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Israeli coalition mysteries - a perplexing guide


Israeli coalition politics, which may be crucial to the future of Ariel Sharon's disengagement plan, are mystifying for Israelis as well as outsiders. This brief survey may leave you with a more sophisticated level of confusion.

Sharon was able to form a solid majority government on election, but found himself heading a minority government after the National Union Party and part of the National Religious Party defected because of opposition to the disengagement plan.

His government was further weakened when he lost a vote of the Likud party central committee over the disengagement plan, and a nucleus of opposition formed within the party. Since Sharon is the head of the Likud and retains a great personal popularity within his own party, you might think he would have little problem raising support for the disengagement plan. You might think so, but you would be wrong.

Sharon initiated talks with the Labor party for a "unity" government, to consist of the Likud, the secular libertarian Shinui party and Labor, to provide the needed majority support for disengagement. Tragicomically, his opponents in the Likud called this coaltion of the righ-wing Likud (40 Members of Knesset) the free-enterprise loving Shinui (14 members not counting disgraced member Paritsky) and Labor (22 MKs) a "Leftist government." They rushed back from watching Sabbath day soccer games, put away their ham sandwiches, and announced that a Likud government must have a religious component: any unity government must include religious parties. The motivation behind this epiphany was transparent.

The idea was to hand Sharon a jigsaw puzzle composed of pieces from two different boxes, that could never be assembled, and it may have succeeded. The relgious parties that could join such a government are the rightist NRP, which opposes disengagement, and the ultraorthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties, which oppose Shinui. These two parties are right-wing colored, but would probably go along with disengagement, if they got money for their religious projects and sufficient support for religious coercion laws. The Shinui party however, is against religious coercion and corrupt government which has characterized Shas, and therefore refuses to sit in the same government as Shas party members. They are willing to from a government with United Torah Judaism, provided UTJ doesn't raise any demands for ministries and concessions in legislation, which of course is unacceptable to UTJ.

Polls indicate that a solid majority of Israelis support disengagement ( up to 71%) and want a secular coalition, so you might think that is what we would get, but again you would be wrong. What the people want doesn't matter all that much in coalition logic.

Sharon now put the matter of coalition negotiations to a vote in the Likud convention. Given his experience in the Central Committee with disengagement, you might think he would be more wary and better prepared this time. You would be wrong. The Likud Convention turned him down, and ruled out negotiations with the Labor party. You might think that was the end of negotiations with the Labor party, and the end of the disengagement plan, but you might be wrong. Sharon's aides announced that he would continue with the disengagement plan, and most likely would continue negotiations with the Labor party. Several Likud party members who voted to veto Labor participation in the government, including Michael Eitan, paradoxically announced that they support the disengagement plan.

After the Likud party vote, Shimon Peres announced that the Israel Labor party would call for new elections. You might think that at least, was finally putting an end to negotiations, and you might think that elder stateman Peres is the undisputed leader of the Labor party. You would be wrong on both counts. As an article in the Jerusalem Post explained, the call for stopping the negotiations and initiating new elections was really a call to continue the negotiations to join the government. Impossible? Here is the quote:

Labor's coalition negotiation team decided on Thursday to suspend the coalition talks with the Likud and prepare for early elections. Party leader Shimon Peres is to hold a special press conference at 8:00 p.m. Thursday.

MK Amram Mitzna, who participated in the meeting, said that if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will invite party leaders for a meeting, they would not refuse.

The decision signals to Sharon that he should ignore the embarrassing results of Wednesday's Likud convention and still try to bring Labor into the government in order to go ahead with his plan of disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

At the same time, Labor MKs revolted, vetoing negotiations and claiming that Peres is not the agreed-upon leader of the Labor party. ou might think that could be easily settled, but again you would be wrong. Amazingly, we learn that the question of whether or not Peres will lead Labor in future elections, is not a matter of record, but depends on the memories of different people concerning who said what, and when they said it.

Shochat accused Peres on Sunday of reneging on an explicit promise to the party to step down in favor of others...

Peres said in response that Shochat's memory had failed him. "This was his invention," Peres said of the supposed pledge against running for re-election. "They wanted me to obligate myself [against running] and I refused."

If the negotiations fail, and Labor does not join the government, will the government fall? You might think so, but you would be wrong. Under the current Israeli election law, a government cannot be unseated if it loses a no-confidence vote, unless an absolute majority of Knesset members agree to support the same candidate to form a new government. The only politician in Israel who could get such support at this time is probably Ariel Sharon. Therefore, Labor's call for new elections is void of content unless all parties agree to dissolve the Knesset. In any case, the future of the disengagement plan may depend much more on pressure from the United States and the actions of the Palestinian authority than upon the likes and dislikes of the Likud party MKs.

You might think that with record unemployment, corruption scandals besetting the Prime Minister and stagnation in the peace process, Israelis would be ready to bring down the government. If so, then new elections would be the best course for the opposition Labor party. You might think that, but you would be wrong. Polls show that the left might gain four seats in new elections, not enough to form a government without the ultraorthodox parties.

The dilemma of the Labor party is that if it joins the government, whether or not disengagement becomes a reality, it will necessarily be a party to the disastrous economic policies of Benjamin Nethanyahu, and to unconscionable aspects of Israeli foreign policy. Accordingly, several Labor party figures including former PM Ehud Barak and some political pundits have suggested that Labor should support the government from outside, or should join the government without accepting ministerial positions. Of course, this amounts to supporting the government anyhow. In Israel however, we like to play at "as if." A venerable Israeli comedy skit has a naive fellow applying for a job. The post pays starvation base wages because of regulations, but the salary, he is told, will also include perks.

"We will give you an allowance for work clothing"

"But I don't need any work clothing."

"That is not the point. You will get the money as if you need to buy work clothing. We will also give you an allowance for professional literature, do you understand, Baruch?"

"But no professional literature is required for this post!"

"That is not the point. You will get the money as if you need to buy professional literature. We will also give you an allowance for gasoline and automobile expenses, do you understand, Baruch?"

"But I don't own an automobile."

"That is not the point. You will get the money as if you use an automobile for work.Fo you understand, Baruch?

The hope of these Labor politicians, is that they can support the government now, but when elections are held, they can appear to the Israeli electorate as if they did not support one of the worst and most corrupt governments in Israeli history.

The parallelogram of opposing forces within and between the major political parties in Israel has resulted in several stalemates. Most people want disengagement, but aren't willing to actively fight for it. A minority of the electorate is opposed to evacuating any settlements, but they are a vocal and politically active and organized minority. Most of the electorate wants a secular government, but again, their will is frustrated by an organized minority. The real solution lies in a reinvigorated Labor party with a vision and leadership that could overcome the petty political squabbling and implement the clear will of the people, but that apparently isn't going to happen. Meanwhile, the Israeli political scene is governed by a series of paradoxes that surpass the understanding of ordinary mortals.

Ami Isseroff

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000293.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 5 comments


Posted by michael eitan @ 09/06/2004 06:37 PM CST

So tragic that all this low comedy in the Israeli governing structure causes so much suffering to Palestinians and puts the Israeli population in constant danger because of their mendacious, unjust, and racist policies that put the whole region in a pressure cooker. Here's to someday rising above partisan politics and treating people like human beings.

Posted by Sasha @ 09/07/2004 05:20 PM CST

This site is incredible.....in that I read nowhere of the deplorable, inhumane treatment of the Palestinians by the Israeli "Defense Forces", nor do I see any mention of the horrible "Walled" communities, resembling prisons......The slow motion Holocaust that is being perpetrated against the Palestinians needs to be addressed.....NOW! Get Real....This is today, we are much smarter than you give us credit for. Peace for Palestine and the Palestinian people.

Posted by Laura M. Hampton @ 09/14/2004 08:48 AM CST

The problem in Israel is Zionism itself. The True Torah Jews reject Zionism. Zionism is Jewish nationalism and like German nationalism is capable of committing horrors on other peoples. The solution to the Palestine can not be found without merging the Palestinians and the Israelis in a truly Democratic State. Israel can never be considered a democracy when it does not allow anyone but Jews to own land.

Posted by John H. St.John @ 09/22/2004 07:52 PM CST

If the israelis have the right to defend themselves then so do the Palestinians! The U.S. NEEDS to STOP funding Israel due to the autrocities and human rights violations that ISRAEL is continuing to commit. It is a basic question of what is right vs. what is wrong. The elimination of the palestinians will be looked at in the same light as the holocust, and the state of Israel will not be able to survive democratically.
peace in the middle east!!!

Posted by jasim @ 10/06/2004 10:55 PM CST

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