question remains which direction.. So far he remains unwilling to move at all. He's leaning so left these days I'd say option two, but the Labor power players upon which his govt is so dependent right now may not give him that option, forcing him to one up there. Further, toppling Hamas would be the most leadership based move of Olmert's career.. He has so far shown few strong qualities in this regard.
He seems to like playing it safe, which is safer? An internal coalition jig, or an external toppling of Hamas? The answer would depend on whom you ask. My read is plain however, the status quo and the plan to pressure the PA over a few months, drag the crisis out while not delivering any decisive blows in any direction will fail for Olmert.
There are three sharp prongs waiting to stick him in that scenario as I see it..