Today Egypt hosted a meeting between Hamas and Fatah in an attempt to create some type of Palestinian national unity government. Observers consider the situaiton difficult but not impossible. The gulf between them is huge, and the individuals involved hate each other with a passion. On the other hand, they all understand that at the moment the Palestinians are dooming any hopes they have for an independent future by fighting amongst themselves.
The Egyptians are hosting this summit out of frustration at the Israelis for backing away from the ceasefire agreement that they had negotiated. That happened as a result of the mistimed political decision to tie the ceasefire to the freeing of Gilad Shalit. That could have been done when Israeli troops were minutes from the center of the Gaza Strip, or it could have been done if Israel was willing to pay the vast price that Hamas has demanded, but that was, and seemingly is not the case. To date, Hamas has not changed its initial position; instead Israel has been negotiating with itself over Shalit for the past year and quite intensely and publicly over the last month.
In the meantime, Qassam rockets continue to sporadically fall on the Negev. One fell on a house in Sderot today. Israel responded by attacking the tunnels in southern Gaza. This was the 90th missile or mortar to land on Israel since the end of the war with Hamas, which coincided20with President Obama’s inauguration. The military is claiming that with every day that goes by, Hamas does more smuggling and any gains made in the operation are disappearing. Clearly Israel’s political and military goals were not in synch and Israel will pay the price.
Tomorrow a final meeting is expected between MK Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Relations Livni regarding the possibility of a unity coalition. By all accounts the issue of a future Palestinian state seems unbridgeable. There can always be surprises in Israeli politics, but none of the observers expect much out of the meeting.
Iran is moving forward in its march to obtaining nuclear weapons. Today they announced that it is adding an additional 50,000 centrifuges to efforts to enrich uranium. It is clear that despite small roadblocks Iran is keeping on its course towards building the bomb. At the moment Israel has no choice but to try to convince the Obama administration to set itself some deadlines for its talks with Iran. Iran has made a specialty of using talks to delay other nations actions. Israeli sources believe that there is not more than a year window to stop the Iranians. It will be up to the new Israeli government to convince the US that if they cannot convince the Iranians to stop they need to give Israel tacit approval to act. It will be quite a task for Netanyahu with his right wing coalition to build that kind of relationship with Obama.
Likud has begun its official negotiations with its expected coalition partners. While everyone believes the negotiations will come to a successful conclusion, they will not go smoothly. The negotiations between Likud and Lieberman’s party Yisrael Beteinu will be particularly difficult. They are still demanding changes relating to cvil-religious matters, something that Netanyahu cannot give them.
The two religious parties are relatively easy to deal with. They both want money and of course Shas wants to control the Ministry of Religion =0 D and Housing, while Yehadut Ha'Torah wants once again to head the Finance committee of the Knesset. Tommy Lapid will be turning in his grave- all the small progress made in undermining the religious parties power is being lost. --
The 18th Knesset was sworn in today. This is the first Knesset in 50 years of which that Shimon Peres was not a member. Today, of course, he had the opportunity to speak at the opening session. Peres told the assembled members that this needs to be the Knesset that reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Political observors are now almost unanimous that the chances of a unity government are close to zero. While Netanyahu is making some effort to make an end run around Livni, that is not likely to be successful. A number of senior members of Kadima have made it clear in the last two days that although they may or might not agree with Livni, she is the one for whom voters cast their votes and therefore, her voice needs to be followed.
Two things have become abundantly clear in the last 24 hours. The next government of Israel will be a narrow right of center government, without the participation of either Kadima or Labor. That new government will have to deal with the ceasefire with Hamas and negotiations with Hamas over Gilad Shalit.
After the meeting between MK Netanyahu and Minister of Foreign Affairs Livni last night, it is obvious that the chance of any agreement between Likud and Kadima are between slim and none. Today Netanyahu met with Minister of Defense Barak. Barak would probably be happy to join a Netanyahu government, but his party (Labor) will not allow that. There is no way Livni can say that Kadima will stay out of the coalition because Netanyahu would not commit to a two state solution and then Labor would join that very same coalition.
In the meantime Prime Minister Olmert in his sunset days has fired Amos Gilad, the negotiator responsible for negotiations with Egypt. Olmert fired Gilad for criticizing him in a newspaper article. Gilad has a close relationship with the Egyptians and most observers believe that this dooms any chance of reaching an agreement before a new government is formed.
There was bombing in Cairo tonight. At least one tourist was killed and over 20 people were wounded. Egypt is blaming Iran. Tensions have been rising between Iran and Egypt for a while now, and they were intensified by events surrounding Israel's war with Hamas. Egypt recently held large-scale military exercises in the Western part of the Sinai Peninsula. While some so this as a veiled threat towards Israel, other observers believe it was more directed as a response to the recent public displays of Iranian military power- the Sunni response.
Another situation that has received very little publicity has been the growing tensions between Iran and Bahrain. Iran is claiming that Bahrain was always part of Iran, separated out by the British. They claim that it should return to Iran. This is eerily familiar to what happened between Iraq and Kuwait. Bahrain is 60% Shiite but the Sunnis and those tied to Saudi Arabia control most of the economy. Egyptian President Mubarak recently visited Bahrain, and Bahrain made it clear that they want no part of being a part of Shiite Iranian country.
Netanyahu and Livni met for the first time tonight to discuss the possibility of a unity government. Before the meeting Livni met with the Kadima Knesset faction. She received full support for her position that the key issue is not what cabinet positions each party get but more importantly, there needs to be an agreement on the goals of the government. If an agreement on those items is not reached, it is better to be in the opposition.
At the meeting Livni demanded that any government that was formed needed to be based on the concept of a two state solution. Netanyahu said there were many things that they agreed on, the need to fight Hezbollah, to fight Hamas, to deal with the economic crisis and they need not agree on everything in order to form a government. Livni, for her part after the meeting, stated that no progress had been made. She agreed to meet again but did not think it was possible to overcome their differences. She seems content to become the leader of the opposition.
Today President Peres officially gave MK Netanyahu the responsibility of forming a new government. Netanyahu has 45 days to put together the government. He can ask for an extension of another two weeks. Netanyahu had stated in the past that he would first turn to his 'natural coalition partners' (from the right) to form a new government. Instead he announced that he would meet first with Livni and then with Barak in an attempt to form a new unity government. That is not likely to happen since Livni has made it clear that she prefers to remain in the opposition, and most of her party seems to support that idea. While there is always a chance that Netanyahu is now willing to double cross his right wing supporters and enter into a real coalition with Livni and Barak without the right and religious, but it is quite unlikely…..
There was a difficult piece on Channel 10's weekend magazine show. The piece examined the cost of Hamas' demands for the release of Shalit. The segment revisited the sites that the terrorists that Hamas wants released destroyed. They want to release the planners of Sbarro attack, the Hebrew University cafeteria, the Moment Café and many others. The magazine interviewed fathers of young terror victims. One made fun of the term "at any price" by asking if Hamas said bring 10 Israelis to the fence and then kill them and then they would release Shalit, would anyone listen.
Leaving aside the natural emotional feelings of parents of victims, all independent analysis state that agreeing to anything close to what Hamas is demanding will permanently solidify Hamas' rule in Gaza and probably lead to their eventual control of the West Bank. Israelis are not having a real discussion about what this deal means and are deciding emotionally, in the same way an academic political analysis said most of them voted in the election, not based on any understanding of the positions of the parties or their views, but emotionally.
Israeli President Peres met with delegations from Kadima and Likud today. Kadima stressed that historically the President has always empowered the largest party to try to form a coalition, and this time should not be any different. The Likud argued that Minister of Foreign Relations and Prime Minister hopeful Livni cannot form a coalition, thus Prime Minister MK Netanyahu should be given the right to try to put together a coalition. Tomorrow and Friday Peres will meet with the rest of the representative from the other parties. Netanyahu will receive recommendations from parties representing 50 (out of 120) seats, while it is not clear that Livni will receive any more than the recommendation of her own party, which has 28 seats.
The big question that remains is MK Avigdor Lieberman. Yesterday Likud responded to the demands of Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu party. The response was not well received by the party. It is hard to believe that Lieberman’s demands on issues of state and religion can be bridged with Shas' positions on those same issues.
The cabinet met today and officially decided that there would not be a deal with Hamas before Gilad Shalit is released. There was not, however, discussion on the cost that Israel is willing to pay for his release. Without that discussion there is no way to further the deal. There is some feeling that Prime Minister Olmert may have decided not to pay=2 0the price for the deal. At the moment Egypt is willing to give Israel some more time, but it is not clear what will happen in a few days. I am not sure what one really can expect - a Prime Minister, who resigned months and months ago, a government that has more or less been voted out of office, but may still be in office for weeks if not longer while a new government is formed, and that new government will have at least some of the members of the old government. Israel was militarily prepared for the war with Hamas but the country is not politically prepared for the next steps, whatever they are.
The leading news from Israel is economic. There were 20,000 people who lost their jobs in Israel in January. 12,000 of them found new jobs. The ratio is not very different from the numbers in the US. Of course in Israel there is a unique response: the workers in the unemployment offices are going on strike tomorrow since they have too many people to deal with. On the positive side, Teva, Israel's largest company reported increasing sales with a record profit last year of $2.3 billion.
The talks of Gilad Shalit 's quick release seem to have been slowed down. Tomorrow the Israeli cabinet is going to meet to approve the concept of agreeing to more or less of Hamas' demands in return for Shalit's release. The cabinet will not discuss the actual list of terrorists to be released. That will come later. Clearly, if this is going to happen it will take time. All this is taking place in the middle of coalition negotiations. Egypt has given Israel a one week extension to give its final approval.
Today the Israeli army publicly unveiled two of the weapons that were used for the first time in the Second Lebanon War. The large one is the Namir APC (armored personnel carrier). It is built on the chassis of the Merchava tank and thus can give the soldiers close to the same protection as the tank. The Namir's advanced machine gun is fired by remote so as not to endanger the soldiers, and gives a 360 degree real-time view of the area with advanced cameras. The smaller weapon is called I-ball. It is a ball that is slightly smaller than a bowling ball and has built in cameras. It is thrown or rolled into a building, giving the operators in the field views into the buildings that it is thrown into. These new additions are quite advanced and impressive.
Coalition negotiations continue, despite the fact the key figure in the negotiations, (Avigdor Lieberman), is vacationing in Minsk. Likud leaders have been going around all day saying they will be able to form a coalition without difficulty and that Kadima should stop talking about various combinations, and giving spin. The only problem with that claim is that the Likud is making no progress at resolving the differences between Israel Beitenu and Shas. Israel Betinu wants civil marriage for the estimated 300,000 adults in Israel who cannot meet the requirements for a religious marriage. Some of these couples are from mixed marriage, some are divorcees, others are halachic "mamzerim". Shas will hear none of this and will not compromise. It is willing to think of finding solutions for non Jews, but the Ashkenazi Rabbis are not willing to even consider that possibility. Lieberman's second demand, on which he also claims he is not willing to compromise is simplifying the conversion process. Leiberman wants to eliminate the power of the chief rabbinate in the process and instead allow local Rabbis to conduct conversions.
To complicate matters further, Lieberman's party announced that Kadima has accepted all its demands. President Peres has announced he will begin coalition consultations on Wednesday-- the day Lieberman returns from Minsk.
The Israeli government made clear today that it will neither enter a ceasefire agreement with Hamas nor open the border crossings unless a deal is reached to release Gilad Shalit. An agreement seems to be close on that, or more correctly, Israel is ready to agree to almost Hamas’ entire original list of 1,000 terrorists. The easy part of the list is Maroun Barghouti, the leader of the military wing of Fatah who has been in jail for six years. His release will strengthen Fatah and that is a good thing. The only unfortunate part is that I always thought a deal could be reached to release him in return for the American release of Jonathan Pollard, but I guess no one seems to care about Pollard, who has now been in jail for 8487 days.
The decision to tie the agreement on opening the crossings with a deal on Shalit, is a bad idea. If Hamas would significantly modify their demands that would one thing, but Hamas has not changed its demands in any way, thus Israel is about to agree to Hamas' original terms. The result will be an infinite strengthening of Hamas. He is not my son, so I have no right to say what should be done, but this is a very bad thing for Israel. Coalition discussions continue with the situation seemingly ever more confusing. Each of the major participants has climbed a tree. MK Netanyahu did this by saying he will easily form a right wing coalition and MK Lieberman by publishing his demands for civil marriage and an expedited conversion process, something the religious parties will never accept. Today, Minister of Foreign Relations Tzpi Livni, with the backing of the Kadima, stated that Kadima would not enter into a right-wing coalition headed by Netanyahu. It would choose to go into the opposition. Of course Netanyahu has been saying that Kadima can join his coalition once he has the rest of it in place.
Expectations are that Peres is going to try to strong arm Netanyahu and Livni to enter into a smaller centrist coalition. Some are talking about a rotation between Livni and Netanyahu. Either way this will take some time.