In a last-ditch effort to block Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from being able to form a new government after the Jan. 28 election, Labor Party leaders pledged this week not to rejoin him in another unity government.
That raised the specter of Sharon forming a right-wing government with a party that favors the "voluntary transfer" of Palestinians from the territories, which Sharon vowed this week not to do. It also raised the possibility of a leadership battle within or break-up of Labor, the likely runner-up in the balloting, or even of Labor being called upon to form a government.
The move was seen as a bid by Labor to regain voter attention that was briefly captured by reports last week of Likud corruption probes.
"We have to be very clear because the public wants to know where we stand," said Colette Avital, a Labor member of the Knesset, in explaining the anti-unity pledge orchestrated by Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna. "If we stand for election only to get back to where we were before [in a unity government], what is the purpose of this exercise?" Avital asked.
"There is no way we will get into a government with Sharon," she asserted. "And if Sharon wins, I’m not sure he will be able to form a government. And if he does, it will not last more than a few months."
Although Sharon refrained from immediately commenting on the Labor vow, Deputy Prime Minister Natan Sharansky bristled: "No politics can justify that anti-Zionist statement."
"We’re in a struggle against terror, there is [a crisis with Iraq], an economic crisis and social problems in Israel," he told The Jewish Week. "After the election, we need to build as much unity as possible. For the leader of a party to say he will never be in a unity government is unfortunate and I don’t believe it. I’m sure there will be strong forces inside the Labor Party pushing for a unity government because of the problems of the country, and they don’t want to become irrelevant."
Polls at the beginning of the week showed Likud regaining some of the support it lost following the disclosure of corruption probes into alleged vote-buying in the Likud primary and of Sharon and his two sons for allegedly securing an illegal foreign loan to repay an illegal campaign contribution. Support for Likud, which had tumbled from 41 seats to as low as 27 last week, rebounded to 33 seats in a poll released Tuesday night on public television. The poll also showed Labor receiving no more than 20 seats, down from the 24 in a poll last week.
Analysts said Likud’s rebound may have been attributed to public sympathy for Sharon after a news conference he called to answer the corruption charge was abruptly cut off the air by an election official who said Sharon’s attack on Labor at the start of the briefing was illegal campaigning. Others suggested that Labor miscalculated by highlighting the corruption charges in its campaign commercials, causing a public backlash.
"Corruption is a serious issue, but the other side played it to overkill," said David Newman, a political science professor at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev. "Sharon could say they were using it as a means to get at me."
Few believed Laborís pledge not to join a unity government would hold and just a day after it was made, Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said Israelis were beginning to turn their attentions back to security issues as the country moved to a pre-planned heightened state of alert in preparation for a possible war with Iraq. He noted that television commercials began explaining the proper use of gas masks, and that there were major joint military exercises with American forces in the Negev and at Patriot and Arrow anti-missile sites.
In the meantime, Sharansky prepared to fly to Russia Friday for a meeting in Moscow with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, at which he planned to express Israel’s reservations about Russiaí’ plans to build a nuclear reactor in Syria. The Russian foreign ministry announced Tuesday that the reactor complex was part of the country’s program of nuclear cooperation with Syria and that the plant would include facilities for water desalinization.
"We are concerned," said Sharansky, whose visit to Russia was arranged to discuss plans for Russian Jews to celebrate the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in May. "We have so much in common [with Russia] in the struggle against terrorism and our need to fight it without compromise. I will raise the issue [of the nuclear reactor] because in our region Syria is one of the most important bases for terror against Israel."
‘Get Past Arafat’
Israeli officials largely dismissed this week’s meeting in London to discuss reform of the Palestinian Authority. Representatives of the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union met by videophone with Palestinian representatives in Ramallah. They were barred by Israel from attending following the back-to-back suicide bombings by Palestinians in Tel Aviv earlier this month that killed 23 bystanders.
The Palestinian delegation had been hand picked by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat.
"As long as [Arafat] is in a position of control, there will not be reform," said Dore Gold, an adviser to Sharon. "We must get past the Arafat era. That should be the focus of the efforts."
During the conference, Palestinians condemned suicide bombings in Israel and promised to draft a Palestinian constitution within the next two weeks. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw criticized Israel for barring the delegates from attending and for placing restrictions on the Palestinian Authority. But he said that should not be an excuse for failing to reform and develop such things as an independent judiciary.
Even as Arafat was calling for a halt to terror attacks in advance of the election, Palestinian terrorists continued to infiltrate Jewish settlements and kill Israelis. And Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin vowed to continue attacks on civilians "until victory or martyrdom." He also suggested that Hamas might kidnap Israeli soldiers and hold them as ransom for Palestinian prisoners, a tactic Hamas successfully employed during the intifada between 1987 and 1993.
With all of these developing crises, Sharansky said he is convinced that Laborís pledge to refrain from joining Sharon in a unity government "is not serious."
Steinberg, the political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said he too does not believe Labor would be able to resist the "tremendous public pressure" that is sure to arise to join a unity government after a presumed Likud victory. Noting that 65 percent of the public favor a unity government today, he said that after the election the number will be even higher.
Role For Ben-Eliezer?
Should Mitzna continue to resist after the election, Steinberg said Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Mitzna’s predecessor as Labor chairman who broke up Sharon’s unity government in October over a disagreement on budget priorities, might bolt from Labor with his followers and join Sharon.
Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, shrugged off the Labor pledge as "simply a campaign strategy."
"Nothing is hard and fast, especially since events out of our control might set the political agenda" like a war with Iraq, he said.
Asked about a scenario in which neither Likud nor Labor would be able to put together a government of at least 61 seats in the 120-member Knesset, in the end forcing a new election, Hazan said flatly: "That will never happen. Somebody will put together a government; they will not be going back to the voters anytime soon. There have been three elections in four years and it will be at least a year or two before another election."
In fact, Newman of Ben-Gurion University said he believes Likud will win the election and that Sharon will be asked to put together a new government to pursue policies "I don’t expect will be significantly different than what has been done the last two years.’
But Nawaf Mazalha, an Israeli Arab from the Labor Party who was deputy minister of foreign affairs, said he believes there will be a unity government but only because Sharon will be forced to compromise on some Labor issues.
- St. Petersburg
- Dore Gold
- Yasir Arafat
- United Kingdom
- Gerald Steinberg
- Ariel Sharon
- Bar-Ilan University
- Natan Sharansky
- Stewart Ain
- Amram Mitzna
- Colette Avital
- adviser to Sharon
- Hebrew University in Jerusalem
- Deputy Prime Minister
- Foreign Secretary
- deputy minister of foreign
- Reuven Hazan
- David Newman
- Nawaf Mazalha
- Benjamin Ben-Eliezer
- Ahmed Yassin
- Jack Straw
- Igor Ivanov
- Foreign Minister
- Labour party
- European Union
- united states
- Palestinian Authority
- tel aviv
- Israel News
- United Nations
- Prime Minister
- the Jewish Week
- Staff Writer