ISRAEL looks set to take an even sharper turn to the right following the Labour
Party's resignation last week from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's unity government.
The departure of the largest party from the Knesset -- the Israeli parliament
-- leaves Sharon's Likud Party-led coalition without a defense or foreign minister
and just 55 of the 120 seats. Sharon must now decide whether to invite small,
ultranationalist and religious parties to join the government and push the coalition's
numbers above the 61 seats required for a controlling share; to try to govern
with a minority coalition; or to call early general elections.
Sharon is due to begin talks today with National Union-Yisrael Beitenu, an
extremist party that opposes peace with the Palestinian Authority. It currently
has seven seats in the Knesset. The one-member Moledat party, which advocates
expulsion of Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories, is already
expected to join Sharon's coalition.
He also needs new ministers, and the most dramatic appointment has been that
of former Israeli army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz to the post of defense minister,
replacing Benjamin Ben-Eliezer. Sharon's arch rival, hawkish former Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu, has been offered the post of foreign minister, replacing Shimon
In public, the Labour/Likud dispute was a budget dispute. Ben-Eliezer wanted
some $200 million earmarked for Jewish settlements in the West Bank to go to pensioners
and the poor. Sharon didn't. But commentators say the real reason was internal
Ben-Eliezer, who recently sent the army to dismantle newly established settlements,
needs to restore his credibility amongst Labour Party members ahead of this month's
primaries for next year's general elections. He is facing stiff competition ,
with some polls putting him in third place. Sharon, meanwhile, is threatened by
fellow Likud member Netanyahu and needs a pro-settler image to fight off this
Israeli left-wingers and peace activists are alarmed. Although many felt Labour
was compromising itself by being part of Sharon's hardline government, they also
saw its presence as the only restraint on its more extreme policies.
When Sharon and Mofaz advocated expelling Yasser Arafat earlier this year,
Ben-Eliezer and Peres were able to vote them down.
There is also concern at the prospect of Mofaz as defense minister. Mofaz,
who oversaw the army's April invasion of the West Bank, has a reputation for harsh
measures towards the Palestinians and accused their leadership of 'being infected
from head to toe with terror'. His tactics -- assassinations, house demolitions
and blockades -- have been condemned by human rights groups.
Sergio Yahni, director of the Jerusalem-based Israeli/Palestinian Alternative
Information Center says: 'The Israeli army is the big winner of the current crisis.
If Mofaz is appointed defense minister, the future government's space for maneuvering
will be under pressure from the army -- which assumes it is both possible and
desirable to win the war against the Palestinians.'
Yasser Arafat has also expressed his concern at Mofaz moving to defense, telling
Arabic television station al-Jazeera: 'What do you imagine will happen in the
But a lurch to the extreme right is not a fait accompli. Avigdor Lieberman,
leader of National Union-Yisrael Beitenu, is reported to be unsure about whether
to join the government. He is already confident of securing as many as 12 seats
in the elections, and is scared that a narrow coalition government could collapse.
His party's participation is also likely to be conditional on the government
adopting an extreme position on Palestine and the settlements. He wants Sharon's
government to declare the Oslo peace accords dead, committing itself in principle
to dismantling the Palestinian Authority.
Although Sharon is sympathetic to these positions, he is very conscious of
the need to maintain international support. Many of his advisers are recommending
that he avoid a partnership with the extreme right and, confident that he can
survive for a few months with the 55 Knesset members left in his coalition, call
the general election forward, from November 2003 to between February and May.
Either way, Sharon's narrow ad-hoc coalition will face it's first test tomorrow,
when the left-wing Meretz party will table a vote of no-confidence which could
see it disbanded.
©2002 smg sunday newspapers ltd