US President George W. Bush gave a final push at a state dinner Thursday night to keep Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in power. Speaking to ministers at the affair, Bush called Olmert “a strong political leader.”
The American president made a special effort to lean on Yisrael Beiteinu's party chairman, Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as Shas party chairman and Deputy Prime Minister, Eli Yishai, to stay in the government.
Both have threatened to pull their parties out of the coalition over Olmert’s willingness to move straight to final status talks with the Palestinian Authority, rather than insist the PA first put a stop to terror emanating from its territories. Shas has said it will quit the government if Jerusalem is put on the negotiating table.
Olmert's government is based on the support of the five coalition parties' 77 MKs: Kadima (29), Labor (19), Shas (11), Yisrael Beiteinu (11), and Pensioners (7). If both Shas and Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) were to quit, the government would be left without a majority of the 120-member Knesset legislature.
Pressure on Yishai, albeit jovial, began as soon as Bush stepped off the plane on Wednesday and joked with the Shas chairman about the party's threats to leave the coalition. According to NRG, as he shook Yishai's hand on the tarmac, Bush told the minister: "So I understand that you are the one I have to convince not to leave the coalition?" The president added that he intended to have a “long intensive discussion” with Yishai to explain why his party should not pull out of the coalition.
A committee to be headed by Israel’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, and PA chief negotiator Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) is set to discuss “core issues” immediately following Bush’s departure from the region.
On the table will be the parameters for permanent borders, the status of Jerusalem and the so-called “right of return” for millions of foreign Arabs to immigrate to Israel, with full benefits, as descendants of Arabs who fled the country during the 1948 war. Those who fled were instructed to do so by the attacking Arab nations, who promised they would be able to return and own Jewish property after the Jews were driven into the sea.
Lieberman and Yishai have both said the PA does not have the power to make peace, pointing to the chaos in Gaza and the PA government’s loss of control over the region, which would become part of any PA state agreed upon in talks with Israel.
Shas spiritual leader and former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef told Yishai earlier in the week not to participate in negotiations with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas “since Abbas has lost control over the territory.” Rabbi Yosef referred to recent attacks by PA “security police officers” who murdered three Israeli citizens in two separate incidents. “What good will the talks do when Kassams are falling in Sderot and Israelis are being murdered by Palestinian security officers in the West Bank?” said the former chief rabbi.
The US has equipped the PA “security force” with thousands of new weapons, ammunition and special military training over the past year in the hopes of transforming terrorists into respectable civilian law enforcement officers who will control their fellow terrorists.