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Israel turns right { November 1 2002 }

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   http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49123-2002Oct31.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A49123-2002Oct31.html

Sharon Turns to Right In Bid to Retain Power
Israel's Nationalist, Orthodox Parties Courted

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 1, 2002; Page A26


JERUSALEM, Oct. 31 -- When the Labor Party resigned from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition Wednesday night, he lost more than the 25 Labor votes and his comfortable parliamentary majority. According to political analysts here, he also lost a traditionally moderate partner that for 19 months had helped his government avoid an extremist label and provided a shield against domestic and international criticism.

Sharon today negotiated with small ultranationalist and right-wing Orthodox parties to help him survive a no-confidence vote scheduled for Monday. Members of his nationalist Likud Party and other analysts said it was probable that he would survive that challenge and establish a new government. If so, they added, Sharon and his government will have traded collaboration with Israel's large center-left party, and its image of openness to conciliation with the Palestinians, for support from a small group of Israel's most unyielding politicians who are determined to retain the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

"The people of Israel are the losers," said Abraham Diskin, a mainstream political scientist at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "At this time of a war of attrition, a unity government is a necessity. It is not good for Israel to have government that is considered a government of extremists, right-wingers, settlers and lunatics."

Sharon's allies acknowledged he might have to depend on extreme right-wing lawmakers to survive the no-confidence vote and beyond. But, they said, that does not mean his government -- already considered hard-line on the Palestinian issue -- will suddenly lurch further to the right or be held hostage by the the most extreme of new coalition partners.

"I can say very clearly that the prime minister has stated that anyone joining the government has to do so on the basis of the programs and guidelines of the previous government," said one Sharon adviser, Zalman Shoval. "Unless the prospective partners in a narrow-based government accept that, he will not put himself in the position of prolonging the government for a few months by going back on those principles."

On the surface, Labor's six cabinet ministers resigned from the government and the party's parliament members voted against the 2003 budget because Sharon refused to cut $147 million from Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and spend it instead on social programs for the poor. But analysts said Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, one of the most hawkish members in the Labor Party, staged the resignation to boost his left-wing credentials with party faithful, who will vote Nov. 19 for new party leaders. Recent polls show Ben-Eliezer running third behind two more liberal politicians.

"Ben-Eliezer thought that without leaving the government, he'd lose on November 19," said a political analyst, Hanan Crystal. "We'll know in three weeks whether this was a strategic step or a mistake."

The resignation of the 25 Labor members leaves Sharon with 55 votes in the 120-member parliament, or Knesset, six short of the majority he needs to survive and pass legislation.

Political bargaining underway by minor parties to extract concessions from Sharon in exchange for support demonstrated today why it might be difficult for him to hold his government together much longer. Some of the smaller parties and fringe politicians who helped give him a 67-to-45 victory on the budget vote reportedly demanded a larger share of the budget as their reward.

The National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu alliance, an extreme right-wing opposition party whose seven votes are crucial, reportedly rejects a new U.S. peace proposal that, as written, aims to create an independent Palestinian state by the end of next year. Sharon also has problems with the proposal. But Eliezer Cohen, an alliance lawmaker, said his party would demand military operations against the Palestinians "four or five times bigger" than the ones Sharon's government has launched.

"Either they agree to our terms and we are in, or there will be elections around March or April," he said.

The bigger prizes, however, are the six vacated cabinet posts, particularly foreign minister and defense minister, previously held by Shimon Peres and Ben-Eliezer, respectively. More than any others, the men who occupied those two posts acted as a foil to deflect international criticism from Israel and Sharon.

Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for helping craft the Oslo peace accords the previous year, in particular was a link to European capitals, where most leaders have little stomach for Sharon's policies. Peres reportedly turned down an offer from Sharon to join a new government as a special international envoy.

In another example of how the government may now tilt even further to the right, former army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, who retired in August, has reportedly accepted Sharon's offer to become defense minister. Mofaz has been a vocal advocate of exiling Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader.

Ben-Eliezer and his Labor colleagues say they exerted a moderating influence on an otherwise right-wing government by arguing against expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip -- which expanded nevertheless -- and pushing for a fenced border between the West Bank and Israel proper.

But as the current Palestinian uprising became more and more violent, with suicide bombers killing hundreds of Israelis and Israeli retaliatory attacks killing even more Palestinians, the Labor rank and file became increasingly uncomfortable in an alliance with Sharon, a former general renowned for favoring tough military action over talk.

While Ben-Eliezer fought some settlement expansion, other parts of the government pushed ahead with it. And under Ben-Eliezer's command, the army ended up defending the new settlers.

Meanwhile, Labor, which has an aging constituency, saw money being siphoned away from retirees and pumped into settlements, as public opinion polls showed the party's popularity plummeting. Leaders argued that they should return to their more dovish and socially liberal roots, leave the government and establish themselves as a true opposition. Faced with dwindling support for his leadership, Ben-Eliezer finally conceded.




2002 The Washington Post Company



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