With Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party seen cruising to victory in Tuesday's national election, political pundits speculated on how Sharon was going to form the unity government he prefers with the Labor Party, whose leader has vowed to remain in opposition.
"He might have a unilateral or informal removal of settlements in Gaza," said Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University. "It's not impossible that even before he forms a government, Sharon may turn some isolated settlements into army bases and then, over time, turn over the land to the Palestinians."
"I would not rule out such a major initiative by Sharon shortly after the election: a removal of settlements in Gaza and the Jenin area [in the West Bank] and an
offer to work with a Palestinian state under the condition that Arafat is no longer a factor," Steinberg added.
He acknowledged that the Israeli "right-wing would be very angry, but he would then have a Labor alternative" because such a bold move would be a way to "cut off the legs of Labor," whose leader, Amram Mitzna promises a unilateral withdrawal of all settlements from Gaza if Labor wins the election.
Steinberg said he does not foresee such a development until after the conflict with Iraq is resolved, but he noted that under Israeli law Sharon would have as long as 80 days to put together a new government.
If he does not succeed in forging a unity government, Sharon would be forced to form a right-wing government. He has repeatedly said he does not wish a government of either the extreme right or left. But Bobby Brown, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Sharon is not prepared to commit "hara-kiri" if he can't form a unity government. In other words, if the unity option is closed, Sharon will turn to allies on the right and in the religious camp.
Henry Siegman of the Council on Foreign Policy predicted that a right-wing government would not last long because Sharon "is not prepared to be blackmailed" by the right-wing parties.
"There would be no prospect of stability and it would be only a matter of time before there were new elections," he said. "At most it would be a year. And that means that a government that unstable and not in command of the situation cannot entertain new initiatives, which is bad news for the peace process. And Israel's economy would continue to suffer."
Such a government would not give Sharon the wiggle room he needs to deal with American demands once the Iraq situation is resolved and U.S. attention again turns to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The outline of an American road map to end the conflict was revealed June 24 by President George W. Bush. Although it calls for a Palestinian state in three years, it also demands widescale Palestinian reform and the removal of Arafat from power. Bush has yet to fill in the details. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that it includes an immediate curb on Israeli settlement activity.
But with a government of right-wing parties, one of which advocates the voluntary transfer of the Palestinians from the West Bank, Sharon would find it hard to comply with such a demand. And that is why he is so anxious to form a unity government with Labor.
In a press conference with the foreign press this week, Sharon insisted that there is "no reason [for the U.S.] to apply pressure on Israel. ... We will be ready to make painful concessions. We are not afraid of pressure because there is no reason to apply pressure."
Sharon repeated again this week that he is prepared to accept a Palestinian state. That statement, along with one critical of the road map advanced by he Europeans, Russians and United Nations but complimentary to Bush's vision, was designed to demonstrate that there is "no space between him and the president," according to Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum.
Danny Ayalon, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., told an America-Israel Friendship League gathering in New York this week that Sharon's statements about accepting a Palestinian state are in part a response to criticism that Israel "has not given the Palestinians a political horizon," but he added that no such state could come about "until after the terror ends."
Unity, Without Mitzna
Zalman Shoval, an adviser to Sharon, said that despite the protestations of Labor, he would not write off the possibility of Labor joining a unity government.
"I would not take anything for granted regarding a national unity government, even though Mr. Mitzna declares he will not [join one]," Shoval said. "I don't know how many of his colleagues share that view."
At a Likud Party conference Tuesday evening in Rishon LeZion, the city's Labor mayor, Meir Nitzan, showed up to wish Sharon success in forming a unity government.
"Many in my party want to be together with you," he said.
And Sharon sought to turn up the heat on Labor by declaring: "Likud under me is the only party that puts the good of the nation above narrow partisan interests. Israel is more important than which party wins. To beat terrorism, we have to stand united."
Shoval said it would not surprise him if Labor initially rebuffed Sharonís call to join his government but capitulated because of a major crisis, such as an American-led war with Iraq.
"There are such precedents," he said. ìIn 1977 when [Likud's Menachem] Begin won the election, the Democratic Movement for Change won 15 seats and we approached them [to join the government]. They refused and we set up a narrow government with the religious party. It didn't take but three months for them to join, and we could see a repeat scenario."
Shoval added that if Mitzna continued to rebuff Sharon's entreaties, "the Labor Party could join without him."
Political analyst Joseph Alpher pointed out that the Labor Party bylaws prohibit deposing the party chairman until at least 14 months after his election. Mitzna was elected in November. But, he said, the Labor Central Committee could "outvote him and decide to join the [Sharon] government."
At that point, Mitzna would have to decide whether to take a senior position in the new government (as party chairman he would get the first right of refusal of the top cabinet posts Sharon would offer) or sit on the sidelines while other Labor leaders like Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Shimon Peres take those positions.
"If Sharon wants them badly enough and if they are the second largest party, he could give them what he did before: the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry, or the Finance Ministry."
Polls this week showed that Likud would win 31 to 33 seats in the 120-member Knesset and that Labor would win 19. Shinui, a secular party that opposes government handouts to the fervently Orthodox and automatic exemptions from military service for yeshiva students, came in third with 15 or 16 seats.
The polls showed Likud dropping from 42 seats to 27 seats in the month following the selection of its Knesset slate of candidates, which included unknowns who allegedly bought their seats, and corruption charges that engulfed Sharon and his two sons. The charges pertained to a criminal probe of allegations that Sharon's sons secured an illegal $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman for use as collateral for a bank loan to repay illegal campaign donations.
The prosecutor of that case admitted this week that she leaked documents about the probe to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in order to hurt Sharon's election campaign. And three Likud activists were indicted this week for allegedly shaking down Likud candidates in return for getting them primary votes.
Likud got a bounce in the polls after a broadcast of Sharon's press conference to deny his knowledge of the loan was ordered off the air by an election judge who said Sharon's criticism of Labor amounted to illegal politicking.
The polls this week that showed a Peres-led Labor Party would virtually tie Likud in Knesset seats prompted Labor Party Knesset candidate Weizman Shiri to call upon Mitzna to step aside in favor of Peres. Shiri, a supporter of Ben-Eliezer, who preceded Mitzna as party chairman, said Peres' popularity showed that the public still believes in Labor's policies.
At a meeting on Monday, Ben-Eliezer was quoted as saying that Labor's campaign was "running at breakneck speed, but was going nowhere. This madness must end, and we must show voters what the party is really like."
He reportedly conducted his own poll Monday that showed had he remained party chairman, Labor would have won 24 seats and Likud 28.
But Mitzna brushed aside the suggestions that he step aside saying: "I came here in order to win, and I will continue to serve as party chairman." And he also said that had he not replaced Ben-Eliezer, the "Labor Party would not exist."
Asked about the infighting and the polls, Avrum Burg, Labor's campaign chairman, brushed it all aside.
"These are noises," he told The Jewish Week. "You always hear them. The entire Democratic Party was standing behind the charismatic leaders of [Michael] Dukakis or [Al] Gore? These are background noises. ... People are tying to manipulate and push."
Citing a poll in the Yediot Achronot newspaper Monday that found 21 percent of the electorate still undecided who to vote for, Burg said the country "has never seen something like that a week before the election. The undecided vote now is more than it was a month ago."
Regarding Mitzna's inability to convince the electorate to vote for Labor even though polls show they favor many of Labor's policies, Burg said simply, "Sometimes people understand later."
Election Day Security
Eli Cohen, a Likud Knesset member, offered another explanation.
"People are voting not because of logic," he said. "This is an emotional thing and Sharon has succeeded in letting people believe he is a good grandfather and that the current situation has not been caused by his leadership but because of the world economy and the intifada."
He noted that the Knesset has just adopted a series of sweeping economic reforms that he said should result in an improved economy. But Cohen said that until the Palestinian violence stops, there can be no peace talks because that would only lead to more terror attacks.
Israeli security officials warned this week of possible Palestinian terrorist attacks on Election Day and announced that they had thwarted a planned Hamas rocket attack on Jerusalem from a base in nearby Ramallah. The army discovered Kassam rocket parts in Ramallah a few months ago, and more recently it seized 20 rockets hidden in a Ramallah-area mosque. And border police this week stopped an explosives-laden car that authorities said was on its way to carry out a mega-terror attack.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah terrorists on Israelís northern border with Lebanon fired at Israeli troops in the disputed Sheba Farms area of the Golan Heights Tuesday for the first time in four months. Israel responded with artillery fire and an air force attack on Hezbollah positions.
In addition, an Israeli living alone with his family in the open spaces of the West Bank was shot and killed by two Palestinians when he interrupted his Sabbath meal to answer a knock on his door. The Palestinians wounded three others in the house before being shot dead themselves.
Cohen said he believed Hezbollah had become active again to "show that no agreement will be done without their influence. And I think they have the courage to do it now because Israel is in between [governments]."
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