Two New Israeli Leaders Need to Wake up

The Israeli electorate greeted the January 28 general election apathetically, only 68.5 percent bothering to vote for the 120 men and women who will sit in the 16th Knesset. Ariel Sharon’s Likud was generally tipped as the big winner. Partial results of 36-38 seats went beyond this expectation.
Nonetheless there were a couple of surprises. With half the results counted, the left-wing, dovish Meretz was severely battered, falling from 10 to 7 seats. Its leader, Yossi Sarid, took immediate responsibility for the defeat and resigned. The Labor leader, Amram Mitzna, received the party’s worst electoral defeat in its history – from 25 in the outgoing Knesset to 19 – in the ringing tones of a victor: “For me this is a marathon and we’ve only covered a few kilometers. Our intention is not to join Sharon but to replace him as an alternative government party.”
The second new face thrown to the top by the election was that of the former journalist Tommy Lapid who gathered up a strong protest vote by campaigning against government subsidies and military exemption for the ultra-religious communities, singling out the Sephardi Shas. He declared he felt the heavy weight of responsibility for the future of the country, called on Sharon to form a “national secular” administration without Shas, and proceeded to dictate the next government’s program: Every able-bodied Israel must serve in the armed forces, no religious coercion and a sensible peace and war policy. Labor must act responsibly and join this government.
Lapid may find he has talked his way to the opposition benches. In the Sharon government, only one man lays down the law.
In any case, Sharon and Likud perceive a national unity administration as more than a partnership between the political left and right, but rather a popular crosscut representation, such as secular versus religious, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi. Shas, despite losing one-third of its list – 17 down to 10 – will be invited to join an administration led by Sharon – not despite but because of his wish to co-opt Labor and Shinui, since both the latter are predominantly Ashkenazi parties. Therefore, Lapid’s “secular” government is totally unrealistic as long as it is up to the Likud leader to form the next government.
So too is his demand to conscript every able-bodied Israeli Jew.
The Israeli Defense Forces has no need of universal conscription, although circumstances in the Middle East may alter this. In fact, more than one group is granted exemption. New immigrants over 25, tens of thousands of them, are not obliged to serve in the military either.
As for the Labor leader, Mitzna may find his do-or-die oath to keep “Labor under my leadership” out of any government headed by Ariel Sharon untenable. The grim faces of ex-ministers Shimon Peres, Binyamin Ben Eliezer and Matan Vilnai when he repeated this Tuesday night should warn Mitzna that his 60-day old leadership might not suffice to keep the party whole and united against joining the next government.
These old hands might make a dash for the Sharon line-up – and not only because of the way Labor crashed under the new star. They know the party is shrinking in the sense that it has no reserves or social strata to draw on to rejuvenate its ranks. In the last seven years, Labor has aged, lacking appeal to the rising generation or newcomers to the country.
Compared with this stagnancy, other Knesset factions have moved on. The new House will be more secular, right-leaning, youthful and feminine than the outgoing one. Seventeen of the Likud’s thirty-plus parliamentary party are new to politics and seven are women. Shinui provides a fresh and vigorous, albeit unformed, pull for disenchanted Laborites and youngsters.
The election also belied the pundits and pollsters who predicted that the electorate would grant the prime minister barely enough votes to form a narrow-based new administration dependent on right-wing extremist factions and unlikely to survive full term. As it turns out, Sharon is sitting pretty. He has the option of assembling a centrist government based on a narrow majority without right wing factions. Or he could delay coalition negotiations until the third or fourth week of February, meanwhile leading a caretaker administration, in the expectation of the US launching its offensive against Iraq. The concomitant peril to Israel would ease the path of Mitzna and Lapid into the new government, divesting them of their ifs and buts. They will find it difficult to gainsay Sharon’s election-enhanced authority or challenge his program in this time of emergency when, as he stressed in his victory speech Tuesday night, January 28, he shares the same principles as the President of the United States.
Indeed, Sharon is the first Israeli prime minister since 1996 to survive Yasser Arafat’s campaign of terror and machinations, which successfully unseated Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. The Likud leader has in fact doubled his parliamentary strength and is preparing a peace offer that will amount to the dictation of terms to the Palestinian leader.

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