Israeli cabinet to declare Sharon “incapacitated”; Olmert to form government

April 04, 2006

* Olmert: “Thirty five years of Aliza working on me are at last starting to bear fruit”
* Only one in eight Israelis queried said they would want Olmert as a dinner guest
* Israel to build a cable car around the edge of Jerusalem’s Old City



1. Final Israeli election results
2. Cabinet to declare Sharon “incapacitated”
3. Katsav set to ask Olmert to form a government
4. Please run the country, but don’t come round for dinner
5. Bush, Rice to back Olmert
6. Heads of Israel’s right and left in fight for political survival
7. Respect one’s elders
8. Diaspora Jews choose Likud in mock elections
9. Suicide attack – bomber dressed as religious Jew
10. The victims – horrifically burned
11. Palestinians now firing Katyushas at Israeli civilians
12. Jerusalem cable car will avoid Muslim area
13. UN: Gaza pullout did not damage environment
14. “Apathy & Inconclusiveness” (By Emanuele Ottolenghi, NRO, March 29, 2006)

[Note by Tom Gross]


Several international newspapers continue to provide incorrect results for last week’s Israeli elections. The centrist Kadima party won 29 seats (not 28 as widely stated). Labor has 19 seats (not 20). (One of the Labor party’s Knesset seats was awarded to the United Arab List after the Israeli Central Elections Committee accepted an appeal from the UAL.)

Likud has 12 seats, putting it in joint third position with Shas (which also has 12 seats) and is not in fifth place, as several newspaper commentators continue to assert.

Israel Beitenu has 11 seats, NU/NRP 9 seats, the Pensioners 7 seats, United Torah Judaism 6 seats, Meretz 5 seats, the United Arab List 4 seats, Balad (an Arab party) 3 seats, and Hadash (the Arab-Jewish communist party) 3 seats.

Most commentators are referring to Israel Beitenu as “far right” but it could be argued that they are “far left” since they wish to cede territorial parts of sovereign Israel in order to make a Palestinian state bigger.

Other western analysts have said that the Labor Party made a strong recovery. In fact, they also only scored 19 seats at the last election, their poorest showing ever.


The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot reports that the Israeli cabinet will next week declare Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “permanently incapacitated”.

Israel’s attorney general declared Sharon temporarily incapacitated after the prime minister suffered a severe stroke on January 4. At the time, Ehud Olmert, the vice premier, was declared acting prime minister.

The cabinet vote next Sunday – which will go into effect April 14 – will mean Olmert will officially be given the title of prime minister until such time that the new government is formed.

Doctors at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem this morning announced that Ariel Sharon’s surgery, scheduled for today, will be postponed because of a respiratory infection. The surgery was to restore a part of Sharon’s skull that was removed in previous operations after his debilitating stroke.


Olmert, who hopes to set a border unilaterally with the Palestinians by 2010, announced in the last hour that his Kadima party will officially open talks with Labor to form a coalition. Olmert added in a joint news conference that Labor would be a “senior partner”.

Israeli President Moshe Katsav is expected to formally designate Olmert as the new prime minister tomorrow. Once named by Katsav, Olmert has 42 days to form a government.

In a desperate bid to keep the Labor leader out of the finance ministry, Olmert is expected to offer Peretz the defense ministry. If appointed finance minister, Peretz, a former trade unionist, is expected to severely set back Israel’s economic recovery begun during the period in which Benjamin Netanyahu served as finance minister.


Olmert’s views on security have steadily shifted leftwards over the last two years. Olmert’s wife Aliza has long held left-wing views. His daughter Dana is a member of “Machsom Watch,” a group that monitors the treatment of Palestinians at Israeli army checkpoints. His son, Shaul, lives in New York, where he works as an online games designer. A decade ago, when he was a sergeant in the army, Shaul signed a petition refusing to serve in the West Bank.

Recently Olmert joked: “Thirty five years of Aliza working on me are at last starting to bear fruit.”

Olmert, 58, has yet to win the affection of most Israelis. In a poll last week, only one in eight Israelis queried said they would want him as a guest at their dinner partner.

The acting prime minister is a career politician, a relatively rare phenomenon in a country that during its 58-year history has been principally governed by a succession of founding fathers and ex-generals.


U.S. President George W. Bush has indicated he will invite Olmert for talks as soon as he forms the next Israeli government. The two men have spoken by phone in recent days. In remarks last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice left open the possibility that Washington could support unilateral steps by Israel to impose final borders with the Palestinians.

Rice added it was hard to imagine negotiations with Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings in Israel, unless it recognized the Jewish state’s right to exist, renounced violence and accepted previous agreements between both sides. Washington has cut off all contact with Hamas, but Rice stressed the U.S. would stay in touch with President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah Party lost to Hamas in the Palestinian elections in January.


Benjamin Netanyahu and Yossi Beilin usually have little in common. But now both men – the leaders of the right-wing Likud party and far left Meretz party respectively – are under pressure from inside their parties to step aside. Both have been accused by their parties’ membership of disastrous showings in last week’s election.

Limor Livnat, Danny Naveh and Silvan Shalom are among those seeking to depose Netanyahu in the Likud. Shalom did not turn up at Likud headquarters on election night and has not spoken to Netanyahu since.

Outgoing Likud MK Uzi Landau blamed the media for the drop in his party’s fortunes. He specifically mentioned Channel 2 and Yediot Ahronot for what he said was their incessant, biased coverage against the Likud and their character assassination of Benjamin Netanyahu.


The party platform of the Pensioners’ party, which to everyone’s surprise won seven Knesset seats, deals entirely with advancing the rights of the elderly, including ensuring pensions for all and medications for old people.

However, on foreign policy the Pensioners are farther right than Labor. Pensioners’ party leader Rafi Eitan, 79, is a former senior Mossad operative. He long ago earned a place in Israel’s history books as one of the team that snatched Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 and smuggled him back to stand trial in Jerusalem. (For more, see “Better than James Bond” (The death of Peter Malkin).)

In the 1980s, Eitan was the controller of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina jail.

After retiring from the Mossad, Eitan made a fortune trading with Cuban farmers, buying medical equipment from Japan, and importing dolphins to Eilat. Eitan also became the personal guarantor for bank loans to fund the Pensioners’ party’s campaign.

With the departure of Ariel Sharon, Eitan becomes the last Israeli War of Independence Palmach veteran in the Knesset.


In a marked contrast to the actual elections, Likud won mock elections held among Jews abroad on the same day as the real Israeli elections. Likud garnered 44 seats; Kadima 33; the National Union-National Religious Party 15 seats, and Labor 14.

Some 8,500 Jews abroad, primarily young people and students, voted in the mock elections organized by the Jewish Agency at community centers and on college campuses in 85 different countries.


The suicide attack in Kedumim that followed the elections in which four Israelis were horrifically murdered – burned alive – was unreported in many western media.

The bomber, who had dressed as a religious Jew, was a member of Fatah’s al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades. Fatah is headed by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, so often described as a “moderate.” The dead included an elderly couple, who had stopped to offer a ride to the terrorist, a girl from Herzliya, and a 16-year-old boy.

The al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, which claimed responsibility for the blast, was set up by Yasser Arafat and its initial funding came from diverted European Union aid money given to Arafat.

Analysts say the attack was timed to coincide with the formation of the Hamas government last week. For the time being, Hamas is refraining from attacks on Israelis, while encouraging Fatah and Islamic Jihad to carry them out instead. Hamas defended the murder as “resistance” against Israeli “crimes”. Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya said in a column published on Friday in the anti-Israeli British newspaper the Guardian that “we have every right to [use] all available means.”


It took some time for Israeli forensic experts to identify the victims, so horrifically burned were their bodies. They are:

Helena Halevy, 58, who immigrated to Israel from Brazil 40 years ago, when she was 18, to volunteer at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak. There she met and fell in love with Rafi, a counselor. Helena’s best friend, Miriam Tartner, related: “She knew right away that she had met the love of her life.”

Her husband Rafi Halevy, 63, was murdered alongside her. They were both agricultural workers. They are survived by four children, and three grandchildren, Shaun, 4, Rona, 3 and Maya, 1.

Re’ut Feldman, the 20-year-old girl from Herzliya murdered in the blast, was a medic and a voluntary helper for mentally ill people.

Shaked Lasker, 16, was a 10th-grade student in high school. He is survived by his parents, Danny and Avigail, two brothers and a sister.

The highly efficient Israeli security services have prevented dozens of other terror attacks in the last two weeks. These include a terrorist who was apprehended at Tel Aviv’s central bus station minutes before he was due to carry out an attack, and a 18-year-old Palestinian suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt who was caught at the Beka’ot roadblock wearing a belt with 10kg of explosives.


Also virtually unreported in the international media is the constant barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory. This has become more serious since last week when for the first time Palestinians fired a 122-mm Katyusha rocket from Gaza into Israel. The nine-foot long Katyusha has a much longer range than the Qassam and unlike the Qassams, Katyushas carry a 45-pound warhead making them much more dangerous.

The PA, Egypt and the EU monitors on the Egypt-Gaza border are doing next to nothing to stop continued weapons smuggling, contrary to signed agreements.

Islamic Jihad murdered two Israelis (an adult and child) on the day of the election. They were Israeli Bedouin, and Islamic Jihad said they had hoped to kill Jews instead.


Israel has announced plans to erect a cable car around the edge of Jerusalem’s Old City to carry thousands of visitors to the Western Wall.

Under the plan, gondolas carrying as many as 70 people will travel from west Jerusalem around the Old City’s walls, past the site where Christians believe the Last Supper occurred on Mount Zion to a terminus near Dung Gate. While it would be open to passengers of all faiths, the cable car is intended primarily to ease access to the Western Wall for tens of thousands of Jewish worshippers.

Previously, some Jewish worshippers have been murdered while crossing the Old City’s Muslim quarter on their way to the Western Wall. There is also the question of too much traffic heading to the wall on major Jewish holidays.

“The traffic problem has become worse and worse,” said Shmuel Elgrably, the head of Jerusalem’s transport planning team. “So we had to come up with a radical solution because people were routinely waiting two or three hours just to reach the Western Wall plaza. Access is limited by the narrow approach roads, so we thought, ‘Why not move people through the air?’ Modern cable cars give impressive performance in terms of speed and number of passengers.”

Before construction can begin, the project will be scrutinized by a series of planning committees at local and national levels. The gondolas could become a target for Palestinian terrorists.


Israel’s withdrawal last summer from the Gaza Strip and its demolition of thousands of buildings in the evacuated settlements did not cause significant damage to Gaza’s environment, a UN report released Thursday said. “The scientific assessment report gives the Gaza pullout an environmental clean bill of health.” There are “no environmental constraints to Palestinian settlement in the area,” the report said.

The report, published by the United Nations Environment Program, said that in the future, the Palestinians will be able to use the evacuated land for housing and agriculture. “Any further Israeli pullouts from the West Bank now have an important ecological benchmark by which they can be judged,” Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s executive director, added in a statement.


I attach one piece on the elections, written by Emanuele Ottolenghi, who teaches Israel studies at Oxford University and is a longtime subscriber to this email list.

-- Tom Gross



Apathy & Inconclusiveness
Election Day in Israel
By Emanuele Ottolenghi
National Review Online
March 29, 2006

For Israel, this could have been a new dawn. Though not, admittedly, of the Age of Aquarius.

By 2006, voters had grown tired of the two visions that for decades vied for dominance in Israel, and the parties that embodied them. The Peace Now vision lay moribund, since the Intifada broke the Oslo illusion, and managed to survive only thanks to the often unwelcome and unwise interference of the international community. And the Greater Israel vision had become a pipe dream, in the face of the unbearable price of keeping millions of unwilling Palestinians under Israeli rule. Before long, Israelis understood, an international community with little patience for Jewish rights and little understanding for Jewish concerns would have forced Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines and face civil war or keep the post-1967 lines and become a Jewish minority in an Arab state set in its stead.

Today Israel could have woken up to a new political reality. Instead, it chose the old confused and checkered landscape of twelve parties, and no clear mandate. There are winners and losers of course. Israel Beteinu, with 12 projected seats, has humbled Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. And with a combined force of 32 seats, the nationalist camp and its vision of a Greater Israel is forever lost. Labour’s Amir Peretz claims to be a winner, and demands already the finance and the education ministries. But his only strength is Ehud Olmert’s weakness: After all, Labour won 19 seats last time around and 20 this time. It held its ground no doubt, unlike Likud, but with its Meretz ally down to four seats and the Arab parties beyond the pale of consensus, the Left’s victory would not cause envy even to Pyrrhus. Olmert controls 28 seats, a far cry from what the polls suggested and his supporters hoped. It will not be easy to form a government that can both last and make fateful, controversial decisions without sparring a coalition meltdown or sowing the seeds of civil war.

The real losers are the Israelis and judging by their apathy, they probably deserve it: By not voting, they brought it upon themselves. Like their fallen hero, Ariel Sharon, who is in a deep coma in a hospital, they sleepwalked through an election where they had a chance to shape their destiny but instead gave their new and untested leaders an inconclusive verdict.

Still, a clear message emerged from this vote. Israelis are ready to partition the land, though they cannot trust the Palestinian give-and-take.

History offers its ironies, and it is remarkable that on the day Israelis voted to seal their willingness to endorse the partition of the land, a Hamas government won an easy majority in the Palestinian parliament and renewed its militant vision. While Israelis are prepared to endorse a two-state solution, Palestinians, through their Hamas-led Palestinian entity, are ready for a final solution only.

The new dawn therefore was not about making peace with old enemies. It was about seeking an ideal point of equilibrium on the map that could help Israel redeploy to defensible boundaries ahead of the long war of attrition with the Arab world and the Palestinians, while ensuring that this new line would be met with national consensus, not with the kind of deep division and national trauma that the Oslo accords caused.

The Kadima Gamble

When Ariel Sharon established Kadima in November 2005, he knew that a tectonic shift had occurred in Israeli public opinion. Israelis were prepared to make “painful concessions” and were willing to trust his judgment on their nature and extent. But they could not be led to believe, after five years of Palestinian terror, that their enemies were prepared to recognize, once and for all, Israel’s legitimacy as a sovereign Jewish state. He toiled for three long years, trying to persuade his Likud party that a journey to the center was necessary if the party wished to survive. Its victory in 2003 after all had been thanks to Sharon and his newly invented image of a centrist statesman. His party thought otherwise: It felt that disengaging from the territories would only enhance terror’s capabilities and relinquishing historic Jewish rights in exchange for nothing would only reward violence and embolden its advocates. That’s why Sharon parted from Likud, though that is not why Likud lost the elections.

Sharon’s new political gamble, at 77, signaled a new season of Israeli politics and a chance for the public to turn the tables both on Likud and Labour, once and for all. With a charismatic leader at its helm – a farmer-warrior, a visionary and a man who embodied, for better or worse, the Zionist century of the Jewish people – Kadima could have been the new dawn, a new political chapter in Israel’s history, leading the country into the uncharted waters of the Islamist decade under the guidance of a seasoned leader, who could be both ruthless and prudent, and knew when was the right time for the former and not the latter.

But history, politics and biology rarely intersect. Ten minutes to midnight, Sharon walked out on history, and left a party whose very raison-d’etre was Sharon himself, without its greatest asset and the last gift the founding generation could offer to Israel – a vision and a hope where no vision was left and no hope had survived.

Now Kadima, a political project in its infancy, had to follow in the footsteps of Sharon without knowing what Sharon would do, with Hamas in power and the Iranian threat at Israel’s doorstep. Perhaps even Sharon himself did not know what demons he had awakened, what opportunities he had created, when he left Gaza to Hamas, and what steps he should next take. What we know now is that once Sharon left Kadima, the Israeli public lost its appetite for change.

Asked last week about what he considered a success for Kadima, Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert, said in an interview to the Israeli Internet daily, Y-net, that less than 36 seats would be ‘a disappointment’. On election night, he got barely 28.

Kadima was quick to claim victory, and Olmert was just as quick to visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. All the right messages were heard on election night: there is a left-of-center majority, Olmert has all the coalition options in the world; it is possible to form a stable and broad coalition with 70-80 Knesset members supporting it.

Katyusha’s Election-Day Message

But Olmert would do well to pause and think. Only 63.2 percent of Israel’s voters bothered to show up on a day when fateful decisions should have drawn the entire country to the ballot booth. Many who did bother to turn up, preferred the Pensioners’ list – winners of an astonishing 7 seats according to preliminary results – to Olmert and his talented team. At 28 seats, his party can hardly claim a blank check for its vision. And Israel’s coalitions have never been both broad and stable, unless their policy is no policy at all. In the last 20 years, only two leaders were gifted with the political power to change the map: One was Rabin, who in 1992 controlled 44 seats in the Knesset and could form a narrow leftist coalition and sign the Oslo accords. But with a narrow majority in parliament and a nation divided, he paid the ultimate price for pushing a vision that lacked Israel’s consensus and left the nation traumatized and ultimately exposed to its enemies’ vicious rage. The other one was Sharon, who in 2003, strong of his 40 Likud seats, could clubber the Palestinians on the headfirst and his former political allies on the right later. In between, there were two youthful prime ministers who controlled a number of seats similar to what Olmert has today, who formed broad coalitions, and whose ability to govern and deliver was quickly shipwrecked by the strict arithmetical logic of Israel’s fragmented political landscape.

Olmert wants to redraw Israel’s boundaries today. He will have to avoid the nightmarish scenario of a civil war that a narrow center-left coalition would no doubt usher in and will have to negotiate the consensus with the right. That, even in ideal conditions, would take longer than the time it took Rabin’s far more stable coalition to sign Oslo and it would cost infinitely more than the Disengagement did: this time, it would evict tens of thousands of settlers from their homes, and it is the heartland of Biblical Israel that they would be asked to abandon for an uncertain future.

But conditions are not ideal. While Israelis were busy voting (or not voting), a Katyusha rocket landed in southern Israel, killing two Beduin shepherds. No doubt, now commentators will bend over backward to say that it was not Hamas, but some “militant” group that “rejects” the “peace process.” Whoever pulled the trigger, Gaza today is closer to Tel Aviv than ever before. And the presence of much more efficient, elusive, and sophisticated weaponry in Gaza seven months only after the disengagement shows how frail and fragile the Kadima vision was, how unreliable the international community who should be monitoring the borders is, and how ineffectual (not to say worse) are the Egyptians in Sinai when it comes to weapons’ smuggling into Gaza. And that withdrawal does not a peace make.

With Israel now encircled by Iran’s proxies and Islamist fanatics, the last thing the country needed was an inconclusive result. It got just that. It will reap the whirlwinds of its apathy.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.