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Fall is upon us, the air outside has turned brisk, and along with the new burst of cold winds come indications that elections may soon be in the offing.
At a meeting today that was described as “difficult”, Justice Minister Yosef (Tommy) Lapid told Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the Shinui party he heads will not support the government’s proposed budget when and if it comes to a vote in the Knesset, because of funds promised to the religious parties.
Since Sharon’s coalition has shriveled in recent months to just 55 seats out of the 120 in parliament, and Lapid controls 15 of those, the blow to Sharon is both personal and political.
Personal – because Sharon went out of his way to make Shinui a senior partner in the government from the very beginning of his term. He gave them some of the most important ministries (such as Justice and Interior) while at the same time brushing aside the Likud’s traditional parliamentary cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties such as Shas and United Torah Judaism in favor of Lapid.
Political – because Sharon can no longer claim to have anything even resembling a coalition. He threw out the National Union/ Yisrael Beitenu faction a few months ago over their opposition to the Gaza withdrawal plan, and then he effectively forced out the National Religious Party over his refusal to conduct a national referendum on the retreat.
Along the way, Sharon has mistreated his opponents, such as Shas and even Labor, to such an extent, that neither even wants to enter into a unity government with him. Even the Likud has begun to split from within, as half the party’s Knesset members now proudly call themselves “the rebels”, vowing to prevent the Gaza withdrawal from occurring.
And so, at the end of the day, all that remains of Sharon’s coalition is little more than political rubble. He ran roughshod over the system, and over those who dared to get in his way, and now at last it seems that his actions have begun to boomerang on him, leaving him with few remaining options other than to head for early balloting.
Anyone who thought that the demise of Yasser Arafat would pave the way towards a more moderate Palestinian leadership would do well to listen to what the Palestinians themselves are saying (rather than the overly-optimistic pundits).
Indeed, in recent days, virtually all of the candidates aiming to replace the late Palestinian leader have been outdoing each other to sound more extreme than the next. Take, for example, Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen), who told the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah yesterday:
“We will not rest until the right of our people to return is granted and the tragedy of the refugees comes to an end… We shall act to realize his [Arafat’s] dream to achieve an independent state that has already been promised by international law, with its capital in Jerusalem.”
Similarly, at the same session of the Council, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei (a.k.a. Abu Ala) said:
"We will follow in the path of the late leader Yasser Arafat, and we will work toward fulfilling his dream. We promise you that our hearts will not rest until the right of return for our people is achieved and the tragedy of the refugees is ended."
Now, as just about everyone knows, Arafat’s “dream” is effectively Israel’s nightmare. When Abu Mazen and Abu Ala call for the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, this is the equivalent of calling for Israel’s destruction, because it would mean flooding the tiny Jewish state with millions of hostile Palestinians.
Then there is Farouk Kaddumi, who was recently appointed secretary-general of Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO. Speaking at a memorial service Tuesday in Beirut for Arafat, Kaddumi was even more explicit: "We cannot achieve goals except through continued resistance by all methods and means," he said. After nearly four years of ongoing Palestinian terror, we know precisely what it is that Mr. Kaddumi has in mind.
Even Ghassan Barham, a Palestinian Christian lawyer from the Jenin area who has also declared his candidacy to replace Arafat, has been seeking to boost his popularity among the Palestinian electorate by justifying the murder of Israelis. Asked by a reporter for his opinion of Palestinian suicide attacks, Barham refused to classify them as a form of terrorism, instead asserting that, “These attacks are carried out in revenge for Israeli aggression”.
I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that these are the kind of people that are often labeled Palestinian moderates. After all, in his remarks yesterday at the Palestinian Council, Abu Mazen declared that Arafat himself was a “moderate”, if you can believe that one.
As far as I’m concerned, what all this goes to show is that the problem in our region has not been one of a particular personality (i.e. Arafat), but of the very existence of the Palestinian Authority, which has time and again shown itself to be a terrorist entity run by a merciless collection of thugs.
The fact is that no matter who the Godfather is that’s in charge, the Mafia still remains the Mafia, with all that entails.
The political drama unfolding in Israel over the past 48 hours is not only intriguing, but also highly instructive.
On Saturday night, the Likud and Labor parties reached a deal to form a national unity government, with the latter set to receive a total of 8 ministers and 3 deputy ministers in the new coalition (that’s not bad for a party that only has 21 members of Knesset – it means that over half the Labor faction can look forward to new ministerial posts).
Everything looked set for the deal to close, when one last sticking point cropped up: Shimon Peres’ new title. It turns out that Mr. Peres’ insistence on becoming a deputy prime minister who would serve as acting premier when Ariel Sharon is out of the country is legally problematic. According to Israel’s Basic Law: The Government, only one such position may exist, and Ehud Olmert of the Likud already holds it.
When the Likud then suggested that Peres accept a different title, such as deputy premier for the peace process, the Labor leader angrily rejected it, thereby holding up the formation of a new coalition government.
As of this writing, Labor and Likud parliamentarians are looking for a way to solve the problem, which might very well entail changing the law to grant Peres the title he so unashamedly covets.
Whether or not they succeed in doing so is beside the point, for in the past two days, Israelis have had a unique opportunity to see what it is that truly drives Mr. Peres – it is not ideology, nor even his ostensible desire for peace, but pride, pure and simple.
And for all his talk of the need for Labor to do everything possible to ensure the implementation of Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal plan, when it comes to the title he will bear on his business card, Peres knows where his real priorities truly lie.
And now, so do the rest of us.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is in Israel today, and while making the rounds of Israeli and Palestinian officials, he will reportedly stop at Yasser Arafat’s grave in Ramallah to pay his last respects to the late Palestinian leader.
There is something unseemly, and downright offensive, about Mr. Fischer’s planned graveside tribute to the founder of Palestinian terror – and it would be a shame if Israel allows the incident to pass by without comment.
True – Fischer would not be the first international dignitary to make a pilgrimage to Arafat’s tomb. UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw already holds that dubious distinction.
But in light of what Germany did to the Jewish people just six decades ago in the heart of Europe, I would think that Deutschland’s Foreign Minister has an added responsibility to be a little more sensitive about such things.
After all, whatever one may think of the wisdom of signing agreements with the Palestinians, no one can deny that Mr. Arafat was responsible for the deaths of more Jews than any other person since the Second World War.
Arafat was a killer, a mass murderer, an unrepentant terrorist who ordered the deaths of men, women and children. The very idea that Mr. Fischer would see fit to bow his head in respect at the grave of such a person is an affront not only to the victims of Palestinian terror and their families, but to the entire Jewish people.
If our leadership were guided by a semblance of national dignity and pride, they would not hesitate to show Mr. Fischer the exit. No people can tolerate such a slap in the face, and neither should Israel.
There are indeed many Germans who have done a great deal to atone for the actions of the previous generations, and we should not lose sight of that. But when Germany’s top diplomat sees nothing wrong with honoring a murderer of Jews, it just goes to show how quickly the lessons of the past are often in danger of being forgotten.
This morning, I spoke to a group from the Orthodox Union (OU), the US-based Jewish organization that is holding its annual convention here in Jerusalem at the Ramada Renaissance hotel.
While the OU is perhaps best known for the kosher certification that it provides to thousands of food items in the US and elsewhere, it actually does a great deal more – from Jewish education to political lobbying to combating anti-Semitism.
Betty Ehrenburg, who heads the OU’s Institute for Public Affairs, told me that they were initially expecting some 300 people to join them in Israel for the three-day gathering, but that more than 800 eventually signed up.
I can’t tell you how nice it was to see the hotel brimming with life, filled with tourists planning their daily outings to see parts of the country. Even the hotel staff seemed to be enjoying the hustle and bustle of it all (with the exception, perhaps, of the waiters at breakfast…)
In recent years, one of the most depressing sights for many Israelis has been the empty streets and cafes, bereft of overseas visitors afraid to travel to the “war zone” of the Middle East.
As a result, many of us here felt somewhat, well, abandoned, or even forgotten. After all, it is precisely when times are tough that friends are supposed to be there for you. And for the past several years, they weren’t.
But that, at last, finally seems to be changing. Over the Yamim Noraim (High Holidays), Jerusalem’s hotels were booked solid, as American Jews and others have begun to return, visiting Israel in ever greater numbers. El Al just announced yesterday that they are adding two more weekly flights on the Tel Aviv-New York route to accommodate the increase in traffic.
Whenever I speak to groups in Israel or in the US, someone inevitably asks what they can do to help the Jewish state. The answer, I think, should be obvious: come here, even if just to visit.
The fact is that Israel needs more tourists – so call your travel agent and start making those reservations. It may sound risque, perhaps even inappropriate, but I will say it nonetheless: we need your bodies, and we need them now!