Sharon courts hard-liners

Israel's parliament is scheduled to vote on a no-confidence measure Monday.

For nearly 20 months, Israel's politicians have managed to avoid real debate over the conflict with Palestinians, preferring to maintain a united "war" footing.

But the center did not hold.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's broad-based coalition collapsed Wednesday with the resignation of the Labor Party from his government. To stay in power, he is now courting hard-line politicians in order to survive a no-confidence vote in parliament set for Monday.

Labor, long maligned by Israel's leftists for its cohabitation with Sharon, will be free to attack his policies, invigorating the national debate. "Now everything will be clearer and more lucid," wrote columnist Nehemia Strassler in yesterday's Ha'aretz, Israel's leading daily.

Sharon will be left with a solidly right-wing government, which may further aggravate anti-Israeli feelings in the Arab world and thus complicate US attempts to win regional acceptance for any military move against Iraq.

Still, Sharon and other Israeli leaders know they stand to benefit from the US deposing the Iraqi regime, so a desire not to irritate the Bush administration may act as a curb on Israeli actions against the Palestinians.

"Sharon is focused on Israel's relationship with the US," says Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the US and a Sharon adviser. "In principle Sharon will want to continue the same policy, the same line he has adopted so far. I suppose this could create some problems with prospective right-wing members of the coalition."

The Palestinians aren't so sure there will be any curbs – far from it. Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat has already expressed concern over Sharon's appointment of former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Shaul Mofaz as defense minister in the wake of the coalition's breakup. Mr. Mofaz's replacement, Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon, is already a source of concern for the Palestinians.

"Mofaz on one side, Ya'alon on the other, and Sharon over them – what do you imagine will happen in the region?" Mr. Arafat asked in an interview on the Al Jazeera satellite channel.

Israeli political imperatives dictated the collapse of Sharon's coalition, which grouped his own Likud bloc with Labor, Israel's two largest parties and historical rivals. Elections must by held by November 2003, so it was inevitable that the two parties would split up beforehand, if only to distinguish themselves from the other during the campaign, say analysts.

Now that the breakup has occurred, elections could take place much sooner than next November. Analysts expect Sharon to defeat the no-confidence measure, but if he fails, elections could take place in three months. His own political calculations – especially with many Israelis faulting Labor for leaving the coalition – may lead him to seize a moment of high popularity and call elections on his own.

Intraparty political forces are also drawing Labor to the left and the Likud to the right.

The Labor Party leader, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, faces an internal leadership contest on Nov. 19. Leaving the government will make it easier for him to fend off leftist challengers who have criticized him for keeping Labor in the Cabinet, where he served as defense minister and implemented Sharon's largely militaristic approach to the conflict with the Palestinians. Labor has long advocated resuming negotiations.

Sharon will also face his own leadership challenge in advance of elections, from former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He has called on Sharon to take an even harder line against the Palestinians.

This political centrifuge is partly a result of battle fatigue, but it's not clear to what extent the public is demanding sharper alternatives.

"We are in a war of attrition and people are getting tired," says Hebrew University political scientist Avrahim Diskin. "And when people get tired they look for answers – and the people who have the answers are at the poles. But, he adds, "in spite of that, most people are in the center."

Naomi Chazan, a parliament member from the left-wing Meretz party, says it is spurious to suggest that Israelis do not want more clearly defined political choices. "The country has been rudderless and leaderless since Sharon came into office," she says. "Frankly what's happened now is the first act ... of leadership that I've seen."

She says that Labor, which is larger than Meretz but more centrist, has been "too timid" and can now point out the failures of Sharon's leadership as elections approach.

Mr. Shoval, a longtime Likud member, isn't worried. "There really isn't a single flag which Labor, in its current condition, could raise to put itself in the position of being a real alternative to the Likud," he says.

The immediate cause of the coalition breakup was a dispute over budget allocations, with Ben Eliezer standing firm on his insistence that more money should be spent to aid Israel's poor, who are suffering in a grim economy, and less to support Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas.

Shoval admits that Labor may make some headway on social issues, but says the party has nothing to offer in the conflict with the Palestinians. Many Israelis associate the failed peace process, which crumbled two years ago, with the Labor party.

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