Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, widely regarded as a successful military strategist, displayed his political acumen this week when he turned a stunning defeat of his emergency economic package by the Knesset into a victory not only for the package but also for his political career.
"Sharon became a real hero," said Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Bar-Ilan University. "And he is now very high in the polls."
Sharon’s favorable rating got a boost Monday when he summarily fired four ministers from the fervently Orthodox Shas and five deputy ministers from Shas and United Torah Judaism after they had voted against the economic package, which included a $2.6 billion budget cut to pay for increased defense spending. It was defeated 47-44. The move left his government with only 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. That meant any defection during a no-confidence vote could bring down his government and prompt new elections.
Despite that, Sharon brushed aside entreaties to reconsider his ouster of the two parties, a move that was to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, nearly 12 hours after Shas’ 17 Knesset members sat out a re-vote on the economic plan, which the Knesset adopted 65 to 26.
"Whenever Shas leaves the government, it traditionally starts the clock for early elections," observed Jonathan Beker, media adviser for Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit. "This was the first time anyone stood up to Shas."
Judging by opinion polls published Wednesday, Israelis loved it. Fully 70 percent backed the ouster, according to a poll in the daily Yediot Ahronof; Maariv put the figure at 62 percent.
"He took a lot of risk and it paid off," Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said of the firings and subsequent Knesset victory. "It clearly shows there is no majority in favor of early elections and that he [Sharon] is very clearly in command."
But Communications Minister Reuven Rivlin told the Jerusalem Post that he would like to see Sharon call for elections in 90 days, saying: "He’s popular and he’s ready. … He knows all he has to do is beat [Benjamin] Netanyahu [for the Likud nomination]. Now he has an advantage over him, and he knows Labor is not ready for elections."
The political machinations came against a backdrop of continued Palestinian violence and Israeli moves to prevent it. There were three suicide bombings by midweek. In two, the suicide bombs detonated early, killing only the bombers themselves. But in the other on Sunday in the central outdoor market in Netanya, the bomber killed three Israelis.
Israeli officials confirmed reports that they had thwarted an attempt by Palestinian terrorists to blow up Tel Aviv’s 50-story twin Azrieli towers by driving a car loaded with one-ton of explosives into the parking garage beneath the buildings, similar to the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. The attack was thwarted when Israeli troops three weeks ago raided a West Bank town and uncovered the plot.
Among the other plans foiled by the Israeli raids was a plot to launch seven simultaneous bomb attacks in Israeli coastal cities, followed by three attacks in rapid succession in Jerusalem. But Israeli officials said such attacks would inevitably occur unless there is a quick political solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Meanwhile, Israeli newspapers were filled with reports that the Iraqi-backed Hezbollah that has been fighting Israel from southern Lebanon was reportedly worked with al-Qaeda terrorists to launch suicide bombings in the United States. Robert Mueller, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said such attacks are "inevitable."
Meanwhile, the popularity of Palestinian President Yasir Arafat fell to 35 percent among Palestinians after getting a little boost while he was confined for months by Israeli troops in his Ramallah compound. A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found also that 85 percent of Palestinians support a unified Palestinian security service and that 92 percent want Arafat to sign the Basic Law, a type of constitution that was passed by parliament several years ago.
Last week, the Palestinian parliament called for a series of reforms and Arafat was called upon to call for presidential and parliamentary elections in six months. He agreed at first but just hours later said there would be no elections until the Israeli occupation is ended.
Israelis were not surprised.
"As long as Arafat is there, nothing is going to happen," said Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon. "He is not going to agree to anything that in any way curtails his powers. And his power is derived from the fact that he is the only one signing the checks. Whatever he may say about reform is hot air. As long as Arafat and his henchmen are at the top of the pyramid, there is not going to be real reform."
Although the U.S. is pushing for a unified Palestinian security system, Shoval questioned who would pay the security officers. He said that if the checks come from the Palestinian Authority, "it will be more of the same." He suggested that there be international supervision of the financing.
The political turmoil over the economic package almost overshadowed the need for the reform measure. The rating agency Standard and Poor’s warned that Israel risked a lowered bond rating unless the package was adopted, a move that would have hampered Israel’s attempts to lure investors at a time when foreign investment in Israel has been drastically curtailed.
Although there was speculation that Sharon might reach out to the anti-haredi Shinui Party to bolster his coalition with its six seats, both Kedar and Steinberg said they believed Sharon was more likely to invite back a weakened Shas Party. Kedar said it could come before the Knesset votes the required two additional times to adopt the economic package, but Steinberg speculated that Sharon would wait until after the votes, which are expected in about a week or two.
Hannah Kim, political analyst for the Israeli daily Haaretz, said that if Shas does not return to the coalition and goes into the opposition, "early elections will follow."
"It remains to be seen, however, whether Sharon’s apparent victory Wednesday in a re-vote on the package will ultimately prove a triumph or a defeat for the prime minister," she wrote. "Over the past year, what has appeared to be an achievement has at times turned out to be a failure, and apparent failures have later turned out to be achievements. In the present case, the wisdom of Sharon’s move may only be known when the prime minister finds that he needs Shas’ help in the future."
But Steinberg said Shas would not remain on the sidelines.
"Clearly [Sharon] is not going to alienate the right by bringing in Shinui or by breaking ties with [Shas and United Torah Judaism]," Steinberg said. "My guess is he will find a way to bring them back in a reduced role once the budget is passed."
Both Shas and UTJ had voted against the budget because it included a 24-percent cut in benefits to families that do not serve in the Israeli military. Fervently Orthodox Jews often refuse such service. Had Shas turned around and voted for the budget in the re-vote, Steinberg said, it "would have been a tremendous loss of faith for Shas and put an end to the career" of the partyís leader, Eli Yishai. That would have opened the door for the party’s former leader, Aryeh Deri, who recently served a three-year prison sentence for fraud and bribery.
But Kedar said the "humiliation" Shas suffered because Yishai underestimated Sharon "will hasten the process of bringing back Deri to power."
"Yishai is going to pay with his head," Kedar predicted. "All of those who still support Deri will now emerge … and say that with Deri we would not have suffered such shame and had to grovel in front of Sharon to beg him to bring us back."
Although Deri’s conviction keeps him from formally running the party, Kedar said he would run it from the sidelines.
Another victor in this battle is Tommy Lapid, the leader of the Shinui Party, who will claim that the fact Shas had to crawl back into the coalition government proves that "only he can rescue the state from the haredim."
Also coming out on top is Labor Party leader and Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, said Steinberg, who had delivered an angry speech to party members and demanded that they cast their votes for the plan. Only 14 of 24 of Laborís Knesset members had voted for the plan Monday. They all towed the line on Wednesday, including Haim Ramon, who sat out Monday’s vote. Only former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami did not vote after announcing plans to resign from political life if the party does not withdraw from the coalition by the end of the summer.
"Ben-Eliezer comes out ahead, looking strong and like a leader," said Steinberg. "He’s someone who is able to work with Sharon on critical issues. It shows that none of [the Labor Party’s] other potential leaders have much support. It’s now hard to see anybody strong enough to defeat Ben-Eliezer" in his quest to be the party’s nominee for prime minister.