Solving Israel's Puzzle
Can Sharon piece together a broad-based government?
Jewish Renaissance Media
he people want Sharon."
That was the Likud elec-
tion slogan and that was
the line chanted by the
crowds of supporters welcoming their
leader last week after the Jan. 28 Israeli
But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel
Sharon was somber, because he is
aware that his solid victory could
become his worst nightmare.
With Likud's 38 Knesset seats and
another 31 captured by right-wing par-
ties, it may never be easier for Sharon
to form a stable right-wing government
— but that's the last thing he wants.
What he wants — and what he
needs, say analysts — is a secular unity
government with Labor, which won
19 seats, and Tommy Lapid's Shinui
Party, which took 15 seats.
"All three parties roughly occupy ...
the same ideological middle ground
on security issues," wrote Calev Ben-
David in the Jerusalem Post. "That
would give Sharon far greater diplo-
matic maneuverability than he would
enjoy in a narrow right-wing govern-
ment if [he is] forced by international
pressure to negotiate with the
Such a secular coalition could be
one more election away, but Sharon
wants it now, as he made clear in his
"The differences between us dimin-
ish," he said to potential coalition part-
ners, "in the face of the murderous
hatred of the terrorist organizations, the
threat of war in the Gulf and attacks on
Israel and the economic crisis that is
ripping Israeli society apart."
Sharon is stressing a sense of
urgency, but he is taking his time put-
ting together the jigsaw pieces that
will give him 61 seats in the 120-seat
Knesset. At this point, he doesn't
know which pieces will ultimately fit
together, but regardless, said Dan
Korn, who teaches political science at
Ayalet Bechar is an Israeli fivelazzce
journalist. Jewish Renaissance Media is
the parent company of the Detroit
Tel Aviv University, Sharon "is facing
"Looking at the numbers, there is no
problem forming a government with-
out Labor, but that kind of govern-
ment, with ministers [to the right of
Likud] like Avigdor Liberman and Efi
Eitam, would create a greater problem.
"Sharon would have to declare, in
plain Hebrew, 'yes' to ousting [Yasser]
Arafat, 'no' to a Palestinian state. And
that is impossible," said Korn, who
ran on the Labor slate but did not win
At the same time, Korn added, "a
right-wing government would include
will be something to talk about" if
Sharon agrees to Labor's conditions.
Such terms could include re-opening
negotiations with the Palestinians
sooner than later, accelerating comple-
tion of the fence separating Israel and
the Palestinian territories and increas-
ing funding for the Israeli poor.
Nevertheless, it may be too risky for
Labor to break its first and foremost
election pledge: not to sit with Sharon.
"Ruling out unity government was
Mitzna's big mistake," said Tal
Silberstein, a political consultant at
Greenberg, Carville, Shrum and one
of the masterminds of Ehud Barak's
"Saying he wouldn't sit
with Sharon was typical left-
ist behavior, the kind that
disconnects Mitzna from
the people," said Silberstein.
"Sharon is considered a
legitimate leader, thanks to
terrorism and the war on
Islam. He is embraced by
the American administra-
tion, the press and even the
Democratic left in America,
not to mention the Jewish
community. Mitzna should
Former Detroiters Motie and Sonia Poss, with son
have never challenged
David, vote in the Jan. 28 Israeli elections.
Mitzna should have focused
the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), who are on the economic and social issues "and
poor, and that's another difficulty. At a not put his left-wing stands up front."
time of economic restraint, Sharon
Mitzna's camp didn't use any outside
would not be able to loosen the budg-
political consultants, but he might
et leash and make popular gestures [to
have profited from this advice from
Silberstein: "Saying the truth during
an election campaign may be brave,
but it just doesn't work. His line was
way too leftist. I wouldn't tell him to
Sharon's first meetings with Labor
lie, but why stress your weak points?"
leader Amram Mitzna and with Lapid
The demise of the Israeli left — which
didn't produce any agreements on
lost half of its power in less than a
unity, but he is sure to try again.
decade — gave way to the creation of a
'It's not a shame to be in the oppo-
strong center, led by Lipid and Shinui.
sition," Mitzna told his defeated party
on election night. But when he went
on to say, "We don't intend to join
Likud, but replace it," party elder
"The left thinks we are right and the
Shimon Peres was caught with a cyni-
right thinks we are left" Lapid joked at
cal raised eyebrow.
a rally in Jerusalem two days before
And Peres is not the only one inside
the election. "We are the sane center,"
Labor pushing for achdut (unity).
he said. And as it turned out, the cen-
Benjamin Ben Eliezer, the party chair-
ter was the prefect place to be.
man toppled by Mitzna, said, "There
"There is no doubt Lapid is the big
story of this election," said Michal
Shamir, a political science professor at
Tel Aviv University. "Lapid positioned
himself in the very center of consen-
sus. He said he is for the separation
fence and against terrorism, for a
Palestinian state but not now, for a
peace negotiation but not with Arafat.
Is this a realistic platform? That
remains to be seen."
Real or not, Lapid managed to
touch a chord with a confused and
disillusioned Israeli public.
"For a long time, the security issue
has been at the center of our politics,"
said Shamir. "Voters defined themselves
clearly and adamantly as left or right.
Following the collapse of Oslo and
eruption of violence, the old alternatives
are no longer viable — not the vision of
greater Israel, and not Peace Now
"People realize the solutions offered
by both left and right didn't work. It's
a complex reality, and nobody has a
Shamir, who researches Israeli voting
trends, points out a paradox: In the
long run, most Israelis still support
left-wing positions — such as building
the security fence, dismantling some
of the settlements and allowing the
creation of a Palestinian state. But in
the short run, they back Sharon's hard-
The reason for this paradox, said
Shamir, is total loss of faith in the
Palestinian side and in its willingness to
make peace. There is also a general feel-
ing that there is no hope for a solution.
In such an environment, Lapid did
the right thing: He focused on social
issues, presenting himself as the savior
of the oppressed Israeli middle class,
which bears the brunt of high taxes
and army service.
Even Lapid's attacks on the
Orthodox left him relatively
unscathed. While he was mocking the
elderly rabbinical leadership of the
Shas Party at a Jerusalem rally, a young
Orthodox man in the back rows was
waving his kippah as a show of sup-
"I'm tired of being the sucker," said
Avi, 22, who said he serves 36 days a
year in reserves and declined to give his
last name. "I am religious, but I'm
tired of the haredim milking the gov-
ernment, and I don't think the right
has anything to offer. Tommy's style is
extreme, but I like what he stands for."
Not everyone feels that way. In the
coffee shops of Jerusalem's secular and
affluent German Colony, Lapid vas
scorned as an opportunist hardliner.
Einat Temkin, who studies in Los
Angeles and flew back to Israel to