Unlikely Bedfellows

As the deadline draws ever closer for Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak to present his government for Knesset approval, his coalition negotiations are taking some surprising turns.

In the latest twist, Barak has resumed talks with a potential partner that, for several weeks now, has appeared destined to be left out in the political cold — the Likud Party. Barak held a series of private discussions this week with Likud’s acting chairman, outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, who was Barak’s army mentor years ago.

The talks with Sharon came after Barak — who has until July 8 to present his government to the Knesset — encountered trouble wooing the fervently Orthodox Shas Party into the government he is forming.

Sharon sounded a determinedly hopeful note Tuesday, telling reporters that he believed there could be “real partnership” in policy-making between Barak and himself.

But other Likud figures were more circumspect, and outside observers cautioned against any premature conclusion that a deal was in the offing.

Officials with the leftist Meretz Party, previously signaling that they were ready to sign a coalition agreement with Barak, are now pulling back, not wishing to be a “fifth wheel” — as party leader Yossi Sarid put it — in a Barak government that includes Sharon.

The other four wheels would “all be pulling in different directions,” Sarid said sourly.

What was Barak’s sudden sea change all about? Why, after close to a month of silence between them, are Barak’s One Israel bloc and the Likud talking again? It had seemed, after all, that both sides were reconciled to the imminent formation of a Barak-led government without Likud.

If Barak were more of a wheeler-dealer, and less of a straight-shooting military type, the answer would be self-apparent. He was bringing Likud back into the loop, one would naturally assume, in order to bring pressure to bear on his other, likelier coalition partners — chief among them Shas. But this is unlikely. During the past several weeks of slow, frustrating and largely empty negotiations, even Barak’s critics have had to admit that he is not a run-of-the-mill, jaded political operator, not one to make high-profile overtures just for the psychological or tactical impact they may have on a third party.

If Barak is talking with Sharon, say those who know him, he means what he says. He intends to make Likud a serious offer, they say, whether or not he eventually can bring Shas around and create around the One Israel-Shas-Meretz axis a numerically impressive coalition that would include some 77 of the Knesset’s 120 legislators.

Why, specifically, is Barak wooing Sharon? Barak’s pledge after the May 17 election to be “everyone’s prime minister” still resounds, at least in his own ears. He genuinely wants the broadest-based government possible, believing that, given the dimensions of his own victory in the race for prime minister, his voice in all matters of high policy will not effectively be challenged.

And on the issues of peace policy, Barak believes that a broad-based government will make the best deals with Syria and the Palestinians and will carry any agreements easily through the national referendums he has promised to hold before each of those treaties is ratified.

But what of Sharon? What does he hope to gain? In Sarid’s mind, at any rate, Sharon’s intentions can only spell mischief.

For One Israel peaceniks, too, Sharon’s participation in the government spells ongoing attempts to undermine, derail or at least slow the peace process.

But there may be another reading, and, if the One Israel-Likud talks move forward positively, Barak will be trying to persuade his key supporters that it is tenable — despite Sharon’s long record as a hard-liner and an opponent of the Oslo peace process.

Sharon, by this theory, has come to terms with Barak’s victory. The course of the coalition negotiations, though slow and stuttering, is leading inexorably to the creation of a government committed to bringing Oslo to full fruition and to signing a land-for-peace deal with the Syrians that would include an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Barak’s red-carpet reception earlier this month for Syrian President Hafez Assad’s biographer, British journalist Patrick Seale, was a transparent signal — and intended as such — that the new government is ready to resume serious negotiations with Damascus.

All this being the case, Sharon’s position now is that it is better for Likud to be in the government — where it can affect policy-making as much as it can — rather than watch, impotent and frustrated, from the sidelines.

The third alternative — toppling Barak — simply does not exist and will not be available during the next crucial year or two.

Cynics within and outside Likud will link this pragmatic attitude on the part of Sharon to his candidacy in the Likud leadership primaries, due to be held in the fall. As a senior minister in the new government, Sharon would undoubtedly have the advantage over his main rival, Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

This is especially the case in view of Olmert’s central campaign theme: that he is the party’s moderate candidate for the future, while Sharon is the unreconstructed hard-liner.

But such internal party considerations aside, Sharon may well want to make a contribution during the process of shaping the final borders of the state.

At 71, and with a long trail of controversy behind him, Sharon, similar to Moshe Dayan a generation ago, may want to end his career as a peacemaker. A seat in the Barak Cabinet, he may feel, is the only practical way to achieve that.

Meanwhile, the talks between Barak’s One Israel negotiators and Shas seemed to hit a major snag Monday evening, when Shas officials dug their in heels over a demand that their party retain the Interior Ministry — a stance opposed with equal firmness by One Israel.

Some Shas insiders are charging that Aryeh Deri, forced to resign last week as Shas’ political leader, is still active behind the scenes, jacking up the party’s negotiating demands in order to foil an evolving coalition agreement with One Israel.

Dealing With the ‘Enemy’

If Barak is to succeed, he needs to choose between two unlikely allies, Shas or Likud

By Eric Silver, Mideast Correspondent

Aryeh Deri, the corrupt but charismatic head of Shas, blinked first. On Tuesday, one month after Ehud Barak’s landslide victory, Deri resigned all leadership positions in the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party — opening the way for Barak to form the broad, peacemaking coalition that has been his aim from the start.

Labor’s prime minister-elect had insisted that Shas, Israel’s third-largest party, with 17 Knesset seats, could come on board only if Deri, sentenced to four years in prison for bribe-taking, stepped down. Shas’ inclusion would make it easier for two other religious groups, the National Religious Party and United Torah Judaism, to come on board.

This would give Barak a shield against right-wing smears that suggest he does not have a “Jewish majority” for concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians. But the new prime minister is still stuck with squaring the circle. Israelis, who worry about a vacuum of power, will have to live with the lame-duck Netanyahu regime awhile longer.

Barak was elected by a liberal, largely secular, majority that believed him when he promised a “change” in the way Israel is governed, a chance for peace and a break with the extortion of the religious parties.

He knows he will pay a heavy price next time round if he disappoints his constituency. Yet he has said repeatedly that he wants to be “everybody’s prime minister.” He wants to bring the boys home from Lebanon; he wants to complete the circle of peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.

If he is to succeed without enduring the barrage of Jewish incitement that culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, he needs partners from the “enemy camp.” They, for their part, want in. They have become accustomed to the spoils of office. The question is how much they will get in return.

Israel’s two-tier electoral system, which left Labor with only 26 seats and Likud with a demoralizing 19, means that the religious parties still have leverage. Barak, a celebrated puzzle addict, will have to give them just enough — without betraying his own voters. In particular, he has to convince the left-liberal Meretz, his most loyal ally, that he remains committed to a rational, outward-looking, pluralistic society.

The Meretz leader, Yossi Sarid, was adamant that they would not serve alongside Shas, but under pressure from Barak and President Ezer Weizman, he softened his stand. Meretz would bite the Shas bullet, once Deri resigned and demonstrated over an unspecified probationary period that he was no longer pulling the strings.

Deri finally went because Shas’ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, recognized that Barak was not Bibi Netanyahu. The Labor champion had his own imperatives, and the patience to sit it out, if necessary to the end of the 45 days allowed by law to present his government.

Rabbi Yosef, conservative on social issues but flexible on peace, may also have been swayed by the stench of scandal still swirling around his protégé. The police this week launched an inquiry into a missing $9 million donation to Jerusalem’s Itri yeshiva, whose American-born head, Rabbi Mordechai Elifant, submitted an affidavit that alleged the money had been stolen. Deri offered his services as a mediator, if Rabbi Elifant withdrew the complaint.

According to Israeli media reports, it is suspected that the donation was really an illegal contribution, either to Shas’ election campaign or to pay Deri’s lawyers’ bills. Police are checking whether it was being laundered without Elifant’s knowledge by the yeshiva’s chief fund-raiser, Rabbi Haim Weiss, who just happens to be Deri’s next-door neighbor.

To add to Deri’s woes, New York City’s police chief, Howard Safir, announced during a visit to Israel this week that he was reopening an investigation into a 1991 road accident which killed a key prosecution witness in the Deri corruption case.

The victim was Esther Werderber, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, who with her late husband had unofficially adopted Deri’s orphaned wife, Yaffa, and given her a dowry. The Deris claimed that the purchase money for their luxurious Jerusalem penthouse came from Mrs. Werderber. The New York widow denied any such gift. The Jerusalem district court concluded that the $155,000 was stolen from the Israeli taxpayer.

Before she could testify, Mrs. Werderber was hit while crossing the road. The driver was an ex-Israeli, who, according to Israeli police investigators, worked out of a New York garage owned by Moshe Reich, a friend of Deri’s. Chief Safir said this week that he could not rule out murder. With potential allies like this, it may not seem surprising that Barak has begun to negotiate again with Arik Sharon and the Likud Party.