Sharon Expands Strategic Cabinet Ahead of Coalition Talks

Since Labor quit Israel’s ruling coalition government, prime minister Ariel Sharon has been widely expected to re-orient to the right for the sake of new ultra-nationalist partners to shore up his minority government of 55 – or else face an early election.
However, debkafile‘s political analysts note that Sharon’s first actions after losing his national unity government last Wednesday, October 31, signal no such policy shift.
His first was to invite a professional soldier, ex-chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, to fill the post of defense minister left vacant by Labor leader Binyamin Ben Eliezer. His second was an announcement that there would be no change in the unity government guidelines he forged with Labor in March 2001. His third was to offer the foreign affairs post filled by Labor veteran statesman Shimon Peres to Binyamin Netanyahu, former prime minister and his leading rival for the leadership of the Likud.
His fourth, taken about the same as his third, was a phone call to US Ambassador Dan Kurtzer to assure him that he stood by all the commitments he gave President George W. Bush and all their understandings. Moreover, had every intention of pushing the 2003 state budget through its last two Knesset readings.
The prime minister relayed his message through the ambassador for the ears of Secretary of State Colin Powell and his European associates, including the “Quartet”. Sharon hoped without much conviction that the Europeans would be persuaded to stop agitating about the danger of his turning to the ultra-right and killing all hopes of an accommodation with the Palestinians.
A fairly comprehensive fait accompli therefore confronts the opposition parties invited for coalition negotiations Sunday, November 3. Sharon clearly hoped to pre-empt the policy and portfolio demands expected from the opposition National Union-Israeli Beitenu, led by nationalists Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Alon, and the coalition National Religious Party, led by hawkish Effie Eytam. The seven Knesset seats offered by the former could carry the government over the line to a majority of two, which is not to be sneezed at. But Sharon will not be hustled into giving ground to right-wing demands.
He is not the first Israeli prime minister to govern with a parliamentary minority. If he falls at a parliamentary hurdle – a non-confidence motion will be tabled Monday, November 4 – he must call an election within 90 days, remaining at the head of a caretaker administration. Since Labor’s walkout, all the opinion polls promise Sharon’s Likud a landslide victory against a sharply reduced Labor.
The prime minister is therefore fairly free to focus on firming up the informal body that he considers of prime importance for keeping the country – and his government – safe during this period of emergency: his inner war, or strategic, cabinet.
Ben Eliezer has been quoted as describing Sharon as the master chef of this kitchen cabinet who dishes up its product to the rest of the government with the help of Peres as waiter.
Six months ago, debkafile revealed the formation of this private forum for shaping policy and reaching decisions on such existential issues as the Palestinian confrontation, their campaign of terror and the impact of the forthcoming American Iraq War. For the longer term, the panel worked on acceptable formulae for Palestinian statehood. Its members are Mofaz, the incumbent chief of staff, Lt. Major Moshe Yaalon, former Mossad director Ephraim Halevi – since appointed national security adviser, his successor in the Mossad, Meir Dagan, the Shin Beit Director Avi Dichter and OC Central Command, Maj. General Moshe Kaplinsky.
Sometimes, Peres was co-opted to this key national forum for strategic, political and military decision-making, as the prime minister’s political, rather than a strategic, partner. The White House is familiar with this group and knows it has one boss: Sharon. So long as it is there – and Sharon stands by his commitments to the president – nothing has changed as far as the administration is concerned. Hence, when asked how the administration viewed the fall of the unity government, the State Department spokesman said it was a matter for the Israelis to work out themselves.
Now, Mofaz’s dual presence in both the inner cabinet and the defense ministry, as the prime minister’s senior strategic partner, will apply the cabinet’s authority and control more fully in the heart of mainstream government.
Peres made the least fuss of all the Labor ministers who quit government last week. Sharon may very possibly continue to utilize him and his exceptional overseas connections for very special missions on behalf of the war cabinet. The former foreign minister is likely to play along discreetly without committing himself in public.
Netanyahu’s apparent uncertainty about accepting the job may derive from fear that he will be bypassed by the Sharon-Peres understanding and isolated amid a flock of Sharon appointees. On the other hand, he went down once, two years ago, by laying down overly stiff conditions for joining hands with Sharon before the last election, forfeiting a chance to sail in at the top of government once again. Overpricing himself out of a job a second time may be once too often.
At the same time, it would be quite in character for Netanyahu and Lieberman, old allies, to choose this moment for raising impossible demands in the hope of bringing Sharon down and forcing an early election.
Sharon is likely to give them both short shrift. He cannot afford to drag coalition haggling out beyond a week or so. The war threats facing Israel are proliferating. When Sharon visited the White House last month, his strategic cabinet’s agenda covered the US offensive against Iraq, war liaison arrangements between Washington and Jerusalem, as well as the Palestinian confrontation and terror campaign. Since then, another prospective war has been added to the list, a possible conflict with Syria and the Lebanese Hizballah.
Moreover, the old-new Sharon government must get to grips with fresh terror menaces from Iraq and al Qaeda.

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