Why Sharon and Barak Agreed to a Unity Government

  • Share
  • Read Later

Ehud Barak, left, and Ariel Sharon during a meeting in Tel Aviv

By prioritizing stability over peace, Israel has left Yasser Arafat in an historic tight spot. Not that the Palestinian leader's dilemma will be of much concern to acting prime minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon, who announced late Thursday they'd agreed in principle to form a unity government. The priority of the unity coalition — in which it is mooted that Barak will serve as defense minister, Shimon Peres will be foreign minister and their Labor party will fill half of the 14 cabinet posts — will be Israel's security.

The final-status peace agreement that Labor had insisted, during the election campaign, was only a matter of weeks away is now on the back burner, and the new government's priority in negotiations with the Palestinians will be to achieve interim non-belligerency agreements — cease-fires, in a sense, rather than a peace treaty. For Barak to accept such dramatically truncated peace goals is a significant retreat, but then, having lost the election by 25 points, he has little room for maneuver. And besides, most commentators agree that the "imminent" final status agreement was always something of a myth in the cold light of day outside the negotiating chambers.

Searching for peace in parliament

Israel's new government looks set to take a de facto time-out from the peace process, at least as it has been defined over the past eight years, and work to restore stability in a country whose nerves are dangerously frayed. Indeed, forming a unity government is clearly an attempt by Israel's two major parties to calm the panic in domestic politics (once Sharon is sworn in next week, the country will have had four prime ministers in five years) and act in their mutual interest to restore the traditional Labor-Likud duopoly of power.

Leaders of both parties have complained in recent years that allowing voters to choose the prime minister and their parliamentary representatives on separate ballots creates an inherently unstable system of fragile coalitions, in which any government is beholden to the parochial interests of smaller parties.

That would have been Sharon's fate, too, had Labor stayed out. But both Sharon and Barak have compelling motivations for wanting to make this work: The more popular Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu stayed out of the election only because he believed that a direct vote for prime minister without changing the balance in parliament would produce an unstable and short-lived outcome. He would almost certainly challenge Sharon for the party's nomination, which means Sharon has good reason to make his government last. Barak, too, faces a mounting tide of Labor party discontent with his leadership — he actually announced his retirement on election night — and if he manages to convince the party to nominate him to serve in Sharon's government, he, too, has an interest in making it work to restore his own standing.

Arafat against a wall

Over in the West Bank and Gaza, though, the inevitable chill in peace efforts is something of a disaster for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority — because few Palestinians have much interest in "stabilizing" the current state of Palestinian politics in the way that the Israelis are trying to do with theirs. For the past eight years, the organizing principle of Palestinian politics has been the peace process, and its demise spells trouble for the Palestinian leadership. After all, if Arafat is clearly unable to secure an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza through negotiations, much less give Palestinians his promised state with Jerusalem as its capital, a growing number of Palestinians may begin asking what his authoritarian and notoriously corrupt administration has done for them lately.