Israel's new government shifts right, faces skepticism

The parliament's new right-wing governing coalition holds 68 of 120 seats.

Israel's brand-new coalition government, formally unveiled Thursday, already has its share of doubters.

A grouping of the parliament's most right-wing parties, it represents a combination that even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon didn't want at the outset of coalition talks. Now, Mr. Sharon has the unenviable task of convincing several skeptical constituencies that his new team will help, not hinder, Israel both domestically and abroad.

Few Israelis believe the new coalition will improve their economy or promote peace; Palestinians say they fear what lies ahead. Though the new government pledges to pursue peace, its members' long-standing resistance to a Palestinian state may cause friction with the US. And Israel's neighbors are openly dubious of the chances for progress.

"It's not a composition that would lead you to optimism about a progressive peace process," says Nabil Fahmy, Egypt's ambassador to the US, of Israel's new coalition government.

The government's debut came a day after US President George Bush gave a speech outlining his vision of a democratic Iraq triggering change across the Middle East, starting with a "truly democratic Palestinian state."

In his speech, President Bush linked Iraq to Palestinian violence against Israel, saying that the removal of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein will boost Palestinian reform efforts and lead to a change in Palestinian leadership.

Many Israelis say the link between Iraq and the Palestinians is fully justified. "It is generally accepted by all parts of the Israeli political spectrum that this will open up the possibility of regime change here and that Arafat is a fundamental obstacle to peace," says Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

But Bush's words, coming as the final details of Sharon's coalition were publicized, left most Palestinians cold. They say that money, whatever its source, is not the cause of violence: Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories is the problem.

They leveled a charge of hypocrisy, asking how Bush could champion democracy for the Middle East, yet insist on removing the democratically elected Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, while saying nothing about US allies in the Arab world who offer their citizens little, if any, freedom and democracy.

"Again, we are suffering from a double standard," says Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib. "What the Palestinians want is the implementation of relevant UN resolutions [that require Israel to leave the Palestinian territories]. This doesn't happen because of US support for Israel and yet the US will use force with Iraq to make it comply with a UN resolution."

Mr. Khatib has little hope for his administration's relations with the new Israeli government, saying he expects greater violence and continued reoccupation. In this, he and most Israelis have something in common. A poll conducted Monday showed that only 15 percent of Israelis believe the government will be able to reverse the economy's sagging fortunes and less than a quarter believe it will invest much effort in peace.

The new coalition partners, who hold a resilient 68-seat majority in the 120-seat Knesset, have shown little interest in furthering a peace process. The National Religious Party backs the spread of settlements in the Palestinian territories. Some leaders of the ultranationalist National Union Party advocate annexing the West Bank and forcing Palestinians into Jordan.

Likud also takes a hard-line stance on negotiations, which are not a priority for Shinui, the remaining coalition partner. "The best we can expect is motion without movement," says Naomi Chazan, a member of parliament for the left-wing Meretz Party. Ms. Chazan says the prime minister will stall progress by making it contingent on the Palestinians meeting a series of preconditions. "Sharon is a master of procrastination," says Chazan.

Indeed, while early drafts of the US-backed peace plan or "road map" call for Israel to freeze settlements as Palestinians reduce violence, Sharon has long insisted that the violence stop first.

In his speech, Bush seemed to echo the Israeli stance by stating that settlement activity must end, but only "as progress is made toward peace."

Professor Steinberg sees the approach as the only realistic one. "The ingrained rejection of the Jewish right to have a state is so strong and longstanding that Israel has to minimize cost to itself, diplomatic and otherwise," he says.

Widespread Israeli lethargy about politics led one newspaper to characterize public response to the new coalition as a mixture of "skeptical pessimism and downright depression." Even so, Chazan sees a silver lining in the rebirth of Israel's demoralized political left.

"The most important thing that happened in these negotiations is that the Labor party didn't join [the coalition]," she says of the center-left party Sharon tried hard to woo into his government. "We will be working very intensely in next six months to a year to create a new social-democratic bloc which will be a real alternative to the government."

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