Prime minister Ehud Olmert has summoned a special security cabinet session for Wednesday, Feb. 18, to reassess the indirect extended truce talks with Hamas brokered by Egypt in the wake of Israel’s three-week military campaign in the Gaza Strip last month. The cabinet will be asked to reshuffle Israel’s positions by placing the release of its soldier Gilead Shalit, kidnapped in 2006, ahead of all other ceasefire issues.
This is a sharp reversal of the tactics employed by defense minister Ehud Barak and his truce envoy Amos Gilead. In effect, Olmert has cut him out of the picture. The prime minister capped Barak’s demotion by phoning Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak Monday, Feb. 16, to inform him where matters stood. He made it clear that the defense minister had erred in leaving Shalit out of the Cairo talks and acted on his own without the prime minister’s authority.
A cabinet member, Raffi Eytan, remarked Tuesday that the negotiations will go back to square one in view of the daily trickle of Palestinian missiles, rockets and mortar fire from Gaza since Israel ended its campaign plus Hamas’ ultimatum demanding that all Gaza crossings be reopened forthwith.
Since Saturday, the prime minister has reiterated on every occasion that until Shalit is restored to his family, the crossings issue is not open for discussion. He has ignored Hamas’ protestations that the two issues are unrelated.
Olmert has also insisted on respecting "the new political reality" generated by the Feb. 10 general election. He has therefore co-opted Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu to key discussions on Gaza – signaling that he is betting on Netanyahu as next prime minister. This was also a painful side-swipe to Barak for the poor electoral showing of his Labor party, the majority of which prefers the opposition benches to a place in government.
Most of all, he made it clear both at home and in Cairo that he is still prime minister and the man in charge. The defense minister is now paying for forgetting who’s the boss in the flush of Operation Cast Lead’s success in the Gaza Strip.
Political sources expect Ehud Olmert to be around for a while considering the difficulties his successor as Kadima leader, foreign minister Tzipi Livni, and Netanyahu face in putting together a viable coalition government. The formal process begins Wednesday when President Shimon Peres receives party representatives to hear their recommendations for the candidate best able to form a government.
Just before the full cabinet session Sunday, Olmert told Livni he intended calling for a national unity government (Likud, Kadima and Labor) to succeed his administration. Clearly upset, she asked him to back off and when he pointed to an open microphone, she wrote him a note in the same vein, which TV cameras were allowed to pick up.
Monday, Livni instructed Haim Ramon to inform Lieberman of Israel Beitenu that Kadima was ready to accept almost all his terms, including a platform certain to be vetoed by the religious parties, for joining her government. Her second prospective partner, Labor, came down on Kadima like a ton of bricks, accusing its leaders of cheating the voter who believed he was electing a left-of-center party only to find it in bed with the far right. This strengthened the Laborites intent on going into opposition. Without Labor and the religious parties, Kadima (28 + Israel Beitenu’s 15) is 17 mandates short of a majority government.
Likud spokesmen then made it clear that if Lieberman fails to recommend Netanyahu to the president, he need not expect high posts in his administration.
The Israeli Beitenu leader has not enhanced his eligibility for high office in Jerusalem by a business trip straight after the election to the Belarus capital of Minsk, whose government is notorious for selling arms to Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela and Islamist terrorist organizations.
Olmert’s close aides report that the caretaker prime minister is playing cat and mouse with his former and potential rivals because he expects to come out of the corruption scandals hanging over him with a clean enough slate for a comeback in a couple of years.