There were increasing signs this week that Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were genuinely interested in forming a unity government, despite Mitznaís campaign pledge never to join such a coalition.
Yuli Tamir, a strong opponent of such a union and a founder of Peace Now in 1978, told Israel Army Radio Wednesday that Labor Party leaders were getting the "impression that there is willingness on the part of the prime minister to reach more serious discussions."
She said much more work is needed to clarify what compromises Sharon would be willing to make in return for Laborís participation in his new government.
"If Sharon is truly willing to present a path that will lead in the end to separation from the Palestinians, to an evacuation of settlements, and to dialogue on the way to negotiations, saying no would really represent pointless rejectionism," she said. "So let’s see whatís on the table."
But Yossi Ben-Artzi, dean of the faculty of Humanities at the University of Haifa and a friend of Mitzna, said it is too early to know what will develop. And he discounted an Army Radio report that quoted close associates of Sharon as saying that the prime minister is even considering forming a secular-based coalition of his right-wing Likud Party, the center-left Labor and the secular Shinui Party.
"It’s just a dream of Israelis," Ben-Artzi said of a secular-based coalition, which polls show is favored by two-thirds of Israelis and would have a commanding 74 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Mitzna and Sharon are slated to meet again at the end of this week. The leader of Shinui, Tommy Lapid, has already entered coalition talks.
"Sharon is a very good tactician and I think he would like to have both Shinui and Labor in his coalition," said Ben-Artzi. "But he will [also] have to take either the Mafdal [National Religious Party] or a more religious party like [United Torah Judaism]."
"Everyone is looking to the next election in four years," Ben-Artzi explained. "In the future, there will always be a need for one or two religious parties [and] … everyone wants to show that he is fighting to make them part of this coalition."
Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that if any religious party is going to be included, it would be the NRP.
"You have to start with them and they want the education ministry," he said, noting that the party leader, Ephraim Eitam, has moderated his hardline Palestinian views in recent months.
Eitam, who in the past has advocated the removal of Palestinians from the West Bank, is now placing "the interests of the party above his own ideology," Steinberg observed.
"He has become more mainstream," he said. "The party does not want to be labeled as too far right wing."
Ben-Artzi said real negotiations have not yet taken place between Mitzna and Sharon. What is happening now, he said, is just a "game to show the public that they are not the obstacle" to a coalition agreement.
He said his advice to Mitzna is to join the Sharon government only if Sharon agrees with his policies.
"His main interest is to stay in the opposition," Ben-Artzi said of Mitzna. "But he must pretend and show that he is not" an obstacle to a unity government.
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said the coalition talks that have been held since the Jan. 28 election in which Sharon’s Likud Party captured 38 seats in the Knesset (twice the number of Labor, its nearest rival) are all preliminary.
"It’s been a matter of tactics and of sounding out," he said. "Nothing should be taken for granted. Sharon is making a big effort [to recruit Labor] and there are signs of change. … But all options are still open."
Shoval said he understood that when Sharon and Mitzna met last week, Sharon "went into greater detail regarding the peace process and security details. It was apparently as a result of that meeting that some in the Labor Party have said it would be unwise and unproductive from their point of view to stay in the opposition."
He recalled that in 1978, one of the top ministers of the secular middle-of-the-road Dash Party resigned from the government believing that the Likud Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, was not serious about peace in his talks at Camp David with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Three days later, Begin and Sadat signed an historic peace treaty.
"There are some in Labor who believe that Sharon is serious and wants to make peace and believes that if Labor stays outside, it would undermine its relevance as a major Israeli political party," Shoval said. "Whether Sharon has the tactical ability to satisfy them and at the same time not repulse those on the right wing, we’ll just have to wait and see."
Steinberg pointed out that except for Sharon’s meetings with Mitzna, he has kept out of the negotiations and allowed others to handle them.
"Sharon is not going to get involved until the last minute," he said.
Sharon has until mid-March to assemble a government.
Talks With Palestinians
While he is doing so, he is also meeting with senior Palestinian officials. Sharon held talks last weekend with Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad, his second reported meeting with a Palestinian leader in recent days.
The Sharon-Fayad meeting came just three days after Palestinian President Yasir Arafat announced for the first time his intention to appoint a prime minister to handle day-to-day Palestinian affairs. Although Arafat’s deputy, Mahmud Abbas, was widely expected to be tapped for the post, Fayad is said to be favored by the United States and Europe because of his reformist convictions.
But Shoval questioned whether anyone selected by Arafat can truly be independent and make the changes expected of him. Shoval noted that both Syria and Egypt have prime ministers and that both men are simply "glorified ministers" with no real power.
Ben-Artzi suggested that Sharon may be holding the talks just to prove that he is supporting the peace initiative proposed by President George W. Bush on June 24.
"He wants to show that he is open to negotiations with the Palestinians," he said. "But what he has really done in the negotiations we don’t know. And Fayad has now declared that he is not going to be prime minister as part of any plan to get rid of Arafat. It’s all very interesting."
Abbas has also reportedly also rejected to prime minister’s job.
The talks were also seen as a way of demonstrating to the Bush administration Sharon’s sincerity in pursuing peace at the same time he was asking for $8 billion in loan guarantees and another $4 billion in military aid. Such an aid package is seen as vital for Israel’s worsening economic woes: the worst in the last 50 years. The state had a record January budget deficit of almost $550 million, sparked by a 17.5 percent drop in tax returns.
In other developments, Israeli troops made repeated incursions into the Gaza Strip this week to destroy Palestinian weapons factories and munitions, and to track down known terrorists. They followed the deaths of four Israeli soldiers killed when their tank burst into flames after hitting a roadside bomb loaded with 220-pounds of explosives.
At least 19 Palestinians were killed in the Gaza Strip during often violent clashes in four straight days of forays seeking to destroy what the Israeli military called the "terrorist infrastructure of Gaza."
Steinberg, the political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said that although Israeli forces have the West Bank Palestinian cities largely under their control, they have not secured the Gaza Strip. He said these latest forays are an attempt to destroy as many munitions workshops as possible in advance of an Iraqi war.
"It’s believed that after the war there will be a cease-fire [between Israelis and Palestinians] and the Israel Defense Forces will then not be able to move to get rid of these manufacturing plants," he said.