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January 31, 2003 - Image 16

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-01-31

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Israel Votes

Tough Talks

Even a sharp politician like Sharon may find national unity out of reach.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency



after an anticipated American attack on Iraq.
There are personal considerations, too: There is
bad blood between Sharon and National Union
leader Avigdor Lieberman, who would become a
major player in a right-wing coalition.
Sharon was incensed when Lieberman torpedoed
his attempt to set up a narrow government last
October. "We are not like gum, for Sharon to chew
and then spit out," Lieberman declared in the
Knesset, referring to Sharon's oft-stated preference
for a national unity government with Labor.

riel Sharon is one of the savviest politi-
cians Israel has produced.
It was Sharon who brought disparate
right-wing parties together to form the
Likud Party in 1973. It was also Sharon who, two
years ago, persuaded a battered and bruised Labor
Party to join a national unity government after
Sharon won the premiership from the Labor
incumbent, Ehud Barak.
But even Sharon will be hard-pressed to put
together the broad-based government he would
like, despite the unprecedented scope of Tuesday's
victory for the Likud and the Israeli right.
ningsaic llikassv'y
Labor is refusing to join a Sharon coalition, and
the third-place Shinui Party has set stringent con-
ditions for joining. That could leave Sharon fac-
ing his "nightmare scenario": a narrow coalition
with the far-right and Orthodox parties.
Not easily deterred, Sharon will do all he can to
entice Labor and Shinui into his government. His
success could decide whether a new peace process
can be launched, the kind of economic plan the
country adopts, whether changes will be made in
the religious-secular status quo — and even how
long the government will last.
The left's crushing defeat evoked opposing reac-
tions from its leaders. Meretz's Yossi Sarid
announced that he would resign, whereas Labor's
Amram Mitzna said he was determined to fight
on. "We will remind Sharon and the Israeli public
day in and day out that there is an alternative,"
WNI .2 •
he declared. "Politics is a marathon, and we are
only in the beginning kilometers."
For Shinui leader Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, the
red line for his secular rights party is whether the
government includes fervently Orthodox parties.
Even without Labor and Shinui, Sharon still
could form a stable coalition in the 120-member
Knesset, but it would be a narrow government of
the Likud, the far-right and the Orthodox parties.
Pundits agree that such a government couldn't
move toward peace with the Palestinians or
implement much-needed economic reforms.
Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon cast his vote in a school
voting station in Jerusalem on Jan. 28.


Potential Problems

Sharon believes a narrow coalition would deny him
the flexibility to maintain excellent ties with
Washington and to move forward on the Palestinian
track. Israel is expected to come under increased pres-
sure to make diplomatic progress with the Palestinians

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the
Jerusalem Report. JTA Correspondent Naomi Segal in
Jerusalem contributed to this report.




If Sharon is forced into a narrow coalition, some
pundits believe he will make sure it doesn't last, pre-
cipitating yet another general election.
A coalition with Labor might force Sharon to
adopt more conciliatory policies toward the
Palestinians than he would like. On the other hand,
it would give him flexibility toward the Americans,
better standing in Europe and the ability to make
concessions on the Palestinian track, while deflecting

international pressure to negotiate under fire.
Indeed, in his victory speech, Sharon made a pas-
sionate appeal for a unity government with Labor,
quoting the late Labor Prime Minister Yitzhak
Rabin on the common destiny of the Jewish people.
Parties shouldn't let "narrow political considera-
tions" override the national interest, he said. He also
recommended that "things said in the passion of
elections" — such as Mitzna's pledge not to enter a
coalition with Likud — not become "an obstacle
before national unity."
Aides suggest Sharon will work hard to entice
Labor to join the government: He would include
Q- the establishment of a Palestinian state in govern-
ment guidelines, offer Labor key ministries —
including Foreign Affairs and Finance — and even
consider the country's first all-secular coalition.
Shinui leader Lapid, in fact, called on Labor
to reverse course and join a secular coalition. As
veteran columnist Nachum Barnea wrote in
Yediot Achronot "Shakespeare's tragic hero,
Richard III, cried in his distress: 'A horse, a
horse. My kingdom for a horse.' Sharon is not
that generous, but he needs the horse."
It's no accident that Sharon has appointed his
former bureau chief, Uri Shani, to head the
Likud's negotiating team: Shani has close per-
sonal contacts with veteran Labor figures, espe-
cially Shimon Peres.


Splitting Labor

But Shani faces a tough road: Mitzna believes
one of the main reasons for Labor's electoral
debacle was its long sojourn in Sharon's last
national unity government. As part of the
Likud-led administration, Labor's identity was
blurred and it shared blame for the Likud's mis-
takes, Mitzna contends.
The only way to rebuild the party and make it
a real alternative is by challenging the Likud from
the opposition, Mitzna insists. Moreover, Labor
leaders don't trust Sharon's peace talk, seeing it as
a ploy to interest them in coalition-building.
Even if he can't win over Labor as a whole,
Sharon still hopes to attract individual Labor
leaders — including former party heads Peres
and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer — with ministerial
and policy offers.
If he succeeds, the impact on Israeli political
life would be dramatic: It could lead to a split in
Labor, with one 'faction joining Sharon in the gov-
ernment and the other establishing a new social
democratic grouping with Meretz.
So far, Ben-Eliezer and Peres say they are solidly
behind Mitzna, and will not be drawn into a coali-
tion with Sharon. But external events — such as war
in Iraq or Mitzna's failure to assert his leadership in
the opposition — could change things.

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