The Magazine

Israel's New Ruling Party

Who will lead it, Netanyahu or Sharon?

Nov 18, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 10 • By TOM ROSE
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THE COLLAPSE OF ARIEL Sharon's national unity government last week revivified Henry Kissinger's famous observation that Israel has no national or foreign policy, only domestic politics. Once again, petty political causes have brought down an Israeli government, with potentially far-reaching consequences.

The government of national unity --uniting the two major parties, Likud and Labor--did not dissolve over policy disputes, though the coalition partners are ideological antagonists. It came apart because maintaining it ceased to serve the political interests of its key figures.

Afraid that he might not be able to withstand a challenge from former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the leadership of the conservative Likud party, Sharon saw the preservation of the unity government as his only means of avoiding early retirement at the hands of a man he detests. Meanwhile, the leader of the left-wing Labor party--Sharon's defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer--found himself confronting the same party dynamics but with far worse prospects. In the Labor party primary slated for November 19, Ben-Eliezer faced not one, but two challengers, both of whom had surged far ahead of him in the polls. With his own party's leadership attacking him in the press and from the Knesset podium, Ben-Eliezer had no choice, he bitterly claims, but to leave the government.

Once Ben-Eliezer pulled Labor out of the government, Sharon was left with only 55 votes in the 120 seat Knesset, less than the majority he needed to survive the no-confidence motions that started pouring in. There were four such motions in the first three days, the most preposterous of which, submitted by the Labor party, condemned the economic record of the government Labor had jointly controlled until just two days before.

At first, Sharon seemed to dismiss the crisis. All he needed to do to establish a new, narrower coalition government was get the leader of the nationalist, right-wing "Israel is our Home" party to sign up. What Sharon seemed to forget was that this party's leader was Avigdor Lieberman, a Netanyahu protégé and one of Israel's shrewdest political minds. With opinion polls showing that new elections could double the size of Lieberman's party, his interest lay in hastening the very election Sharon sought to avoid.

Sharon's hopes of establishing a narrow government were dealt a fatal blow when his effort to undermine Netanyahu by offering him the position of foreign minister blew up in his face. Sharon's aides had convinced themselves and much of Israel's gullible media that this maneuver would end the Netanyahu threat once and for all: No matter how Netanyahu responded, Sharon would come out the winner. If Netanyahu turned down the post, he would reveal himself as the self-interested politician Sharon had long tried to convince the party faithful he was. But if he accepted and became foreign minister in a Sharon-led government, he would become subordinate to the prime minister just weeks before a party leadership election.

Without realizing it, Sharon had given Netanyahu the very platform he needed to showcase his mastery of Israeli media and politics. He would proudly serve as Israel's foreign minister, Netanyahu said: All Sharon had to do was agree to early elections. With polls showing Likud poised to win a massive parliamentary victory, how could the party's leader possibly object?

Thus, just 12 hours after the prime minister appeared with party allies on Sunday, November 3, proclaiming his determination to prevent early elections at any cost, he was forced to make the humiliating journey to the president's residence to formally request the dissolution of parliament. And the duel resulted in a surge of Netanyahu support among Likud primary voters. In a week, Netanyahu went from 10 points behind Sharon to 1 point ahead, according to an internal party poll.

Both Likud and Labor are slated to hold leadership primaries in the next month. Labor, the party responsible for creating and implementing the Oslo peace process, is largely blamed for Oslo's disastrous consequences. Fearing for their political lives, Labor moderates have fled the party in droves, leaving hard-leftists in firm control, and as a result, Labor is facing electoral collapse. Since more than 80 percent of Israelis now identify themselves as either "centrist or conservative," the winner of the Likud party primary is likely to command the largest conservative majority in the country's history.

Israeli law requires parliamentary elections to be held no later than 90 days after the establishment of a caretaker government--in this instance, no later than February 4, and probably in late January. Meanwhile, Sharon remains prime minister, which gives him an advantage in the Likud primary, although the latest polls show the two candidates neck and neck.