Why Sharon Wants Vanquished Labor in Government

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Labor leader Amram Mitzna lost heavily at the polls, but he remains Sharon's preferred coalition partner

Tuesday, Ariel Sharon lead Likud to a commanding 37 seats, making him the first incumbent prime minister in almost two decades to win reelection. The win allows him to select the coalition partners of his choice, but the prime minister is refusing the option of building a narrow coalition with Likud's natural allies among the far-right and religious parties. Instead, to the consternation of his own party's base, Sharon is bending over backwards to make dove Amram Mitznah his senior coalition partner.

Mitznah, leader of the Labor Party, is stubbornly refusing. It's easy to see why; Labor activists see rejoining Sharon in government as the kiss of death for the traditional party of peace, because such coalitions typically agree to avoid taking positions in the areas that most sharply divide their members — and in the case of Labor and Likud, those differences run to the fundamentals of what is required for peace with the Palestinians. Mitznah took over party leadership from former defense minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer precisely because Labor had lost its independent identity while serving as the junior partner in Sharon's security-oriented coalition. Mitznah campaigned on calls for reviving political dialogue with the Palestinians where it left off at the start of the current intifada, and moving quickly to evacuate Gaza and much of the West Bank. He knew these positions would not win a majority of voters this time around, but he was campaigning with the next election in mind — and in that spirit, he made a campaign promise to stay out of the suffocating clutch of a Sharon unity government.

So why is Sharon denying his own base in order to draw a party of reluctant doves who differ sharply with his policies into a national unity government? The answer may lie in the fact that the unspoken coalition-partner of any Israeli government is the President of the United States — the ally whose requests Israel cannot afford to ignore and whose red lines it cannot afford to cross. Sharon, of course, has no worries on that front — at least for now. He has achieved a unity of purpose with the Bush administration that few had thought possible when he was first elected two years ago, and his popularity among Israeli voters is in no small part a product of his ability to successfully manage the relationship with Washington at the same time as implementing a hard line against the Palestinian uprising.

Still, despite the Bush administration's support for Sharon and its willingness to accommodate his political needs — Washington refrained, for example, from releasing its "road map" for peace before the Israeli election specifically in order to avoid putting pressure on Sharon — the wider U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond inevitably put Washington into conflict with Sharon's political base, even if not necessarily with the prime minister himself. The U.S. has, for example, insisted that Israel refrain from expelling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from the occupied territories — a demand popular among Likud supporters, and even more so among the parties of the far right. The U.S. has also signaled its intention to press for a settlement freeze in those territories as part of a future peace effort, another position not shared by Sharon's base. And the Likud party voted last May (against Sharon's wishes) to reaffirm as party policy the rejection of any Palestinian state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea — a fundamental objective of U.S. policy.

Despite his popularity and the scale of his mandate, Sharon finds himself unable to fulfill many of the wishes of his most fervent supporters, but not because of a lack of parliamentary support. That trend may even intensify if the Bush administration finds itself needing greater Arab support to manage the complex and dangerous task of occupying a post-Saddam Iraq.

Having the Labor Party as a coalition partner rather than right-wing and religious parties even more hard-line than Likud therefore gives Sharon the domestic political cover to make decisions unpopular with his own base but necessary for his ties with Washington. Indeed, Mitznah's presence in the government would make managing the relationship easier for the Bush administration too by offsetting any domestic pressure in the U.S. against restraining Israel's more hard-line instincts — better to have the Israeli government drawing its own red lines by virtue of a coalition agreement than imposing those red lines from without.

Sharon's aides have vowed that the prime minister will make Mitznah an offer he can't refuse, believing that pressure from the party's base and the state of crisis-alert brought on by the prospect of U.S. action in Iraq will force Labor into a coalition. Ironically, the dovish party's presence in government has been made more important precisely because of the strength of Sharon's mandate from the Right, which the prime minister will want to dilute somewhat in order to pursue his own version of a peace plan with his more potent coalition partner in the White House.