Israeli Government Is in the Grip of Pre-Election Fever

The deep seams in Ariel Sharon’s coalition government cracked further at the cabinet meeting Sunday, July 3, as ministers and factions began striking pre-election campaign poses against their rivals.
The general view is that an early election will be held in the first half of 2006.
Sharon was the most relaxed. He knew the mid-August date for the pull-back of 21 communities from the Gaza Strip and four from the northern West Bank was safe; agriculture minister Avraham Katz’s motion for a postponement had not the slightest chance of being carried. It was indeed voted down by 18 ministers to three. But finance minister Binyamin Netanyahu was blasted as one of the three supporters and told that if he made good on his threat to stay away from the Knesset vote on postponement Wednesday, July 6, he would be fired.
This time Netanyahu cannot change course at the last minute as he has done before without losing face. Everyone knows postponement of the pull-back has not the slightest chance of gaining a Knesset majority – any more than it did in cabinet. So the crises and turbulence are pure theatre.
In the cabinet debate, too, Labor ministers and Likud members of Sharon’s fan club followed their scripts and flailed Bibi from all directions. His Likud colleague Ehud Omert reminded him that as prime minister he handed Hebron to the Palestinians and shook the hand of Israel’s arch-enemy Yasser Arafat. Labor railed against his stand against evacuations as encouraging the type of ultra-right wing violence that culminated in the 1995 murder of prime minister Yizhak Rabin.
Netanyahu was clearly throwing down the gauntlet after telling his friends he would beat Sharon in the next Likud primaries for prime ministerial candidate. He confessed he preferred the contest to take place while he was a member of the government rather than leader of the Likud anti-disengagement opposition rebels.
However the economic vision he not long ago unveiled with pride is faltering badly. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange is sliding, foreign capital is escaping, more and more businesses are in difficulties and defaulting on payments and the symptoms of recession are visible. Associates on both sides of the divide between Sharon and Netanyahu fear the effect on the economy if the finance minister were to quit, whether or not he is pushed. The recession is expected to deepen as the pull-back period nears. The crippling cost (estimated at $2-2.5bn) to the Israeli taxpayer will bite deep above and beyond the emotional damage wrought the country by the sight of families being wrenched from their homes.
In these circumstances, the finance minister may well decide to get up and leave before the misery gets worse and blame it on Sharon and his disengagement plan – even though he provided the budget to finance it. Until Wednesday, he is leaving his options open.
The prime minister, for his part, is confident he will reach the Likud primary with the agonies of the pull-back behind him and then plunge into campaigning for re-election. He would prefer to see Netanyahu out of government beforehand.
First, because whether Netanyahu likes it or not, the anti-disengagement Likud faction and associates will crown him their leader. Sharon can then brand him “ultra-right” and focus on a single adversary as the root of all the opposition unrest. Today, he has to contend with a hodge-podge of defiant groups, some of whom block roads, others congregate on Temple Mount, barricade themselves in illegal outposts or tell soldiers and police officers to flout orders.
Second, Sharon will be able to appear before the mainstream voter as a moderate right-wing centrist with proven credentials as a responsible national leader.
Third, with Netanyahu gone, the prime minister can place the inevitable economic slowdown at the door of an irresponsible, reckless finance minister, an image Bibi has been trying to live down from his years in 1996-1998 as prime minister.
Labor promised to stick with the Likud prime minister through thick and then to achieve the evacuation of Gaza. That done, the party will be free to return to the opposition benches and campaign against the government. Its ministers held a dress rehearsal in cabinet Sunday, taking some welcome time out from their bitter infighting among a handful of candidates for prime minister.

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