Ariel Sharon the centrist? Hard as that may be for some to imagine, after days of political upheaval in Israel during which he rejected forming a right-wing government, the Israeli prime minister emerged as the statesman between the doves of Labor and the hawks of several nationalist parties. Sharon says he hopes to form another unity government with the Labor Party if he wins re-election in late January.
Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East project director at the World Policy Institute in Manhattan, said Sharon favors another unity government because “he can talk with greater credibility with the Palestinians, and the Palestinians would feel more comfortable with a moderating voice in the government.”
“And it would be better for Labor should it lose the election because it would rather have a say in the outcome [of events] rather than to sit by helpless,” he said.
Another key factor in Sharon’s strategy appears to be his interest in satisfying the Bush administration, which has been largely supportive of Israel in the face of international opposition regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly, Washington would prefer a government in Jerusalem willing to pursue peace negotiations with the Palestinians. But for now, economic issues have eclipsed the Palestinian conflict as key to success in the elections.
As the 90-day campaign period leading to new elections begins, prompted by Labor’s withdrawal from the unity government last week, many Israelis are unhappy that the 20-month Sharon-led coalition has collapsed.
Marla Van Meter, a spokesperson for the residents of the Golan Heights, said most of the 18,000 residents were upset with the dissolution of the government.
“The general feeling is, ‘What do we need this for?’” she said. “We need unity and direction to be able to stand strong against terrorism and in our demands that the Palestinian Authority bring forth a partner that can be trusted. New elections are throwing everything into turmoil.”
Sharon pressed this week for early Likud Party primary elections after polls showed him defeating archrival Benjamin Netanyahu for the opportunity to lead his party in the general election. The general election was announced Monday after Sharon asked Israeli President Moshe Katzav to dissolve the Knesset when attempts to rebuild his coalition government failed. Alluding to continued Palestinian violence, the worst economy in Israel’s 54-year history and the threat of war looming with Iraq, Sharon told reporters that he had been reluctant to call for new elections at this time.
He angrily chided the Labor Party for pulling out of the broad-based unity government he had fashioned March 5, 2001, after being overwhelmingly elected. He also chastised the right-wing National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu faction for a series of demands it made in return for joining his coalition and keeping it in power. It had reportedly demanded an end to talk of a Palestinian state, an abrogation of earlier Israeli-Palestinian agreements, and a pledge not to form another Likud-Labor unity government after new elections.
“I will not deviate from national responsibility, I will not change the government’s basic lines, nor will I impair the profound strategic agreements we have with the White House,” Sharon said. “I will not throw away the good of the country for narrow-based party political considerations.”
A poll published Wednesday by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot showed Sharon defeating Netanyahu by a 44-38 percent margin among eligible Likud voters. And it found that if the general election was held today, Likud would win 33 seats – it now holds 19 – and that Labor would slip from its current 25 seats to 19. It found also that Likud could fashion a right-wing government with 65 of the 120 Knesset seats.
The same poll found that Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, the current leader of the opposition Labor Party, would win only 30 percent of the vote in the Nov. 19th party primary; Amram Mitzna, mayor of the Jewish-Arab city of Haifa, would win with 42 percent. Haim Ramon, a lawmaker and former head of Israel’s largest labor union, trailed with 22 percent.
Sharon is going to win both his party’s primary and the general election because “most voters are going to want to stay the course,” according to Leslie Feldman, an associate professor of political science at Hofstra University on Long Island.
“Sharon has also forged a very good relationship with the Bush administration,” she said. “He must now play ball with the Bush administration and lay low [while the U.S. prepares for an attack on Iraq]. He has become a moderate and a statesman and now Netanyahu is the conservative, the rabble-rouser from the right who wants the government to take a new direction: to exile [Palestinian President Yasir] Arafat and to no longer support a Palestinian state.”
As the political maneuvering began, Netanyahu’s appointment as foreign minister was confirmed Wednesday by the Knesset. On Monday, it confirmed as defense minister Shaul Mofaz, until recently chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces and the architect of the forceful response to Palestinian terror attacks. They replaced two Labor Party members, Shimon Peres and Ben-Eliezer, respectively, who submitted their resignations when Labor withdrew from the government.
Hamas terrorists took credit for bringing down Sharon’s government and vowed to continue their attacks. On Wednesday, it took responsibility for a terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip that killed two Israelis and wounded a third. A Palestinian gunman managed to sneak into a Jewish settlement and open fire on agricultural workers in a hothouse area before being shot dead.
On Monday evening, two Argentine immigrants were killed and 50 others injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside an electrical appliance store just outside an outdoor shopping mall in the Kfar Saba suburb of Tel Aviv. One of the dead men was a 51-year-old security guard who immigrated less than a year ago. He apparently stopped the terrorist from entering the mall, thereby preventing many other casualties.
The same day, a Palestinian-launched mortar shell landed near a kindergarten in the Neve Dekalim settlement in the Gaza Strip and exploded underground, causing no injuries.
Eran Sternberg, a spokesman for the Gaza Strip community, said most of the nearly 8,000 Jews who live in 20 Jewish settlements in the area would be voting for Likud in the general election, even though both Sharon and Netanyahu are “very weak and give in to every little pressure from the U.S. and the European Union.”
“We vote for them because we don’t have a better choice,” he said. “We want a leader to fight terror without caring for world public opinion.”
The Jewish residents of the Golan Heights are also expected to vote for Likud in the general election, according to Van Meter. And she said they favored Sharon over Netanyahu because when he was prime minister from 1996 until 1999, Netanyahu secretly sought to negotiate a peace treaty with Syria that would have involved returning the Golan to Syria.
“I personally am not a Likudnik — I have voted for [the far-left party] Meretz in the past — but I would stay with Sharon anytime,” she said. “After 20 months in office, he knows the players and calls a spade a spade. There is no one who can make funny deals with him.”
Van Meter said Ben-Eliezer’s decision for Labor to leave the unity government was more for political reasons – to boost his chances to lead Labor in its upcoming primary – than his stated reason to protest spending too much money for settlements and not enough for social needs.
A poll for Israel Radio found that a majority of Israelis agreed that Ben-Eliezer created the political crisis to enhance his standing in the party.
Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said an election now is a good thing because for the first time it puts the issue of funding for settlements on the table.
“It has become clear that settlements get a disproportionate amount of the Israeli budget at a time when the budget is under great strain, and the rule of law among the settlers is not what it is among other Israeli citizens,” Cohen said, alluding to recent settler clashes with police and soldiers. “On the questions of national priorities and equality before the law, the issues have been raised.”
Citing Israeli government figures this week that found one in five Israelis living below the poverty line — including more than half a million children, or 25 percent of those in the country — Cohen said “the best way to get out of poverty is to move to the settlements. You get so much money there that you could never fall under the poverty line.”
Settler spokesmen deny that, and Cohen said the issue should be among those debated during the election campaign.