Israel's political hodgepodge

Israel's prime minister is under pressure to put a national unity government in place by Monday.

As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak wrestles with electoral arithmetic to form a coalition government of national unity, profound shifts in Israeli society are not just complicating his math. They are also undermining the chances of any government here making peace with the Palestinians.

Mr. Barak, trying to put a new Cabinet together before the Knesset reconvenes Monday, says he needs a national emergency government to take consensus decisions to deal with the violence that has swept through the West Bank and Gaza over the past month.

But the Jewish state's fragmentation into competing ethnic communities and interest groups has made national unity an unattainable mirage, say politicians and social observers. And the deep fissures in the Israeli body politic are weakening the country's ability to make important decisions.

"No prime minister can represent all Israelis any more," says Danny Ben Simon, author of a recent book on the centrifugal forces that have atomized Israeli society. "The political landscape is broken up, and it's so full of satellites that you can't see the sun anymore. You don't know where the light is coming from."

"Most Israelis want a unity government. When security is shaky, people rally round the flag," adds Ruth Amir, a professor of politics at Haifa University. "And many of us long for a time when we were united in one big happy family. But it's not the same any more. Things have changed."

Over the past 10 years or so, the traditional Israeli national identity - founded on the secular socialist ideology of Zionist pioneers from Europe - has shattered into many different pieces.

A bitter rift divides Israelis who seek to live secular lives in a Jewish state from ultra-Orthodox Jews who attach more importance to the biblical land of Israel than to the modern state. Sephardic Jews of Middle Eastern origin, who are mostly poor, have risen up against the Ashkenazi, European-born elite. Other ethnic groups, such as the 1 million recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, have developed their own independent cultures.

Meanwhile, the likelihood that a coalition government would take any bold steps toward peace are as limited as Barak's choice of key partners.

At the moment, he is wooing Ariel Sharon, the retired Army general who heads the right-wing opposition Likud party. In a document presented to Mr. Sharon this week, Barak states that Israel is in "a sensitive national-emergency situation that requires the integration of forces from all shades of the political spectrum."

Sharon, however, is setting conditions. First, he says, Barak must publicly discard all of the compromises he had been ready to make to the Palestinians at a US sponsored summit with Yasser Arafat at Camp David last July. Those compromises on the return of Israeli-occupied territories and the status of Jerusalem, however, were themselves not enough to secure peace.

The ambitious Sharon is also demanding a veto over all of Israel's future diplomatic and security moves.

Meanwhile, the former general is widely regarded by Palestinians as a militaristic Arab-hater. And his reputation is soiled worldwide by the "personal responsibility" that an Israeli government commission found he held for the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatilla camps, in Beirut.

After Likud, the second-largest opposition party in the Knesset is Shas, a religious party that draws its support from poor Sephardic Jews. Shas withdrew from Barak's government last July when the prime minister refused to promise not to discuss the status of Jerusalem in negotiations with Arafat.

"As soon as you try to make peace with your enemies, you make new enemies at home," says Mr. Ben Simon.

Barak has governed Israel without a parliamentary majority since July, when his coalition partners deserted him. Low in the polls after a series of policy defeats, the prime minister is anxious to avoid early elections that the opposition could force with a vote of no confidence when the Knesset returns next week.

"Barak is fighting really for his own future," says Avraham Diskin, one of Israel's foremost political analysts. "He doesn't want to be remembered as the Israeli prime minister who was in office only one year, and who failed."

Sharon is also unwilling to face elections, since all the polls predict that he would lose a primary contest with his rival for the Likud candidacy, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The coalition talks "have to do with political survival," says Naomi Chazan, a Knesset member from the Meretz party. "Barak and Sharon have the same interest; neither wants elections."

But beyond that shared interest, it is hard to see how a coalition government might function, given the radically different political outlooks of its potential members. Barak would need four or five parties, at the least, to build a Knesset majority, and such a government "has no future," argues Professor Amir. "As soon as they have to do anything, they will disagree, and not do anything."

"A unity government with Likud would only unify around Israel Defense Forces activity, and the military actions to be taken against the Palestinians," explains Ruby Rivlin, a Likud Knesset member. "The gap between the left and the right over the Oslo [peace] agreement is so deep it is unbridgeable."

For Ms. Chazan, a veteran of the Israeli peace camp, a coalition government including Likud would defeat the purpose of a national unity administration - to manage the crisis in relations with the Palestinians.

The Likud's demands for a hard line "are exactly the opposite of what Israel needs to get out of the emergency," she says. "What is needed to get Sharon into the government is just what is not needed for an emergency government to manage the crisis."

Meanwhile, according to one disillusioned Likud member close to the coalition talks, national unity is far from most participants' minds. "Nobody is asking 'what do we do in the state of emergency,' " he says. "Instead, they are asking 'what will I get?' "

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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