Israel's unity rule quashes debate about tough tactics

Despite international diplomacy, conflict's course may hang more on internal politics.


International efforts to stem the escalation of violence and tension in the Middle East gained new impetus yesterday as Egypt moved to the center of the diplomatic stage.

But international intervention is only one influence on the future course of the conflict. The fate of Israel's national-unity government during the months ahead is also seen as playing a key role.

The alliance between Israel's two leading parties, the hawkish Likud and more moderate Labor party, gained a new lease on life only hours before the arrival in Israel of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher.

Labor leaders had threatened to bolt the coalition to protest uncompromising new steps against the Palestinian Authority (PA), but, in a not-unexpected climb down, decided to stay at least for the coming weeks.

Cairo, worried about the fate of the PA and its leader, launched the bid to stave off further Israeli military activity that began Monday as a reprisal for devastating suicide attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa by Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Mr. Maher's visit to Jerusalem and Ramallah followed up massive pressure on Yasser Arafat by the US, Britain, and other European Union countries to destroy the capability of Muslim militants to attack Israeli targets.

But despite the headline-grabbing diplomacy, in the long run, the course of the current Middle East crisis could be largely determined in the gatherings of leaders and wheeler-dealers from Israel's main parties.

Indeed, Labor's presence in the government, analysts say, is the main explanation for the virtual absence of a domestic debate and street protests over the government's policies toward the Palestinians. Hard-hitting army actions - and the intensified pummeling of the PA - that would likely have been the subject of controversy with Labor in the opposition, receive hardly any attention, they say.

"The lack of a big party in opposition gives a feeling that everyone agrees; there is no debate over whether Sharon's policies are extreme or not. Once there is consensus at the political level, it is reflected by the media. Judging from what you read and hear, you would think that everything is hunky dory," says Gadi Wolfsfeld, a Hebrew University political scientist.

Were Labor in the opposition, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be flayed daily in the public discourse for failing to fulfill his campaign promise to bring peace and security, Dr. Wolfsfeld says. And, he says, tough questions would have been asked of the government about the bombing Tuesday of a Palestinian security installation in a residential neighborhood in the Gaza Strip that killed two people and wounded dozens of schoolchildren.

[In Gaza yesterday, hundreds of Hamas supporters clashed with Palestinian police outside the home of the group's leader, resisting Mr. Arafat's intensifying crackdown on Islamic militants, The Associated Press reported, and a Hamas supporter was killed.]

Mr. Sharon himself is keenly aware that Labor's being in the government effectively limits debate. That is one reason he prefers the unity arrangement to a narrow coalition with the far-right parties that are also in the coalition. "The national unity government is in my eyes the most important thing in waging a determined war against terrorism."

Leaders of Labor, which has favored keeping the door open to diplomacy with Arafat, had initially said they might pull out of the coalition over a historic cabinet decision Monday that declared "the Palestinian Authority is an entity that supports terrorism and must be dealt with accordingly."

The cabinet statement said the decision could be reversed in the future, but it paved the way for Israeli military strikes against PA installations this week and their possible expansion in the days ahead if Arafat does not comply with Israeli demands that he arrest Hamas militants. "We have a situation that military force and the language of force will not solve," Salah Tarif, a Labor minister told Israel Television. When asked about pulling out, Mr. Tarif replied: "There is no reason for us to stay. Unless, that is, ... things change."

Labor's threats and back-downs as Israel continues to drift rightward have become notorious. Labor's reluctance to pull out is widely attributed to the aversion of ministers to give up their cabinet seats. But there is also a sense that such a step, in the wake of the collapse of the peace process the party once espoused, and the climate of continued Palestinian attacks, would be unpopular even among much of the party's rank and file.

A recent survey of 300 Labor Party members by Ben Gurion University professor Udi Lebel showed that respondents view Sharon as a responsible, security-conscious leader and are not interested in the formulation of an alternative agenda to deal with the Palestinians.

Gideon Samet, a columnist at the Haaretz daily, wrote that this week's steps against the PA require an urgent public debate on Israel's policies toward the Palestinians. But with Labor ministers adhering to their seats, he wrote, "this necessity will not be able to take place."

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