Uncertainty continues to loom over a post-Olmert government while settler violence against West Bank Palestinians reaches a new peak, reports Khaled Amayreh
Israeli President Shimon Peres gave Prime Minister- designate Tzipi Livni two more weeks Monday to form a coalition government amid signs that early general elections in Israel may be in the offing.
Livni has been holding intensive talks with prospective coalition partners for the past four weeks. The talks have so far yielded a "partnership agreement" with the Labour Party, headed by Defence Minister Ehud Barak.
Livni has also been in contact with the Meretz faction in an effort to include the small centre-left party into her prospective coalition government, which observers view as a relatively easy task.
However, if by 3 November Livni doesn't succeed in forming a government, elections will be held within 90 days.
Aides to Livni voiced optimism that a coalition government would be ready and get Knesset approval before 3 November, the new deadline.
"We are not done yet because there are still large gaps and there have been many holidays and Sabbaths that have prevented the talks from progressing and gaining momentum. But I don't think we will need two weeks," said Yisrael Maimon, a Livni aide.
The main challenge facing Livni continues to be the task of wooing two fundamentalist Jewish religious parties to join the government, mainly in order to secure a parliamentary majority in the Knesset, supporting the government.
The two parties are the Haredi (meaning pious) Shas Party, that generally represents Middle Eastern Jews, and the United Torah Judaism Party, formerly known as Agudat Yisrael, which represents non-Zionist western religious Ashkenazi Jews.
Interestingly, Shas initially voiced reservations about the prime minister-designate being a woman, suggesting that it would be somewhat embarrassing for the religious male ministers of Shas to sit down and meet alone with a woman, which is presumably incompatible with Orthodox Jewish religious law.
Then there are the real problems, namely the uncompromising demands of Shas that the government allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in social welfare to poor families with multiple children. Most of these families are concentrated in both the Haredi and Arab sectors, and many secular Israelis, on the right and left of the political map, are vehemently opposed to "squandering" taxpayers' money on those who generally don't serve in the Israeli army.
Serving in the army, the ultimate holy cow in Israel, is the main barometer for obtaining rights and privileges in Israeli society.
Haredi communities (the non-Zionist religious Jewish sector) have been hard-pressed economically and financially as a result of "financial reforms" introduced by former finance minister under Ariel Sharon, Benyamin Netanyahu, which seriously limited child allowances.
Shas is also demanding that as long as the coalition government remains intact, no negotiations over Jerusalem can be conducted with the Palestinian Authority. This condition, however, is seen by many observers as "non- essential".
According to most observers, Livni is likely to reach a compromise with Shas and probably with the United Torah Judaism Party in a few days.
However, reaching an agreement with these two parties is one thing and maintaining a strong government is another. With two religious parties forming the first line of defence against no-confidence votes in the Knesset, the heterogeneous Livni government wouldn't be able to pursue meaningful peace talks with the Palestinians, presuming that the government had the will and the desire to do so.
This situation might eventually force Livni to spend a lot of time and energy trying to appease her inharmonious coalition partners and convince them to stay in the government. The other alternative is the dissolution of the government and the organisation of early general elections, which most opinion polls indicate would be won by right-wing parties and by a large margin.
Meanwhile, one of the main challenges facing the Livni government will be the growing lawlessness and terror of organised Jewish fundamentalist groups, otherwise known as settlers. During the past few weeks, settlers in the hundreds have been assaulting Palestinian olive pickers all over the West Bank.
These assaults and provocations normally take the form of paramilitary Jewish settlers descending from their nearby hilltop colonies onto Palestinian olive pickers, beating them with sticks, shooting at them and cutting off or burning down their groves.
Palestinians, human rights observers and international solidarity activists operating in the occupied territories are speaking of a "phenomenal increase" in both the number and boldness of settler terror and vandalism against Palestinians. So far, dozens of Palestinians have been injured, some seriously, by settler thugs going on the rampage.
In Hebron, settler terrorists assaulted Palestinian olive pickers, international peace activists and journalists, 18 October. And in the northern West Bank, settlers burned down hundreds of grown olive trees.
The ultimate settler goal is to force the Palestinians into exile, by way of organised terror, in order to enable Jews to establish a Jewish religious kingdom that would be ruled by Jewish religious law, or Halacha.
On 19 October, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas described settler terror against Palestinian olive pickers as "unbearable", accusing the Israeli army of colluding with settler terrorists against helpless Palestinian farmers.
"All lines have been crossed in the olive groves this season. I have contacted the Israeli government and the international community in an effort to stop these criminal acts. I can't understand how Israel can speak of peace while allowing these thugs to attack and terrorise our people."
The phenomenal rise in organised Jewish terror against virtually helpless Palestinian farmers is not exactly unplanned. According to Israeli sources quoted by The Economist, 16 October, the settler terrorists are following a policy called "Price Tag", whereby the settlers retaliate violently against the Palestinians whenever the Israeli army tries to dismantle outposts -- even individual caravans or huts -- that have not been authorised by the Israeli government.
The rampaging terror may not necessarily take place in the same place. "They may hit Palestinians somewhere else. They stone cars, smash windows, burn olive trees and fields. They will attack shepherds, and tangle with the army and police. Their aim is to persuade Israelis that no further forcible dismantlement of Jewish settlements is possible... Now, passive resistance is bolstered by physical retaliation."
Will the Livni-Barak government be able to face down settler terror? This is the question most observers are asking. But is it hard to answer? From past experience, neither Livni nor Barak will risk their political future by putting up a real resistance to settler thugs.
One Palestinian observer remarked in this regard, "A snake wouldn't bite its own tail."