After failing to woo the left-wing Labor Party in pursuit of a unity government, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon turned in the other direction and tentatively formed a government of largely right-wing parties that many analysts believe will make it more difficult to pursue a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"I don’t think it’s going to last long," Alon Ben-Meir, project director at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said of the new government.
"I expect there to be tremendous pressure on Sharon to do something [to advance the peace process], and this government is not going to be able to deliver," he said. "If it stays in its current form, I believe Sharon will have to move to try to bring Labor in or the government will fall."
The putative new government would include Sharon’s Likud, which merged with Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah Party; the National Religious Party, the traditional representatives of the settlers’ movement that advocates building more settlements; the National Union Party, an alliance of three ultra-nationalist factions; and Shinui, the secular party led by Tommy Lapid. Together, they give the new government 68 seats in the 120-member Knesset.
Although Sharon appeared able to form a government with ease once Labor stepped out of the picture, the most difficulty he had was in trying to find cabinet positions for his own Likud Party members. In the shuffling of cabinet posts that ensued Wednesday, Sharon’s chief rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, was replaced as foreign minister by Silvan Shalom. Netanyahu was offered Shalomís old job as finance minister, which he initially refused but was reportedly reconsidering.
About $3 billion needs to be cut from the budget and Israel is also seeking $8 billion in loan guarantees and $4 billion in aid from the U.S. Sharon said in a statement that he hoped Netanyahu would accept the finance ministry because he has "all the talent, experience and ability to fill this role with great success."
Rebecca Kook, a professor in the politics and government department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, pointed out that by adding to his government the National Union Party, Sharon had embraced the most extreme right-wing party of the 13 parties elected to the Knesset Jan. 28. It is perceived by many as the political heir to the anti-Arab Kach movement founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane, which was banned by the Knesset for its racist views.
She pointed out that National Union Party is a collection of three factions led by Avigdor Lieberman and that includes Moledet, the party of Rehavam Zeevi, the tourism minister who was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen in October 2001.
"Zeevi openly called for the transfer of Palestinians" from the territories, Kook noted. "And Lieberman is an extreme-right ultra-nationalist who tried to introduce laws that would have forced Israeli Arabs to take an oath to the state or have their citizenship revoked."
But Uzi Arad, director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the impressions about this being an extreme right-wing government, although prevalent, are wrong.
"Shinui is a centrist party and because at least two-thirds of its members are people who ideologically stand on the left, the voice of the left and center will be heard," he said. "This is a center-right coalition: although some may have a desire to characterize it differently."
Arad was also hopeful about the peace process, pointing out that Sharon and many of his ministers "are not newcomers."
"They have been managing Israel’s foreign and defense policy in consultation with the U.S. for the last two years," he said. "The prime minister has met the American president seven times in the last few years, and the foreign policy of Israel is much in line with President [George W.] Bush’s policy."
‘Road Map’ Bumps
Even as he was working to assemble a new government, Sharon reportedly took time out to speak with Bush on the phone and assure him that he was still committed to the so-called ìroad mapî for a Palestinian-Israeli peace accord that the U.S. is working on with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, known as the Quartet. And in a statement Sharon issued this week, he said his government was reviewing with the White House details of the road map Bush unveiled last June 24.
But Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he is uncertain the road map will ever see the light of day. He pointed out that at Sharon’s request, Bush delayed release of the road map until after the Israeli elections and then again until after a new government is formed.
"Now the other members of the Quartet expect the U.S. to say it will have to wait until after the Iraqi crisis," Siegman said. "So there is a great deal of skepticism among members of the Quartet that the road map will be released."
"I think all of those folks who were saying that in a second term Sharon would be the man who changes his legacy and brings peace [were wrong]," Siegman added. "The make-up of his new government indicates that all of that was wishful thinking. We are likely to see a continuation of a reliance on overwhelming military power to completely defeat the Palestinians, and a refusal to deal with the issue politically through negotiation."
Richard Murphy, also of the Council on Foreign Relations, questioned how committed Bush is to pressing Sharon for a peace accord. He noted that Bush’s father had pledged in 1990 that as soon as Iraq was forced out of Kuwait, he would devote his full energies to achieving Palestinian-Israeli peace. A year later, Israeli and Palestinian delegates were brought together at the same table in Madrid to begin discussions that eventually led to the Oslo peace accords in 1993.
Murphy said he has not detected in George W. Bush the same conviction to resolve this issue.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, said he suspects Sharon just wants to ignore the road map.
"Sharon has two priorities: convince the Palestinians that violence is counter-productive, and to have a close relationship with George Bush," he said. "The way Sharon looks at the roadmap is that it was drawn up by the State Department and that he has his own relationship with the president. …That approach is to just ignore it and hope it goes away. And it might."
But a major task of the new government is to get the Israeli economy back on its feet and it is not going to be able to do that unless there is progress towards a peace accord, according to Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. He said that even the National Union Party recognizes that linkage and that "if there is not some kind of opening towards an accommodation with the Palestinians, the chances of an economic recovery are not good."
With the fervently Orthodox Shas Party out of the government for the first time in years, the new government is in a position to slash some of the funding Shas has built into government budgets in the past, according to Stephen Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum.
"I think this is a very clear test of the seriousness of this government in terms of whether it is going to make the dramatic changes [necessary] in the structure of Israel’s labor force, subsidies to large families and hidden unemployment," he said.
Citing reports that the new government would remove bonus subsidies to couples with more than five children, Cohen said: "It’s only a thin beginning."
Gilboa pointed out that Sharon has met in recent weeks with senior Palestinian officials and that his bureau chief, Dov Weisglass, is heading a team that is reviewing the road map and making suggested changes for White House consideration. Once both sides find the revised agreement acceptable, it is to be brought before the Israeli government for discussion and approval.
In agreeing to join the government, the National Union Party reportedly won a promise from Sharon that he would not move ahead with recognizing even a provisional Palestinian state before the matter was presented to the government "if and when it becomes relevant." Bush said he envisions a provisional state this year and a Palestinian state with permanent boundaries in 2005.
Once the Iraq situation is resolved, there will be pressure to pursue the road map, according to George Gruen, a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. He said Bush administration officials have already spoken of believing that if there can be a regime change in Iraq, ‘it might serve as the impetus" for democratic change in other parts of the Middle East.
Zalman Shoval, a member of Likud and a former ambassador to the United States, said that he believes Sharon’s government could serve its entire four-year term, its composition may change if there is movement towards peace with the Palestinians. He suggested that the National Union and National Religious parties may drop out of the government and Labor join as Sharon is compelled to begin dismantling settlements under the terms of a peace accord.
Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna, who was reported this week to be considering resigning his post after only three months because of rancor in the party, will be stepping down, Shoval predicted.
"It’s only a matter of time," he said. "And if there is real progress on the peace front, Labor might well join" the government.