Sharon's coalition has depended heavily on the presence of Labor to win a measure of international support for its hard-line policies. Now, when world leaders criticize Sharon, he will no longer be able to ship off Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, one of the Labor leaders who resigned, to argue Israel's case. So long as Peres, an architect of the Oslo peace process, remained, there was hope Sharon might negotiate with the Palestinians. That's less likely now. Sharon has already offered the defense portfolio to the recently retired head of the army, Shaul Mofaz, who is hated by Palestinians for leading the big Israeli invasion of the West Bank last spring.
But neither international relations nor settlement policies had much to do with the politics behind the resignation. As Defense Minister, Ben-Eliezer often came off as tougher on the Palestinians than even Sharon, and polls show that Labor Party members would probably oust him as party leader at a conference on Nov. 19. Rather than face that battle as Sharon's Defense Minister, Ben-Eliezer bolted the government to boost his liberal credentials. Sharon, meanwhile, has his own party problems. Likud leaders will meet next week to choose a party president, and Sharon's candidate is being opposed by one backed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his chief rival. Sharon has offered Netanyahu the post of Foreign Minister just vacated by Peres, leaving Netanyahu with a difficult choice: hitch his wagon to Sharon or lose face among the party faithful by declining to step up in a moment of crisis.