Jan 23, 2008

Olmert's Government in Danger of Collapse

By Joel Rosenberg

(Washington, D.C., January 23, 2008) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government is increasingly in danger of collapse. Last week, Deputy Prime Minister for Strategic Affairs Avigdor Lieberman resigned the cabinet and pulled his Yisrael Beiteinu party out of Olmert's coalition. Another major coalition member, the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, is now threatening to bolt as well. What's more, the final, official Winograd Commission Report will be released Wednesday, January 30th. It's expected to contain harsh criticism of Olmert's handling of the Second Lebanon War in 2006, criticism that will undoubtedly unleash an intensified new wave of calls for his resignation.

Lieberman's departure brought Olmert's coalition down from 78 to only 67 members of the 120 member parliament. If Shas leaves with its 12 members, Olmert won't have the 60 members sufficient to hold his government. Should that happen, buckle your seatbelts. The battle inside the Knesset for control will be fierce. Early elections could be triggered. Either way, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could wind up back on top as premier.

My Joshua Fund colleagues and I met with Lieberman at the Knesset last November, just as he first issued his threat to step down. His concerns then: Olmert's apparent readiness, almost eagerness, to divide Jerusalem; negotiate over the so-called "right of return"; and give away the West Bank -- known in Israel by the Biblical names, Judea and Samaria -- to the Hamas-dominated Palestinian government. The situation has only worsened since then, Lieberman believes. Olmert seems absolutely determined to cut a deal that Lieberman and his allies believe will endanger the national security of the Jewish state. Land for peace didn't work on the Gaza border, he argues. Nor did it work on the Lebanon border. Why should it work elsewhere?

"Negotiations on the basis of land for peace are a critical mistake...and will destroy us," Lieberman told reporters last week. "It is clear to everyone that these talks will lead to nothing."
Now all eyes are on Industry, Trade, and Labor Minister Eli Yishai, the Shas leader, who told Olmert this morning that dividing Jerusalem is a deal-killer for him. "Yishai told Israel Radio that the party would make its move the day that Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurei sit down to discuss the issue," reports the Jerusalem Post.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is waiting in the wings, talking tough on Gaza and Iran, saying Olmert should strike hard and fast with "disproportionate force" against Palestinian terrorists who have fired hundreds of rockets and mortars at Israeli towns like Sderot in recent weeks.

"In a war of attrition the enemy strikes and you react, the enemy strikes harder and you retaliate harder," Netanyahu said about the constant missile strikes against Israel's southern border. "This gradual increase in violence is the antithesis of deterrence....Deterrence always means using disproportionate force. We need to move from a concept of attrition to one of tough deterrence that will eventually lead to the removal of the Hamas regime, because as long as it exists it will continue arming itself and continue its attacks."

Netanyahu is also warning against dividing Jerusalem or giving away the West Bank and thus creating potential terror bases for Iran. "We must not repeat this mistake [of the South Lebanon and Gaza withdrawals]," he said Monday. "This time we're going to have an Iranian base facing Jerusalem and the Dan Bloc, which includes Tel Aviv. We have to prevent Iran's armament and not let it establish new bases on our territory."

Bibi currently leads the field of potential contenders should snap elections be held soon. Fully 33% of Israelis favor him to be the next premier. The closest rival is Ehud Barak at 17%. What's more, Bibi's Likud party "would soundly defeat Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's centrist Kadima party if elections were held now," reports Agence France Presse, according to a poll taken last Friday. "The poll said that Olmert's party would win only 10 seats, far behind Likud with 28, the centre-left Labour party with 21, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party with 11."