Despite his decisive victory Tuesday, Ariel Sharon still finds himself in a vise: caught between his desire not to form a right-wing government that would hamstring his ability to deal with American peace demands and an Israeli public convinced that the time is not ripe to pursue peace.
Couple that with the electorate’s crippling blow to the Israeli left and the strong showing of the anti-religious Shinui Party, and this election could pave the way for changes in the country’s social fabric.
By winning 37 seats in the 120-member Knesset (up from 19) Likud emerged almost twice as strong as the once-dominant Labor Party, which ruled Israel for the first 30 years of its existence. And the election, which saw a historically low voter turnout, marked the first time since Menachem Begin won re-election in 1981 that a sitting prime minister was re-elected.
Sharon repeated Tuesday that he wants another unity government with Labor, something he has said since his unity government with Labor collapsed Oct. 30. But Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna repeated Wednesday that under no circumstances would he agree to that.
"Sharon has won a Pyrrhic victory," said Yossi Ben-Artzi, the dean of the humanities faculty at the University of Haifa.
"I just spoke with Mitzna for 10 minutes and he said he personally will not join" a government headed by Sharon, Ben-Artzi said. "He will tell Sharon that Labor will provide a security net if he needs it [on security issues in the event of a war with Iraq], but he will do it from the outside."
"There is no other chance for Labor to reconstruct its power and prestige but to stay in the opposition," he added. "If it joined another coalition government, it would disappear in the next election, and Mitzna understands that."
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said the election results in which Labor dropped from 26 to 19 seats and the far-left Meretz dropped from 10 to 6 seats represented a repudiation of the 1993 Oslo Accords. The pact, formulated by then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin of the Labor Party and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, codified the principle of land for peace that was supposed to result in a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza by 1999.
Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of the centrist Meimad Party said he too believed the "collapse of the political left" stemmed from their refusal to discern the change in the Israeli public after more than two years of Palestinian terror attacks.
"They insisted in continuing with the Oslo process," he said. "We can see from history that the only time Labor succeeds is when its leaders move from the left to the center. This is the first time its leader didn’t lie and adopted the positions of Meretz."
But Ben-Artzi cited polls showing that the Israeli public still believes in the Oslo principles: the uprooting of most of the settlements and a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel in peace. What this election demonstrated, he said, was that "the theories are right, the partner [Arafat] is not."
Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset member from the Meretz Party, said Labor’s loss was due to a "mixture of fear and disappointment" in the party by the Israeli public.
"Meretz was the prime victim of those who wanted to punish the Labor camp," she said.
Will Shinui Fade?
The approach Mitzna is now pursuing might also backfire, warned Eytan Gilboa, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University.
"Labor’s strategy is to let Likud form a narrow-based government with the right and religious parties and then when the crisis gets worse to call for new elections in a year or 18 months," he said. "But the public is fed-up with elections every other day. If the situation gets worse, the public will say you are partially to blame because you did not join."
Only 68.5 percent of 4.7 million Israelis eligible to vote actually cast a ballot Tuesday, the lowest turnout in the history of the state. It was the fourth national election in seven years.
Sharon could consider forming a government with Shinui, which has set as a condition that it not sit in a coalition that includes the fervently Orthodox Shas (which dropped from 17 seats to 11 to become the fourth largest party) and United Torah Judaism parties. Shinui has not ruled out sitting in a coalition with the National Religious Party, although its chairman on Wednesday said it would not sit with Shinui.
Steinberg, the political science professor, said Sharon is too heavily dependent on the religious parties to jettison them for Shinui.
"They are part of the Israeli social fabric," he said of the religious parties. "Tommy Lapid will fade. His is a protest vote. The religious parties are here to stay."
Gideon Doron, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University, said Shinui benefited from former Likud voters upset with the corruption scandals plaguing that party and the posture Mitzna assumed.
"Mitzna was positioned very far to the left," he said. "He should have been closer to the middle. He was attacking Sharon from very far away. Shinui did so well because it was absorbing their votes."
Shinui rose in strength Tuesday from six to 15 seats, a jump that "reflects a will in Israel for social and civil change," Eliezer (Mody) Zandberg, a newly elected Shinui member to the 16th Knesset, told The Jewish Week.
Such a change would come about if Shinui is included in Sharonís new government and if its policies are implemented even in a minor way. Its platform, under its leader Tommy Lapid, calls for ending government subsidies to the haredi, or fervently Orthodox (which the Wall Street Journal said some estimate at $1 billion annually) and eliminating their automatic exemption from military service.
Zalman Shoval, another Sharon adviser, pointed out that there are already "voices in the haredi camp who are saying that they should make themselves less obnoxious to the mainstream and should start taking jobs. … That would be a major change and a very important one. The irony is that Israel has the highest percentage of social allocations from its budget of any country in the West today. But it also has too small a labor force because too many people are not part of the actual economy."
"It will have to happen," Shoval predicted, "because the economy cannot proceed without it. Israel has reached the limit of what it can produce in social payments. We are not going to use American foreign aid for that purpose, and with or without Shinui it will happen."
Rabbi Gilad of Meimad said he believes Sharon would prefer to form a government with Shinui than one with right-wing parties. But he said there is no way such a government could fully implement Shinui’s positions. The most it could do, he said, was to trim government allocations to the haredi.
The Waiting Game
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said Sharon would strive to include Labor and/or Shinui in his new government.
"He won’t want to leave them both in opposition because Shinui is a winner in this election and it would not be good for him to have one of the winners not with him," he said.
Sharon is expected to take as long as possible to form a new government. The election is to be made final next week and then President Moshe Katzav is expected to ask Sharon to form a new government sometime after that. Sharon will then have 42 days to do so. Some analysts believe the longer he waits, the greater the chances of an American-led coalition war with Iraq, which would give Sharon an opportunity to ask both Labor and Shinui to join an emergency unity government. Lapid said Wednesday that he would join such a government, even if Shas was a member.
Ben-Artzi of the University of Haifa said Sharon believes that war with Iraq "might rescue him" from the roadmap the U.S. is formulating for Israeli-Palestinian peace. President George W. Bush said June 24 that he envisioned a Palestinian state with temporary borders by the end of this year and permanent borders in 2005.
"Sharon will formally accept the roadmap because he cannot resist something presented by the president of the United States," Ben-Artzi said. "But he will implement it in such a way that there will be a lot of obstacles along the way. He will put a lot of preconditions in his negotiations with the American administration to do his utmost to postpone the implementation.
"But if there is a war with Iraq, the attention of the Americans will be diverted for at least two years because they will be busy, first with the war and then with the stabilization of Iraq. And there will not be enough time to dedicate to the problems" of Israel and the Palestinians, he added.
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