Israel shifts right and starts over

As Israel counts down to its Feb. 4 elections, rivals are jockeying to lead the Likud and Labor parties.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon capped six days of fractious political jockeying Tuesday by dissolving Israel's parliament and calling for early elections.

The move, which will send voters to the polls on Feb. 4, 2003, sets off leadership races in Mr. Sharon's Likud bloc and the opposition Labor party.

While Sharon's future as Likud leader and prime minister is up in the air, analysts point to polls that say Israelis are moving solidly to the right. As a result, they say the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to deepen, further battering the country's faltering economy.

"Elections during this period are not what the state needs," the Prime Minister said in announcing his decision and hammering home the need for national unity. "However opposition – [and] the need to gird our loins to deal with complex situations – led me to take the least harmful option to dissolve the [parliament] and hold elections in 90 days."

The announcement was a canny political move, say analysts. After the dissolution of his national unity government last week, Sharon faced the prospect of courting various political factions for support. Cajoling far-right groups to join him would have eroded his authority and made him look as if he was simply trying to stay in power.

While Sharon's political future is in question – he faces a potent challenge from former Prime Minister and fellow Likudnik Benjamin Netanyahu – his party is widely expected to do well. "There will be a solid majority for the right wing in the Knesset, there is no question about it," says Yoav Peled, a political science professor at Tel Aviv University. Indeed, Likud could boost its current 19 seats to 34 or 35, while Labor is expected to slide from 25 seats to as low as 17, according to a survey published last week.

Even with a resounding affirmation at the polls, it is likely that Likud would again pursue a national unity government with the Labor party.

Labor's presence in the government softened Israel's international image, especially with Nobel Peace prize laureate Shimon Peres in the prominent foreign minister post, "It served Sharon so well," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a political science professor at Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

The political right's progress, though, is widely equated with continued gridlock, perhaps even deterioration, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sharon's public image is slightly less hard-line than Netanyahu's with regard to the Palestinians. Of the two, Netanyahu has traditionally been more popular with Likud party members, who will choose the party's leader. A change in the election law means that the head of the winning party automatically becomes Prime Minister. Since 1996, Israelis were able to vote separately for the party and the prime minister of their preference.

Despite Sharon's stated backing for US policy on establishing a Palestinian state, most Israelis say he is completely uninterested in seeing that happen.

"I think it's a truism that Sharon does not want negotiations and that a rightwing government – which we'll get – does not want negotiations as long as they can control [Palestinians] militarily and reduce the level of terrorism," says Charles Liebman, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

But Mr. Peled says that under a rightist government, there will be more violence and deeper economic problems as international investors continue to shun the country. "Israel's security is a derivative of its policy in the territories," he says. "Israel is going to pay for that in various ways – and economically as well."

Tuesday's events were set in motion Oct. 30, when the Labor party deserted the national unity coalition. Labor politicians argued that the government's budget allocated too much aid for settlements and not enough for Israel's poor. Even as Labor fled the coalition in protest, most Israelis saw the move as a ploy to carve out a separate identity in the run-up to elections that were originally scheduled for October 2003.

The defection left Sharon in control of only 55 votes in the 120-seat parliament and smaller parties quickly presented him with demands in exchange for support. The ultranationalist, seven-seat party Israel B'Aitainu helped Sharon fend off three no-confidence motions on Monday. But in explaining his decision to opt for elections instead of a shaky coalition, Sharon indicated that the cost of support was not worth it.

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