The collapse of Israel’s unity government after 20 months in office is seen as almost certainly paving the way for early elections even if Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can put together enough support to adopt the 2003 state budget.
A vote of no-confidence is slated to be held Monday and Sharon has reportedly said he would call for new elections on Sunday to stave off such a vote.
A last-minute compromise late Wednesday that would shifted money from the settlements to the poor and needy and thus allow Labor to vote for the budget and remain in the coalition government failed to materialize and Ben-Eliezer and four other Labor Party cabinet members handed in their resignations.
Even had they been able to pull-off a last minute deal, it appeared to many that the coalition was on the verge of collapse.
“Early elections are in the air,” said Menachem Klein, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University. “The husband and wife [Labor and Likud] are still in the same apartment, but the partnership is broken,” he said before Ben-Eliezer resigned.
In an editorial written even before the compromise was announced, the Israeli daily Haaretz said the unity government “is now on its last legs” and that a compromise “would undoubtedly yield only a number of concessions on both sides that would leave Labor ministers sitting in their seats for another month or two.”
Gerald Steinberg, director of Bar-Ilan University’s Program on Conflict Resolution, said there may indeed be a break-up of the coalition government, but he questioned whether it would have been propitious for the divorce to have occurred over the budget. Passage of the budget was seen as crucial for Israel’s economic recovery and prominent corporate leaders pleaded with the Labor Party Tuesday to vote for the budget.
Noting that Labor Party elections are to be held Nov. 19 to select the next party chairman, Steinberg said that if the current chairman, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, is re-elected, “the same framework would be established” between Likud and Labor in maintaining a coalition government. For them to have parted company “in the context of a budget fight, in which a lot of mud was spread around, would not have created a unity framework.”
But Stephen P. Cohen, national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said Wednesday afternoon that he would “not underestimate” the ability of both Ben-Eliezer and Prime Minister Sharon to work to ensure each other’s survival.
“I wouldn’t bet on any scenario,” he said. “There is a lot of support for a national unity government. It looked until this morning like it was a slam dunk that [Ben-Eliezer] would break up the government. That didn’t happen and now anything is possible.”
The issue over which the government almost collapsed was Ben-Eliezer’s refusal to support the budget as written because, in his view, $148 million should have been shifted from the settlements to the poor, pensioners, single mothers and students. In the end, Cohen said, both men made compromises in a way that allowed them to give in without cutting into their base of support — Likud’s support in the settlements and Labor’s support in development towns.
The action came after what Housing Minister Natan Sharansky described to The Jewish Week as “feverish efforts” to keep the coalition government intact.
“The bargaining now has nothing to do with settlements,” he said, alluding to the political dynamics that he said created the crisis in the first place.
Many other analysts agreed. Joseph Alpher said Ben-Eliezer used the budget vote “as an excuse to break up the government.”
“He [was] leaving because he concluded that it might give him a chance to win the [Labor Party] primary on Nov. 19,” explained Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and now co-director of bitterlemons.com, an Internet-based Israeli-Palestinian dialogue project.
But Alpher said that had Ben-Eliezer decided to pull out of the coalition this week, it would have been unlikely to help him win re-election as chairman of the Labor Party.
A poll in the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot found that Ben-Eliezer’s two rivals for his seat were running well ahead of him. Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna was in front with 34 percent of the vote, followed by lawmaker Haim Ramon with 27 percent. Ben-Eliezer trailed with 22 percent.
A Knesset member from the Labor Party, Colette Avital, insisted however that her party’s threat to vote against the budget was not politically motivated.
“We can’t accept to be spit upon and not taken into consideration,” she said. “There was no serious negotiation [in formulating the budget]. We accept the budget in principle, as it is — the general sum and the cuts. We did not ask for an extra penny for ourselves. But we asked that if there are cuts, that the cuts come from other places and not the poor — the single mothers, the students, the pensioners. … What is missing for the elderly and the pension funds is exactly 700,000 shekels [$148 million] and we say cut from the ministries that have money for settlements.”
“If you live in Israel, the government invests in you with so much dollars for education and social security and unemployment [insurance],” Avital explained. “But someone in the settlements receives 17 times more. … When you look at the dollars that go to settlers, we say cut proportionately from the settlements. And 70 percent of the public agrees with that.”
She also questioned why the government would spend money promoting tourism to the settlements by building a tourist installation in Hebron and printing a map that encourages tourism to the West Bank.
“Do you think anyone in his right mind is going to go to the West Bank today for tourism?” Avital asked incredulously.
She added that half of Sharansky’s nearly $60 million budget is to be spent on building more housing in four West Bank settlements and the rest is to be spent in all of Israel proper — but not for housing for new immigrants.
“There are those from the former Soviet Union who have been waiting for housing since 1992 and who still live in hostels and yet [Sharansky] cries to me all the time that he has no money for public construction,” Avital said. “He is spending it on the settlements.”
Sharansky called her charge “laughable.”
“The Labor Party was a good partner in this government and all activity, every house I built, was with Fuad [Ben-Eliezer’s nickname],” he said. “Absolutely no preferences were given to settlers. … We are not building more settlements but rather responding to the natural needs of settlers [for expansion within their settlement]. The Labor Party has been a full partner in everything.”
Sharansky said that as recently as two weeks ago Ben-Eliezer did not raise the issue of pensioners and the poor.
“But this week, Fuad feels he needs a civil war, otherwise he will not defeat Ramon and Mitznah, and so he says cut from the settlers,” he said. “Today, the Labor Party feels that the unity government is extremely unpopular and that is why it is now looking for ways to get out.”
Sharansky also defended his housing record in behalf of new immigrants, saying that when he became minister the government was building 2,000 units a year. Now that figure is approaching 4,000 units.
“So I doubled it,” he said, adding that it is not possible to reduce the demand for new immigrant housing overnight.
“Parishioners who come to Israel get modest support from the government, but they can’t afford to buy a house,” Sharansky said. “We say they are entitled to public housing and so we have doubled the number of hostels and public housing for senior citizens.”
Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, a settlement of 18,000 in the heart of the West Bank, said Avital is flatly wrong when she claims that settlements receive 17 percent more money than the rest of the country. He pointed out that the city of Maalot in Israel proper received 3,450 shekels per capita in 2001 and that in Ariel, the government spent 3,100 per capita. And he said he had a host of similar statistics to disprove her assertion.
In addition, Nachman said, Jewish federations in the United States have twinning programs in which they give money to cities inside Israel but that there are no federations that twin with a West Bank settlement.
A poll this week found that 78 percent of Israelis believe that most settlements should be dismantled.
A Yediot Achronot poll found that Labor needed to do something dramatic if it wanted to continue being a major force in Israeli politics. It found that were elections held today, Labor would win only 21 seats in the Knesset, down from its current 25, but that Likud, which now has 19 seats, would garner 29 in the 120-member Knesset seats. In addition, it found that the fervently-Orthodox Shas Party, which now holds 17 seats, would win just 13.
The Israeli daily Haaretz wrote in an editorial Wednesday: “Labor would do best to pull itself together, go back to the political and economic agenda it formulated in 1992 under Yitzchak Rabin’s leadership, and present it boldly to the voters as a forgotten but sorely missed alternative. If it doesn’t do so, it could find itself pushed to the outer edge of the political map, having entirely lost its way and its identity.”