Israel Plunges into Campaign for January election

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon announced Tuesday, November 5, he had opted for an early election reluctantly as the lesser evil, rather than bow to “political extortion”. Later, a parliamentary committee set January 28, 2003 as voting day.
This decision touched off a whirlwind of political action before Tuesday afternoon. In a broadcast news conference mobbed by the media, he denounced Labor’s walkout from the unity government last week – which left him with a minority government based on 55 out of 120 seats – as “politically capricious and irresponsible”. He also rejected as unacceptable the conditions laid down by the right-wing National Union (7 seats) leader Avigdor Lieberman to his subsequent overtures. Those terms included binding exceptions to a unity government with Labor – now or in a post-election lineup – and to a Palestinian state, as well as an early election.
Former Likud prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu came back with a similar early election pre-condition for accepting the foreign ministry. Netanyahu is Sharon’s foremost challenger for the party leadership. The two will confront each other in the Likud primary whose date will be put forward in view of the early election. Tuesday, Sharon repeated his invitation to Netanyahu to join the government – but advised him to follow the example of Shaul Mofaz’s acceptance of the defense ministry without posing pre-conditions. Netanyahu lost no time in consenting to serve as foreign minister under Sharon until the general election.
Sharon strongly reiterated his commitment to a national unity coalition government that represented the widest common consensus.
“I believe this is what the country wants and needs,” he stated. He insisted he would not depart either from his government’s basic guidelines, the profound strategic relations he established with Washington and the White House, or the framework of the 2003 budget (that passed its first reading last week).
At first light on Tuesday, Sharon obtained the president’s consent to dissolve the Knesset. He did not resign, nor was he defeated in Monday’s no confidence vote. The government will serve in office for the 90 days required by law until election-day. This Knesset, the 15th, will have seen two foreshortened administrations come and go: the first was led by Labor leader Ehud Barak, whose fall was succeeded by Sharon’s election victory. One of the Likud leader’s first legislative initiatives was to abrogate the law separating the votes for prime minister and party. Next January, the voter will mark a single party ballot. The prime minister will be selected by the party in advance of the election.
debkafile‘s political analysts estimate that former defense minister Labor leader Binyamin Ben Eliezer who led his party’s walkout from government last week, the National Union leader Lieberman and Netanyahu, all lost valuable ground by their tactics for breaking up the Sharon government and forcing an election at a time of great national peril and economic crisis. None of the three can expect to be rewarded either by his party or the voter. The cabinet crisis and Sharon’s uphill attempts to stitch together a new coalition were jarringly accompanied by Palestinian suicide bombings – on Monday, November 4, two Israelis were killed and scores injured at the Kfar Saba shopping mall. Many more attacks are foiled every day by the troops present in Palestinian West Bank cities. Campaigning may heat up just when the US launches it attack on Iraq, potentially eliciting Iraqi retaliation and Hizballah aggression.
Any extreme war eruptions could climax before election-day and lead to the postponement of the general election, according to a previous precedent. When election-day fell in the middle of the 19973 Yom Kippur War, prime minister Golda Meir and opposition leader Menahem Begin agreed to set a later date.
In these circumstances, Ariel Sharon and the new defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, who took office Tuesday, will be left to run the show, a politically advantageous position. Netanyahu scrambled aboard at the eleventh hour. The voter is losing patience with the constant political upsets, for which he tends to absolve Sharon of responsibility. Last week, opinion polls responded to Labor’s resignation from government by a massive switch-over of support from Labor to right-of-center Likud under Sharon. Labor will have to run hard and fast to reverse this swing, whether it re-elects Ben Eliezer or one of his far-left rivals, Avraham Mitzna or Haim Ramon, to replace him. Championing the cause of single-family mothers and senior citizens – as against the settlers – at this late date will not gain Labor too much credence. The Poverty Report published Monday, November 4, showed one in five Israelis – and 27 percent of all children – living below the poverty line. Labor’s indignation raises questions of how the party let this situation develop when its ministers were in government
As for Netanyahu, when he announced his political comeback earlier this year, he promised a “new Bibi” – a responsible statesman who had learned from his past mistakes. However, his tactics this week for bending Sharon to his will proved both ineffective and transparent. His apparent pact with Lieberman betrayed his heavy reliance on the far right for support. Jumping aboard the Sharon government was a belated face-saver.
The National Union leader also lost out by his maneuvers. Instead of proving his independence as the consensual spokesman for one million Russian immigrants, he was shown to be living in Netanyahu’s shadow.

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