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Jerusalem Journal: Israelis Vacation While Politicians Take Positions

Posted: August 21, 2007

This week marks the first anniversary of the end of the Second Lebanon War. The country seemed to celebrate by flooding to the north to relax in the cool rivers and lush hills. The B&Bs and guest houses are full and it seems every other Israeli has descended on Tiberius or pitched a tent on the shores of the Galilee.

Add to that the fact that over a million Israelis were expected to travel abroad this summer and one can begin to understand the sense of lethargy that seems to have taken over the country.

Last week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho. It was historic for being the first time that an Israeli prime minister met with a Palestinian leader in territory under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. But Israelis found it such a yawn that even the Israeli media tucked away their reports on pages deep inside their newspapers.

Among Israelis, Olmert is being perceived as a man who may speak well of lofty intentions to make peace with the Palestinians, but in the current political environment, has little political capital to implement them. The latest polls show Olmert enjoys about a five percent approval rating. Olmert is also bracing for the final report of the Winograd Committee, which is charged with examining the performance of the government and the Israel Defense Forces during last summer's Lebanon war.

Olmert's diplomacy is being challenged by Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, who openly is vying for the his job. Barak has said that he doesn't believe in the prospects of a durable agreement with the Palestinians. This kind of talk has led some to accuse the Labor Party leader, who as Prime Minister seven years ago at Camp David reportedly offered the Palestinians nearly 100 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, of now adopting the right-wing positions of the Likud.

The Likud Party meanwhile held its leadership primaries this week – unusual timing given that political parties general refrain from holding key ballots during August since most Israelis are vacationing.

Unlike the Labor Party, which has seen a new leader elected virtually every year for over a decade, the Likud Party since 1993 has had just two leaders – Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu.  Netanyahu did not face any real challenge to his leadership, but he sought primaries anyway because he believed general elections to be near. The extraordinary summer vacation timing of the Likud Party elections was connected to Netanyahu's prediction that the Winograd report would be so crushing to Olmert that the Prime Minister would be forced to resign and new elections would be set.  But the Winograd committee is taking its time  and no one really knows when it will release its final results; September? October? Nevertheless, party machinery had kicked in and the primaries were held anyway.

Netanyahu, with the help of party ballot stations set up on the beaches of Eilat, was re-crowned Likud head as expected. His party was embarrassed, however, with the strong showing of radical West Bank settler Moshe Feiglin, who succeeded in winning 24 percent of the vote. Feiglin, who bitterly opposed the Oslo peace accords in 1993, had bucked the trend of setting up his own party and decided instead to try to take over an existing one from within. He chose the Likud and has slowly built up a support base, mainly of other residents in Judea and Samaria. Feiglin, who advocates a Jewish theocracy with a rebuilt Temple, was able to recruit supporters who, because of the political process, were able to register as Likud members and become Central Committee members and vote in the primaries. But the bulk of these same recruits do not end up even voting Likud in national elections.

Since the elections, Netanyahu has vowed to kick Feiglin out of the party. He even ordered guards not to allow Feiglin into the election headquarters. While Netanyahu has now moved to accelerate the date for new general election, his main rival for Prime Minister - Labor Party head Barak – has reportedly lowered his enthusiasm for a showdown until next spring.

So with Barak publicly saying peace with the Palestinians is highly unlikely and that the current diplomatic activity will go nowhere, the defense minister has turned his focus to the northern border. The Government and the IDF are clearly tense over Syria. Jerusalem has been sending out calming messages to Damascus that Israel has no intention of attacking Syria. Nevertheless, intelligence officers are repeatedly warning of a "miscalculation" that could lead to war and the army has been busy, very busy, replenishing stocks and training troops. And so have the Syrians, who it is believed, understand that the IDF is far superior to their own army, but who might get some advantage from a surprise attack.  The challenge is not to be drawn into a conflict.

One commentator wrote this week that last year, "Olmert failed this test… this time he should not be tempted to prove our superiority. Olmert, Barak and (Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gaby) Ashkenazy's main challenge is still to prevent war, not win it."

* By Arieh O'Sullivan, ADL's Director of Communications in Jerusalem.

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