Israel's Government Won't Soon Change

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On the move: ben-Eliezer and Israeli Finance Minister Silvan Shalom in last-minute discussions

Middle Eastern Paradox #2785: The collapse of Ariel Sharon's national unity government is a sign of stability in Israeli politics. Sharon's Defense Minister Benjamin ben-Eliezer took his Labor Party out of the unity government on Wednesday in a move that may precipitate fresh elections. Sharon faces a no-confidence vote in the Knesset next Monday, which will determine whether he'll manage to attract sufficient support to continue governing with a narrower coalition or be forced to call new elections for early next year.

The immediate issue precipitating the split was the failure of the two sides to agree on Labor Party demands that Sharon amend his budget to reallocate funds away from the West Bank and Gaza settlements that form a central part of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians and instead spend the money on sectors of Israeli society left vulnerable by the country's shrinking economy. But there's nothing new about either the government's support for the settlements or the economic woes of millions of Israelis, which has Israeli analysts opining that ben-Eliezer is simply reaching for a wedge issue to distinguish his party from Sharon's Likud ahead of elections scheduled for November 2003.

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The party's grassroots membership had long been pushing for Labor to quit the unity government on the grounds that it offered no hope for progress toward peace with the Palestinians or of resolving Israel's deepening economic crisis — and also, no hope for the party that had ruled Israel for most of its 54-year history to reclaim the reins of power. After all, it's hard to fight an election against a government in which you're serving as a junior partner. Labor activists have long warned that the party is making itself irrelevant by its failure to articulate an alternative to the policies of Sharon. Now, ben-Eliezer has given himself the space to define his party as a challenger, rather than a peon, to Sharon. But it may be a Quixotic charge. The problem for Labor is that polls indicate that Sharon's party will easily win a new election, possibly by an even larger margin than it did in February 2001. Indeed, the most competitive race in the coming election cycle will not be between Sharon and ben-Eliezer but between Sharon and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud nomination.

Ben-Eliezer also faces a primary challenge from legislator Haim Ramon and Haifa mayor Amram Mitzna, and he currently trails both men in the polls. Some Israeli analysts speculate that his sudden choice of the path of confrontation with Sharon is motivated in no small part by his desire to see off challengers within his own party. But it remains to be seen whether either Mitznah or Ramon is considered a credible candidate by the party's base or were simply a protest-vote choice of activists looking to get ben-Eliezer out of the government. Labor's decision also inserts curious question mark after the name of foreign minister Shimon Peres. There is considerable speculation in Israel that the former prime minister might choose to quit his own party and remain at Sharon's side as an independent rather than follow ben-Eliezer on a path that, for Peres personally, may end in political oblivion.

Even for ben-Eliezer, quitting the government is a risky option. Serving as Sharon's Defense Minister has put him front-and-center in the battle for Israel's security, and he's earned positive ratings in the job. Surrendering the position in a period when terror attacks continue and the danger of an Iraqi provocation looms leaves him in danger of becoming the forgotten man of Israeli politics, especially since he's not exactly known for his charisma or ability to articulate a strong political alternative to road chosen by Sharon.

Even if its current coalition collapses there's little doubt that Sharon's party will return to power. While that may be taken as a sign of stability, the fact that it's matched on the other side by Yasser Arafat's own success — against mounting odds — at clinging to power suggests that it may be the stability of deadlock. Mindful of the extent to which its bona fides in the Arab world are judged through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the U.S. has lately been sending State Department emissaries to the region touting what it calls a "road map" to peace and Palestinian statehood via a Palestinian crackdown on terrorism, an Israeli settlement freeze and other familiar prescriptions. Washington's proposals have been received with all due politesse, but nobody in the region is taking them seriously as any kind of guide to action in the near term. The domestic politics of both Israel and the Palestinians, right now, holds little prospect for movement along the path being charted by the U.S. roadmap. The very stability of domestic politics on both sides may, if anything, act to reinforce the instability of the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians.