After Days of Unexpected Drama, Olmert and Peretz Cement Coalition Agreement

JERUSALEM — The designation of Ehud Olmert this weekend to be Israel’s next prime minister, ostensibly a mere formality after his convincing election victory, capped a week of furious post-election intrigue that provided a nail-biting denouement to a topsy-turvy election campaign.

Olmert appeared to win the top job hands down when his Kadima party came in first in the March 28 parliamentary election, followed at a respectable distance by Amir Peretz of the left-leaning Labor Party. Olmert and Peretz had campaigned on similar platforms of Israeli withdrawal from the territories, and a partnership between them seemed inevitable.

One week later, Olmert and Peretz appeared at a press conference, amid smiles and embraces, to announce their impending partnership. Peretz was in line for defense minister, the first civilian to hold the post in decades, and was said to have been promised a coalition platform containing much of the economic populism on which he had campaigned.

In between the election and the handshake, however, came a week of political maneuvering that had Israelis by turn riveted and appalled. Reports from smoke-filled rooms indicated that Peretz was negotiating behind the scenes to outflank Olmert and form his own government, cobbling together an odd coalition of religious and nationalist parties seemingly poles apart from his dovish, socially progressive vision.

Sources close to Peretz described the talks as a sincere effort to bring together parties, including the Sephardic Orthodox Shas and the settler-based National Union-National Religious Party, that shared his commitment to stronger welfare and social reconciliation. The plan reportedly was to put diplomatic progress with the Palestinians on hold for two years, while pursuing back-channel efforts to revive negotiations.

Critics, including some senior figures in Peretz’s own Labor Party, called the exercise a clumsy, naked power grab that would thwart the plain will of the voters and betray Peretz’s own electoral base. Kadima leaders were said to be furious, and were pressuring Olmert to drop Peretz from consideration as a coalition partner in favor of parties to the right.

However, when Olmert and Peretz appeared Tuesday morning to announce their agreement, the entire exercise was presented as a smokescreen, meant to keep the real talks secret.

At a Labor lawmakers’ caucus meeting Tuesday at party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Peretz claimed that had he done otherwise, Labor would have “bashed” him.

“I was in talks with Olmert on Sunday,” Peretz said. “I waited all of Monday to see whether word of the meeting would leak. Had it leaked, I would have understood that it’s a waste of time and the next four years would be just spin. To my surprise and delight, the matter was kept silent. No one knew a thing about it. Tuesday, after the atmosphere cleared, we moved on to the truly important phase.”

Olmert reportedly intends to bring in the head of the rightist Yisrael Beteinu party, Avigdor Lieberman, as the third major partner in his coalition. Olmert made his intention plain during his secret meetings with Peretz. For his part, Peretz did not deny Olmert’s remarks about Lieberman, even though Labor had pledged not to sit in the same Cabinet with Yisrael Beteinu. “When the time comes, we’ll deal with it,” a senior Labor politician told Ha’aretz.

Lieberman, who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in 1978 and was a top aide to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heads an immigrant-based party known for its hawkish views and anti-Arab rhetoric. In recent months, he has touted his own plan for territorial compromise on the West Bank that would include ceding Arab villages within Israel proper to Palestinian sovereignty. The plan is widely denounced by liberals as racist.

The chairman of the left-leaning Meretz party, Yossi Beilin, considered an ally of Peretz, vowed not to join any Kadima-led coalition that included Lieberman. There were few indications that Olmert had any intention of inviting Meretz, despite its strong support of his West Bank withdrawal plan.

Sources in Yisrael Beteinu said they did not believe Peretz’s rejection of their party was “the end of the story.” They said they believed that Olmert would not accept the “stigma” that Peretz had placed on Lieberman.

“Peretz said many things recently that he took back,” a senior Yisrael Beteinu figure told Ha’aretz. “We have no reason to think this time he will be consistent. From our point of view, nothing is final yet.”

Most previous speculation had centered on Shas, the Sephardic Orthodox party, as the third main partner in Olmert’s coalition. Labor figures favor Shas because of its relatively moderate views on security and its populist economic platform. However, Kadima leaders see it as an unreliable partner, prone to balking when faced with key diplomatic decisions. Olmert is also seen as eager to bring in a party to his right in order to guarantee that he remains at the center and not the right fringe of his own coalition.

Some sources in Shas and the National Union-National Religious Party continued to insist that the Peretz-led coalition talks had been genuine, and voiced disappointment at their abandonment. A leading member of the Shas’s Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Moshe Maya, told Yediot Aharonot that he had first broached the idea to Peretz the day after the election, telling him he had an opportunity to transform the fortunes of Israel’s Sephardic Jews. Maya said Peretz initially dismissed the idea, but returned to it in a fit of pique the next day, after Kadima leaders were quoted calling him names.

The head of the National Union, Rabbi Benny Elon, told Yediot that a Peretz coalition would have given the nation time to heal the wounds left by last summer’s Gaza disengagement.

Labor Party sources said Tuesday that Peretz and Olmert had settled the ministries Labor would get. They surmised that Peretz would take defense; education would go to Yuli Tamir; justice to Yitzhak Herzog, plus another four portfolios. Peretz was expected to pick Ami Ayalon, a close ally who formerly headed the Shin Bet security service, to serve as deputy defense minister.

Olmert told Kadima members that in order for Labor to join the coalition, Kadima must give them either the finance or defense portfolios. Olmert’s statement appeared to suggest that Tzipi Livni would remain foreign minister.

Peretz’s associates said they believed he would agree to become defense minister in exchange for including strong social legislation in the coalition’s platform. They said the defense post would allow him to influence budget policy.

Peretz’s announcement about the agreements reached with Olmert and the meetings with him took most senior Labor members by surprise. Aside from one or two, none knew of the about-face that Peretz had made — from trying to form an “emergency social government” to beginning close cooperation with Olmert.

Some senior Labor people were greatly offended by Peretz’s conduct. They said he had sent them out to do the tough job of explaining the fictitious “social coalition” while he was already hatching plans with Kadima. “Some felt that Peretz had toyed with them,” one senior official said.

Some suggested that the maneuvering for an alternative coalition had strengthened Peretz’s hand in his talks with Olmert by showing muscle. “We got the senior partnership in the government, and that’s what we wanted,” Tamir said.

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After Days of Unexpected Drama, Olmert and Peretz Cement Coalition Agreement

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