Sharon’s Minority Government Will Survive Labor’s Walkout

Ariel Sharon shows no sign of knuckling under to the demand from his resigned defense minister, the Labor leader Binyamin Ben Eliezer, for an early election next March or April. Labor’s walkout from the unity government leaves Sharon with a minority government of 55 out of 120 Knesset seats instead of the handy 80 his unity government enjoyed for one year, ten months. But he has prospects. The prime minister achieved his first victory one hour after his government was whittled down when he rallied a majority of 67 Knesset members for the passage of the 2003 State Budget against 45 nay voters led by Labor and 2 abstentions.
Winning over the Mahane Leumi-Israel Beitenu and other hawkish factions to take his government past the 61 barrier will be his next order of business.
The formal pretext for Ben Eliezer’s decision to quit was his party’s ideological controversy with Sharon’s Likud over funding for Jewish communities across the Green Line in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Over this issue, Labor vowed to vote against the budget at its first reading Wednesday, October 30, unless this clause was slashed.
At several points in the intense wrangling that filled the hours up to the vote, a compromise over the language of this clause was definitely in sight. Leaders of the national business community weighed in to caution Ben Eliezer that political turmoil would further damage the already war-marred economy. Yet the Labor leader fought shy of any formula that might end the crisis and rescue the Labor-Likud coalition government.
According to debkafile‘s political sources, Ben Eliezer’s hand was held by his advisers, the same ones who led former prime minister and Labor leader Ehud Barak to his downfall against Sharon in the February 2001 election. They told him that nothing but a dramatic walkout from the cabinet could enhance his failing fortunes in the party. The latest opinion polls show him trailing his left-wing rivals Haim Ramon and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna by 10 percent. Those rivals enlisted solid party backing for their demand that Ben Eliezer take Labor out of government and place its 25 members on the opposition benches. However, early signs indicate that by kowtowing to this demand he has if anything lost more ground.
The Labor leader took that advice when he became convinced that his resignation would bring the Sharon government down, opening the way for him to ride to victory in an early general election 90 days hence. The passage of the budget on Wednesday showed he had miscalculated on this score too.
He was also persuaded that for this course he had broad support from key figures in the European Union and the US State Department.
Liberal circles in the United States and West Europe sympathetic to the Palestinian cause would dearly love to see Israel’s left of center in government. They believe such a government would benefit Yasser Arafat and his goals.
The truth is that they misread Arafat. Labor in power never did suit his book. While he sees Sharon as his enemy, he fits much better into Palestinian leader’s strategy of playing the role of victim to an Israeli government he can portray as repressive. That is why Arafat worked so hard to bring down one Labor-led government after another. The only one he saved was Yitzhak Rabin, because the 1993 Oslo peace accords that they signed together bought him time – until Rabin’s assassination in 1995 – to establish himself and the elite he imported from Tunis in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Shimon Peres who succeeded Rabin in 1996 lasted no more than a year, his tenure buffeted fatally by the wave of mass-casualty bus bombings that Arafat – not the Hamas as Peres prefers to contend – staged in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Peres’s election defeat that year catapulted the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu into the prime minister’s office – which was just what Arafat needed. His plans for a violent confrontation against Israel were delayed by the inhibiting factor of Peres’ close friendships with European leaders. The next Labor leader, Ehud Barak, who took office in 2000 after defeating Netanyahu, played into his hands, when, encouraged by President Bill Clinton, he offered the Palestinians far-reaching concessions for peace.
Arafat rejected them out of hand and, three months later, in September 2000, launched his Al Aqsa Intifada, which quickly escalated from popular street protests into a terror campaign which he planned and organized with the support of such non-Palestinian terrorist groups as the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah. Arafat then adopted suicide terrorism as a Palestinian signature tactic.
He engineered the failure of the last-gasp Palestinian-Israeli talks at the Red Sea resort of Taba in time to ensure the election defeat of Barak and his dovish ministers against the Likud’s Ariel Sharon.
Sharon’s Likud-Labor national unity partnership presented the Palestinian leader with a tactical predicament. With backing from the Republican US President George W. Bush, the Sharon government moved to crush the Palestinian Authority as a governing body and isolate Arafat and his staff in their battered Muqata compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But the Israeli prime minister’s personal pledge not to harm Arafat, the price he paid for support from Bush and Labor’s presence in government, kept the Palestinian terror machine alive and functioning.
The Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, Arafat’s main terror arm and a group the United States declared a terrorist organization, is still in operation – which is why the Palestinian Authority may
may be in ruins, but Arafat survives to fight and machinate another day.
His drive to have Israeli ostracized by the international community required an intense effort to break up the Likud-Labor government. Ejecting foreign minister Shimon Peres would not work; Peres was onto his game. So Arafat picked Ben Eliezer as his instrument for breaking up the coalition. The former defense minister proved easy game after he hired Barak’s old spin doctors. debkafile‘s European sources reveal that Arafat developed a campaign against Israeli settlements and outposts in the West Bank in secret consultations with Javiar Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, and Miguel Moratinos, the EU’s Middle East envoy. This campaign was put together and handed to Ben Eliezer indirectly through Laborites with European political and financial connections. They offered the Labor leader this ready-made blueprint for his use as an instrument to disarm Ramon and Mitzna in the Labor leadership poll ahead of the November 19 leadership contest.
It was this proposal that spurred Ben Eliezer into declaring war on the unauthorized Jewish outposts in the West Bank in the past month.
The same advisers convinced him that a Labor vote against the budget at its first reading would brig the Sharon government down. The next step would be the Labor rank and file flocking to Ben Eliezer to place him at the head of an early election campaign, in the realization that his rivals’ pro-negotiation ticket would turn voters away. His record in defense would make him a natural magnet for centrist voters. The Labor leader was given to understand he could count on quiet backing and help from European liberal groups and unnamed circles close to US secretary of state Colin Powell, if he took the plunge and quit government.
He took the advice on offer, failing to learn the lesson of his predecessor Ehud Barak who was led to his downfall by the same spin doctors.
According to debkafile‘s Palestinian sources, the same EU live wires restored the Palestinian Authority’s suspended aid grant in October and persuaded dissident Palestinian legislators to stop challenging Arafat’s authority. But they failed to force him to co-opt the EU’s blue-eyed boy Muhamed Dahlan to his new cabinet.
The Palestinian leader has come out of these maneuvers with a fresh lease of life.
debkafile‘s Palestinian sources find him buoyed up by EU support, the political strife in Israel and the delays in the Bush administration’s war plans for Iraq.
His response was typical. On Sunday, October 27, Fatah and al-Aqsa terror masterminds, who take their orders from Arafat, sent two suicide bombers to blow up three Israeli buses packed with soldiers in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. Two days later, they dispatched a suicide gunman on a rampage in the settlement of Hermesh north of Tulkarm.
In eight days, 20 Israelis lost their lives in three deliberate terrorist attacks, all of them initiated by Arafat.

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