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January 2003 Israel News Review

Jerusalem • 1/30/2003


Israeli voters stampeded to Ariel Sharon’s Likud party in the January 28 election, crushing the Oslo advocate Labor and Meretz parties under their feet in the process. Despite his impressive landslide victory, Sharon now faces tortuous coalition negotiations that are expected to dominate the news in February, and maybe even into March. Reflecting this reality, Sharon adopted a somber tone in his victory speech, calling for a new unity government while noting that the divisive and acrimonious vote came just as the country is forced to hunker down for the apparently looming US-UK showdown with Saddam.

The former general—pronounced politically dead by most pundits in the 1980s—led his party from its nadir of only 19 seats in the 120 member Knesset to an astounding 37. Yet this unexpectedly strong performance still leaves him 24 seats short of forming a majority coalition government, forcing him to court many of the 10 parties who crossed the threshold into the 13th Knesset. It could well be one of the most difficult tasks of his life—and that is saying something for the war hero and longtime government official. If the smaller parties, many with singular minority agendas, stick to their guns, Sharon will find it nearly impossible to form a stable government to rule until the next scheduled elections in late 2007.


In most democracies, and certainly in the US and UK, politicians with positions on the edge of the mainstream are forced to refine them for a larger audience inside one of the major political parties, or else they get nowhere. This is unfortunately not the case in Israel, where almost anyone can get into the Knesset. This results in political gridlock, which has contributed to no less than four national elections in the last seven years.

Instead of fighting for their positions inside one of the two main parties, Israeli would-be politicians with non-centrist messages, and/or who have a problem with one of the big parties, simply take to the streets and find enough supporters to get them into parliament on their own. Their messages are usually simple and stirring. The only problem with them is that they turn off a vast majority of Israeli voters, and therefore have virtually no chance of becoming the policy of the land.

The best that most small parties can hope to achieve is to tie the hands of whoever sits in the premier’s chair (if they are a member of the coalition), to receive extra funding for their causes, or to make some noise in the opposition. In effect, Israel’s “twelve party system,” which flows from the fact that it takes a mere 1.5% of the overall vote to cross the Knesset threshold, often renders veto power to viewpoints that are only shared by a small fringe of Israeli citizens, adding to political stalemate and paralysis.


Despite Ariel Sharon’s capture of nearly one-third of all Knesset seats; stalemate may still be the order of the day as he struggles to knit together a workable coalition. However, the main problem this time is not the small parties, but the fact that the medium-sized Labor and Shinui parties put forth coalition-busting positions during the election campaign. Labor said it would not join another Sharon-led unity government “under any conditions” while Shinui insisted it would never sit around a cabinet table with the two ultra-Orthodox parties (who together captured one more seat than Shinui).

Once Israel’s dominant party, Labor fell to just 19 seats by failing to publicly acknowledge that its “land for peace” gamble with Yasser Arafat brought ruin to the country. A similar fate befell the Orthodox Shas party, which supported the Oslo process in return for government favors under the late Yitzhak Rabin. The religious party dropped from 17 seats to 11.

Averring that the real problem is Sharon—who only came to power in 2001 in the wake of the Oslo collapse and renewed Palestinian violence—Labor chose Haifa mayor Amran Mitzna as its new leader. As the election results show, he led it into the ground. To be fair, most polls revealed that a vast majority of anguished Israeli voters were planning to punish the “peace party” no matter who headed it. However by choosing Mitzna, with his unilateral Gaza pullout plan and “I’ll talk to Arafat under any conditions” position, the party was almost guaranteed to end up deep in the pits.

Post-election commentators said Mitzna’s worst mistake was adamantly ruling out participation in another Sharon-led government. With the small Jewish state facing another potential round of Iraqi missile attacks—along with a possible assault from Hizbullah forces and a blowout with Syria—all polls reveal that most people want at least a show of unity from their legislators. On top of that, they simply did not buy Mitzna’s contention that Sharon is responsible for the economic and security malaise afflicting the land. Instead, most blame Labor’s failed Oslo process and its hasty Lebanon army retreat for the new Palestinian uprising and subsequent financial decline, and for the growing threat from Hizbullah forces along the northern border.


If the PM is forced to write off Labor as a coalition ally—which may not be the case if Mitzna is either squeezed out as party leader or forced to change his mind by disgruntled former ministers—he is left with just two remaining coalition options (unless Labor splits in two with one half joining Sharon, as some predict). The first possibility is a narrow 65 to 67 seat exclusively right-wing government. Since all 4 or 5 participating parties share the Likud party’s abhorrence with Arafat’s terror-supporting Palestinian Authority, such a coalition seems a natural one. However, the last two Likud-led nationalist governments, under Yitzhak Shamir and Binyamin Netanyahu, collapsed prematurely due to ultra-right party demands considered over the top by the two leaders.

Signs that this scenario would repeat itself were evident before the January 28th vote. The largest right-wing party, the 7-seat National Union headed by Russian immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, vowed to demand that Sharon completely forswear the creation of a Palestinian state in the coming years before it would agree to join his cabinet. Several other parties agree with this stand.

The re-elected PM realizes that such a coalition pledge would seriously harm diplomatic, economic and military relations with Israel’s Washington ally and with the European Union—and that on the eve of a regional war of unpredictable proportions. Economist’s say the mere threat of such a breech would send the tottering Israeli shekel into a nosedive and the local business community into a tizzy, as occurred when Netanyahu originally balked at the US-brokered Wye Accord in 1998 (his subsequent signature resulted in the collapse of his narrow coalition).

Sharon wants to instead hold forth his “conditional support” for a “provisional Palestinian state.” He has made clear that his conditions are extremely tough indeed. They include that such a state be sans Arafat, that it stops all support for Palestinian terrorism and cracks down hard on renegade groups, that it drops “right of return” demands for Palestinian refugees to pour into Israel’s pre-Six Day war borders, that it agrees to allow most Jewish settlements to remain in place, and that it be completely demilitarized apart from a lightly armed police force.

Such conditions are anathema to the current crop of PLO-bred Palestinian leaders, meaning Sharon’s provisional state is hardly on the horizon. But Israel’s far right parties are seemingly unable to grasp that the Likud leader might just be playing it very smart by both satisfying Israel’s nervous business community and her closest Western allies with at least nominal support for a Palestinian state, while at the same time holding out for a neighboring country that is unlikely to ever appear.

As I’ve written before, the main problem Likud leaders always have with allied nationalist and religious parties is that they are actually looking for the Messiah (the religious parties are also always interested in a greater share of the government’s economic pie, which causes periodic coalition wobbles as well). When Likud leaders deviate from cherished right-wing dogmas—as they are bound to do on occasion, given that the vast majority of Israeli voters and businessmen are found in the political center—they are tossed to the wolves. Then new elections are held, usually sweeping leftist leaders back into power, as was the case with Rabin and Ehud Barak. When they ultimately fail to carry out their overly optimistic and naïve agendas, the process repeats itself. Political analysts predict that any narrow coalition now will produce the same results, even if the more right-wing Netanyahu were to become prime minister before the new government’s term of office is scheduled to end in 2007.


The apparently unsolvable Israeli-Palestinian conflict—reflected in Labor’s main campaign pledge to simply Build a Big Wall to keep the terrorists out, and Likud’s vow to hold tight and lumber on as best as possible—led many voters to swell the ranks of the anti-religious Shinui (Change) party, which rocketed from 6 to 15 Knesset mandates. Shinui’s platform could be summarized in the pledge to make Israel a secular state where Judaism plays only a minor role—about as likely to happen as hell freezing over.

Any serious attempt to implement Shinui’s central campaign promises, especially to end all public Sabbath travel and business restrictions, to draft religious men into the army and to stop most government subsidies to Orthodox religious institutions, would lead to civil unrest on a grand scale. Sharon is unlikely to risk such a potentially violent and devastating culture clash in the midst of a Palestinian jihad war of annihilation.

Whether many Israelis like it or not, close to 40% of the country’s Jews are observant in one form or another. This is not a tiny minority that can be easily swallowed up by a post-religious, mainly Ashkenazi “enlightened elite.” To think otherwise, and especially to hope that the Likud party would ever back a “secular majority” move to suppress the very religious community that has been its backbone for decades, is to dream. Yet opinion polls showed that some traditional Likud supporters voted for Shinui, hoping their ballots would pressure Sharon and company to sever the longstanding alliance with the religious parties, who captured 21 seats in the January 28th election. Such a strategy, in the world’s only Jewish State with a high Orthodox birth rate, is not just to dream, but to spin off into Disneyland.

Barring a humiliating climb down by Labour leaders in the coming weeks, analysts say the only other possible coalition besides an exclusively right-wing one would knit Shinui together with the Natan Sharansky’s small Aliyah party (down from 5 seats to 2), the National Religious Party (5) and the Am Ehad workers party (which rose to 4 seats from 2). Shinui leader Tommy Lapid has magnanimously stated that he could tolerate the NRP since its supporters are staunch Zionists who mostly serve in the army. However the religious party is fiercely opposed to even talking about a Palestinian state, and may balk if Sharon, Shinui or Am Ehad insists that such be included in coalition guidelines.


Israel’s fresh political uncertainty comes during a period of great existential danger to the tiny Jewish island located in a raging Islamic sea. The dangers were underlined in early January when Palestinian terrorists from Arafat’s Fatah movement carried out the second deadliest atrocity of the 28 month old war of attrition, and later when the radical Hizbullah militia opened fire along Israel’s tense northern border. The latest massive terror attack took the lives of 23 people in Tel Aviv, 6 of them foreign workers.

Under sustained pressure from the Bush White House not to rock the boat in the run up to pending war against Saddam, Sharon ordered his forces to keep their powder dry. However, he forcefully responded to an Islamic Jihad ambush later in the month that left three soldiers dead near Hebron, and to renewed rocket attacks on Israeli towns near the Gaza Strip, by ordering the largest incursion into Gaza City since the Palestinian attrition war began in September 2000.

Egypt brought together most Palestinian factions in Cairo during January, supposedly to hammer out a ceasefire agreement with Israel. However the talks failed, with most groups vowing to intensify the violent conflict. This came as Hamas leaders publicly acknowledged what Israeli officials have maintained all along: Arafat gives them an effective green light to launch terrorist attacks by doing nothing concrete to stop them.

Thousands of Palestinians demonstrated their “peaceful intentions” by marching in PA-sponsored pro-Saddam rallies during the month. Meanwhile the Israeli government issued instruction booklets in six languages in anticipation of a possible attack from Iraq, while worrying that a blatant Hizbullah assault on Israeli army positions in mid-January might signal that the radical group is preparing to violently support Saddam. In light of all this, we can be thankful that Israel has a Heavenly Protector who warns us that, “The Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.” (Isaiah 34:8).


DAVID DOLAN is an author and journalist who lived and worked in Israel for over three decades, beginning in 1980.

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