Just a day after the Shas party announced that it would quit the government if Israel begins negotiating the future of Jerusalem, the party's spiritual leader phoned Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to encourage him before the release of the possibly incriminating Winograd Report.
"Be strong and of good courage, and do not fear," Rabbi Yosef told Olmert Tuesday morning, promising his party's continued support. The rabbi's about-face was enabled by Olmert's announcement yesterday that talks on Jerusalem are not expected to begin in the near future. Other analysts see it differently, surmising that this is Shas' way of saying goodbye to the government.
Rabbi Yosef heads the Shas Council of Torah Sages, which decided on Sunday evening that the party would quit the government the moment talks begin with the Palestinian Authority about the future of Jerusalem. The decision was made just a week and a half after Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) party quit the government - in protest of the start of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority over so-called "core issues."
Violation of Promise to US
Olmert's announcement that he does not plan to discuss Jerusalem right away negates his recent promises to both U.S. President George Bush and PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to immediately begin negotiations on all the core outstanding issues between Israel and the PA - including Jerusalem.
At present, the Olmert government still represents a majority of the Israeli Parliament's 120 members. If and when Shas and its 11 MKs quit, however, Olmert will head a minority government vulnerable to a simple no-confidence motion in the Knesset. In such a case, left-wing Meretz and possibly the Arab parties are likely to prop him up for at least a certain period, in the hope that he will advance negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.
Looming only 30 hours away is the release on Wednesday at 6 PM of the Winograd Report on the government's handling of the Second Lebanon War. The report will not directly call for Olmert to quit, but it is likely that its expected strong criticism of him - as appeared in a preliminary report several months ago - will lead to a wave of public pressure for his resignation.
The War's Last 60 Hours
Media analyses of the Winograd Report concentrate on the final 60 hours of the Second Lebanon War, during which Olmert ordered a ground offensive that cost 35 soldiers' lives - despite, or because of, the fact that a UN-brokered ceasefire was about to go into effect. The report's determination regarding Olmert's decisions and performance during this period will be critical regarding Israel's political future.
Investigative reporter Yoav Yitzchak, editor of the NFC Hebrew news site, says Olmert is working on several fronts to prevent his coalition from crumbling and the subsequent calling of new elections. The Prime Minister continues to sustain ties with Lieberman, so that he won't work actively to topple the government, and is also maintaining contacts with Labor - Olmert's largest coalition partner, with 19 MKs - to head off voices there calling to quit the government.
Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who promised several months ago to quit the government after the release of the Winograd Report, has backtracked somewhat. He now says that he will wait to read the report's conclusions before making a decision.