I srael’s “Unity” government has collapsed. The marriage of the Likud and Labor parties ended when Labor Party members followed their leader, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, out of the Cabinet in a dispute over the budget. While the stated reason for the departure was fairness to the poor and elderly, party politics has apparently prevailed over principle. The loss of Labor’s moderating influence on the government means that policy is likely to shift to the right. That is bad news as tensions rise in the Middle East, both as a result of the continuing Palestinian intifada and U.S. pressure for regime change in Iraq.
The Unity government was formed 20 months ago when national elections gave no party a majority in the Israeli Parliament. Although Labor has more seats in the assembly, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon serves as prime minister, having won more votes in a direct election for that post. Mr. Sharon recognized that the country needed to speak with one voice to confront the Palestinian uprising.
The coalition government survived until last week, when Mr. Ben-Eliezer demanded that the budget shift $150 million destined for settlements on the West Bank to the elderly, students and the disadvantaged. The two sides could not reach agreement, prompting Mr. Ben-Eliezer and five fellow Labor Party members to leave the Cabinet.
While Mr. Ben-Eliezer has claimed that he was defending Labor Party principles, his real motivation was more basic. His position within the government had cost him support within his party. Critics argue that Labor’s participation in the government gave Mr. Sharon legitimacy without enjoying any real influence in return. The argument appeared to have weight within party membership. Opinion polls had him tailing two leftwing rivals for the party leadership.
After the Labor members withdrew, Mr. Sharon turned to Mr. Shaul Mofaz, a former army chief of staff, to assume the post of defense minister. Mr. Mofaz is a hardliner who has advocated expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and led the Israeli campaign to reoccupy Palestinian cities in response to attacks by Palestinian militants on Israel.
Mr. Sharon has also entered into negotiations with his chief rival in Likud, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, reportedly to offer him the post of foreign minister, to replace Mr. Shimon Peres, who left with Mr. Ben-Eliezer. Mr. Netanyahu has urged the prime minister to take a harder line against the Palestinians; he supports expelling Mr. Arafat and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.
Mr. Netanyahu appears likely to take the foreign minister’s job, but only if Mr. Sharon agrees to move up elections. Like Mr. Ben-Eliezer, he is focused on his political prospects. He is worried that refusing the job would split Likud, which he hopes to head after the next party leadership vote.
Neither Mr. Netanyahu nor Mr. Mofaz is likely to push the government to the right. That might not be true if Mr. Sharon turns to other right-leaning parties to govern. The prime minister has met with ultranationalist parties to shore up his Cabinet. One candidate is the National Union-Israel Beiteinu party, which has seven seats, enough to restore the government’s majority. National Union was originally part of Sharon’s coalition, but left after policy disputes. It opposes negotiations with the Palestinians and wants to annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Officials in the Israeli government deny that policies will change as a result of the Cabinet shakeup. The United States, which has supported Mr. Sharon, is likely to pressure him to make sure that is the case. A harder line will only inflame public opinion in the Middle East. It will make the difficult task of building a coalition against Iraq even more daunting. And it will divert attention from Mr. Arafat, give him a scapegoat for any deterioration in the occupied territories, and derail any hope for reform within the Palestinian Authority.
Labor is hoping the moves will galvanize Israel’s left. Their strategists anticipate that Mr. Sharon will show his true colors without the moderating influence of his Labor partners.
Nov. 4 was the seventh anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a Jewish extremist who opposed his peacemaking efforts; the tens of thousands of people that turned out for a memorial service offered proof that there is a hunger for another such peacemaker in Israel.
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