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Israeli minister estimates new opposition grouping in fall

In an interview with Al-Monitor, Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz foresees possible changes in the makeup of the government in October or November, and emphasizes the important role of Hatnua Chairwoman Tzipi Livni in preventing a premature collapse of the diplomatic negotiations.

“I estimate that by October-November all the central questions related to the possibility of forming a new opposition or a new coalition will have been clarified.”

This forecast was made by Minister of Environmental Protection Amir Peretz of the Hatnua Party in an interview with Al-Monitor, two days after the dramatic Knesset elections for the state presidency on June 10, which included effective cooperation between Hatnua and the Labor and Meretz parties.

This joining of forces almost resulted in the defeat of right-wing Knesset member Reuven Rivlin, and the election of Knesset member Meir Sheetrit of Hatnua. Still, it left those involved with a sense of wanting more — more of that cooperation that created an anomalous situation where opposition leader and Knesset member Isaac Herzog and Justice Minister and Hatnua Chairwoman Tzipi Livni worked shoulder to shoulder.

Meanwhile, Sheetrit is embroiled in a major scandal stemming from the revelation that in accordance with a secret agreement he paid his cleaning lady a large sum of money after she accused him of sexual harassment. The leaders of the Labor Party, which supported Sheetrit, felt embarrassed. But it appears that this has not damaged the feeling that the successful cooperation with Hatnua in the battle for the presidency, in which Peretz played a central role, holds potential for leading a common diplomatic agenda in the future. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already looking on with concern.

Al-Monitor: Why are you pointing to October-November as the time period for changes in the coalition?

Peretz: Because by then the diplomatic picture will have become totally clear. We will have sufficient data to know which way the Palestinians are headed. The UN conferences will be behind us, and we will know how much weight the international community intends to give the Palestinian issue.

That will also be the period of budget negotiations. In general, the diplomatic issue and the economic one have been a cause for discomfort, as far as I am concerned, for a long time now, because the government is basically composed of unnatural elements — that [centrist] Hatnua and Yesh Atid sit together with [far-right] HaBayit HaYehudi. In the meantime, the alliance between [Yesh Atid Chairman Yair] Lapid and [Habayit HaYehudi Chairman Naftali] Bennett is falling apart, and that’s good. But Yair Lapid’s decision to enter the diplomatic arena after sitting on the sidelines up to now is more important. It’s important because it means that two blocs have been created in the government regarding the diplomatic issue.

Al-Monitor: But there aren’t exactly any diplomatic issues. The negotiations are at a stalemate.

Peretz: As soon as the new Palestinian government was formed, I personally said we should not slam the door in its face and not declare at once that we do not intend to have any contact with them. I said we should be doing exactly the opposite, allowing [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas to prove what the union between Fatah and Hamas is worth. Is all of this simply intended to assuage Palestinian public opinion or to create a new order of things in Gaza and to set up a mechanism that objects to violence? Our behavior makes things easier for them. We come across as the recalcitrant party.

Al-Monitor: What do you think should be our next step?

Peretz: First of all, we have to find out whether Mahmoud Abbas wants to, and is able to, unite all of the Palestinian people in the direction of peace. If it appears otherwise, we will have to consider an alternative diplomatic blueprint. That means either going back to the concept of interim arrangements, which I personally don’t favor, or carrying out unilateral moves that will delineate the future borders. That, in my view, is preferable to interim arrangements.

In any case, we have to have an alternative plan. We cannot sit in a government that does not have any diplomatic plan, and all it does is applaud Naftali Bennett and [Housing Minister] Uri Ariel who are building in the territories. This is obviously a situation that cannot be maintained for long. As far as we’re concerned, the concept of "managing the conflict" can no longer preserve the coalition.

Al-Monitor: Has the cooperation with the Labor Party in the presidential elections provided an idea for further cooperation on the diplomatic issue?

Peretz: What matters here is that the presidential elections created a new mirror image and proved that on certain issues there is cooperation among components of the coalition and components of the opposition. One must also say that events surrounding the presidency bolstered the basic concept that forming a large center-left bloc is necessary. This is exactly what Tzipi Livni tried unsuccessfully to do after the elections. Now it’s taken on a life of its own.

For now, we’re not looking at any practical steps, but at an atmosphere of cooperation and working side by side. That’s a very important thing.

Al-Monitor: Are there contacts already between the sides regarding a future union? They say that you intend to go back to the Labor Party before the next elections.

Peretz: It’s too soon to talk about contacts. As for the second question: We are busy these days building the institutions of the Hatnua Party. Nonetheless, the option for Labor and Hatnua to form a joint framework ahead of the next elections warrants very serious consideration. Right now, the ideological common denominator between the two parties is growing stronger, and it could constitute the basis for any alternative that might be formed.

Al-Monitor: Do you seriously believe that Netanyahu is capable of making a big diplomatic move?

Peretz: As things stand, there’s no decision to sever talks, and there are feelers being put out about how to renew them. We will know more soon. We in Hatnua will not make any political moves simply because of a feeling that things aren’t moving forward. We will allow the move to be followed through to its end before we make decisions. We are at a sensitive time, and we do not want to be the ones announcing an end to the talks and an end to hope.

Al-Monitor: How do you deal with being in the same government as Bennett and Ariel, who want to annex the territories of Judea and Samaria?

Peretz: I am in a state of daily conflict, not just on diplomatic issues. I also feel isolated on social issues. They call me the government socialist because I vote nay on most economic issues. So it’s certainly not easy for me, but on the other hand leaving the arena totally to them is not wise. The fact is that we manage to prevent catastrophes, such as Bennett’s annexation proposals.

Al-Monitor: But you’re not having any luck setting the agenda on the diplomatic issue. Tzipi Livni has been the target of serious criticism for being Netanyahu’s fig leaf.

Peretz: Tzipi fights in the cabinet to prevent a total severing of ties with the Palestinian Authority. I also know, down to the last detail, how dominant she was in the negotiations and in the plan that was formulated. One cannot doubt her influence on the whole process and the fact that she was the most serious element that enabled the creation of a dialogue in the negotiations.

I also think that Tzipi Livni averted very grave damage to the State of Israel in that period. Without her, the talks would have collapsed long ago, if they had even begun. That for almost a year we enjoyed a positive international atmosphere that did not radicalize is our achievement in this government.

From my experience, and obviously I’ve had the chance to work with quite a few party heads, Tzipi is a good surprise. We have a superb and close relationship.

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