New government in Israel ready to clear dozens of settlements

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The Independent Online

Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister-designate, has pieced together the skeleton of a coalition that will assure him a majority for evacuating dozens of outlying West Bank settlements, but looks as if it will deny him the stability he hoped for.

His centrist Kadima party closed a deal with Labour, the second-biggest party, and reached agreement in principle with the Sephardi religious Shas. Amir Peretz, the Labour leader, will serve as defence minister. Yuli Tamir, an Oxford-educated philosophy professor, will get the party's second senior position as education minister. Kadima's Tzipi Livni will remain as Foreign Minister and Mr Olmert's deputy. Labour will have seven ministers to Kadima's 11.

The Pensioners' Party, which won a surprising seven seats in the March general election, was already on board. The Pensioners are considering a merger with Kadima. Between them, the four parties control 67 of the 120 Knesset seats.

Talks were continuing with the predominantly Russian immigrant Yisrael Beitenu (11 MPs) and the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (six), which would have raised Mr Olmert's coalition to 84 seats. But the odds were tipping against Yisrael Beitenu.

The law officers barred Avigdor Lieberman, its hard-right leader, from the ministry he wanted most - internal security - because he is still being investigated for alleged financial offences a decade ago. Mr Lieberman also resisted endorsing Mr Olmert's "convergence" plan to concentrate thousands of settlers into blocks nearer the pre-1967 Green Line and redraw Israel's eastern border.

He threatened instead to lead a united right-wing opposition with the rump Likud and the pro-settler National Religious Party.

Lior Horev, an adviser to Mr Olmert, admitted it would be much more difficult for Kadima to complete a full four-year term with a smaller coalition.

"The whole idea of building an 84-seat coalition was to allow Olmert to keep his majority, even if one party decides to pull out. Right now, without Torah Judaism and Lieberman, if either Labour or Shas pulls out, he loses his majority."

Shas, which has no real stomach for what its rabbis see as unilateral concessions to the Palestinians, has a history of defecting on the verge of decisions that would be unpopular with its conservative constituency.

It is going in with Mr Olmert because it wants more public funding for its social and educational institutions. After those have materialised, its record suggests it would not hesitate to quit. Mr Horev was confident the new government would be able to carry the legislation necessary for convergence within 18 months. He said: "The implementation will take time because we shall need to build alternative housing and we shall need to reach an agreement with the Americans about where to build. That may now take till the end of Olmert's term."

As a civilian among generals, Mr Peretz will have one of the most daunting tasks. He will have to develop an independent strategic grasp as well as the self-assurance to outstare the military brass over budgets and priorities.

He is already hinting at a tough line with radical West Bank settlers, who have often been coddled by the army, which sees its main role as fighting Palestinian terrorism. Labour wants the army to move swiftly and decisively to evict settlers from up to 100 "unauthorised" outposts that were built with a nod and a wink from pervious administrations.

New power players


Ariel Sharon's right-hand man was thrust centre-stage when the former general suffered a massive stroke in January. Since then he has led the centrist Kadima Party to victory, supporting the former leader's plans to withdraw Israeli settlers from the Gaza strip and parts of the West Bank.


One of the original founders of the Peace Now movement, Tamir, who is an Oxford University graduate and has two children, has been one of Amir Peretz's most loyal supporters, in both the November race for Labour Party leadership and during the general election campaign in March.


The interim foreign minister, set to be confirmed in the role, has trimmed her ideological, nationalistic values in recent years to play a key role in seeing through the legislation that made disengagement from Gaza possible. Olmert's second in command is perceived by the public as one of the more honest players. on the political landscape.

Defence chief criticised as 'security amateur'

Amir Peretz, a former mayor and ex-union leader who never rose higher than captain in a non-combat unit, looks set to be Israel's Defence Minister.

It is not the job that the 54-year-old Labour Party leader sought in March when he fought the election. And questions are being asked about the wisdom of entrusting a civilian with the mantle of the former generals Moshe Dayan, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barakwhen Israel is challenged by a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and an Iran rattling sabres. Critics also point out that Ehud Olmert, the prime minister designate, did his national service as a reporter on the army newspaper.

Aryeh Eldad, a right-wing MP and retired brigadier general, said Israelcould be entering a "very dangerous period" under these two security amateurs. "The political level does not have the tools." But Moshe Arens, an aeronautical engineer who served as Defence Minister in the Eighties and Nineties, said: "A civilian... has no prior obligations, no prior dislikes, for people he's served with."