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Triple bind

Al-Ahram Weekly – 6 February 2003

Israel’s President Moshe Katsav called each of the political parties into his office in turn on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to ask who they wanted as the next prime minister. Apart from the demurring voices of Labour, Meretz and the Arab parties, Ariel Sharon won resounding support.
 
If Israeli coalition-building were a simple mathematical exercise Sharon would have no problems in deciding his cabinet. With Likud armed with almost a third of the 120 Knesset seats he could fashion a government by mixing religious, settler and secular parties, thus securing the 61 MKs required to run the country.
 
But Sharon looks almost as anxious after his rout of the left — Labour down to 19 seats and Meretz to six — as he did during the election campaign, when he and his party faced a series of corruption scandals.
 
The causes of his discomfort are threefold. First, the role of kingmaker is now shared uncomfortably by Tommy Lapid’s stridently anti-religious Shinui, which tripled its number of seats to 15, and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas, which against expectations held on to 11 of its 17 seats.
 
Neither wants to serve with the other in a coalition. Lapid, hungry for his first taste of political power, made conciliatory gestures on Tuesday saying he did not rule out working with the smaller Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Party United Torah Judaism. Sharon, though, knows such a government would be driven by divisions. Which leads to the second dilemma. Sharon realises Shinui support is useless unless Lapid can deliver Labour.
 
Without Labour Sharon must fall back on Shas and a combination of right-wing and religious parties — National Union (seven seats), Yisrael b’Aliyah (two seats), National Religious Party (six seats) and United Torah Judaism (five seats).
 
Given his overwhelming mandate such a hard-line right-wing government might seem natural but the last thing Sharon needs is a cabinet that includes unabashed extremists like National Union’s Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon, who refuse a Palestinian state out of hand.
 
Now that the election is over the “roadmap” to a Palestinian state by 2005 will reappear on Washington’s agenda, if only to placate Europe and the Arab states. Sharon cannot risk angering Washington.
 
Any sign that Sharon is abandoning his public commitments to the roadmap will jeopardise the $12 billion promised by Washington in defence aid and loan guarantees, desperately needed to prop up Israel’s economy.
 
January’s economic figures, released Tuesday, saw last month’s budget deficit reach $500 million, double the worst forecasts. Sharon, then, will continue making hopeful noises about a future Palestinian state while dismantling any trace of the current one. He does not need Lieberman threatening to wreck the government as he does so.
 
Sharon’s third, and biggest, headache, is that he wants another “national unity” cabinet with Labour which would earn him the blessing of America and the benefit of European doubt. But the Labour Party is now led by Amram Mitzna. The shape of Sharon’s cabinet would rest on the shoulders of a man who personally loathes the prime minister and has set his face against being another “fig leaf” for a right-wing government.
 
Mitzna, for his part, is under huge pressure from inside his party not to appear rejectionist, if only because the Israeli public wants unity. On Sunday he modified his position of refusing to contemplate joining a Sharon government and instead set out demands he knew Sharon would reject: evacuation of the Gaza Strip, dismantling of isolated settlements in the West Bank and the allocation of $300,000 earmarked for the settlers into the welfare budget.
 
Sharon spent his meeting with Mitzna the next day explaining to him the vital need to hold on to the settlements. Mitzna emerged “shocked” from the two- hour session.
 
“I heard a lecture on the strategic importance of Netzarim and the historic importance of Kfar Darom [settlements in Gaza] and the deep importance of Hebron [in the West Bank] to the Jewish people. I came out even more worried than when I went in,” he said at a press conference afterwards.
 
As if to underline Sharon’s message to Mitzna the Israeli army continued its assaults in Gaza and Hebron. On Sunday 22 buildings in Hebron were razed; on Tuesday five homes in Rafah. Palestinian sources said a 65-year-old woman was found among the debris of her home demolished in Gaza’s Maghazi camp on Wednesday.
 
On Friday the army fired outlawed flachette shells at a group playing football in Gaza’s Jabaliya camp injuring nine Palestinians including children. On Monday two farmers Salah Kadih, 62, and Sami Abu-Shahab, 35, were killed by tank fire in southern Gaza.
 
Sharon has three possible routes out of his bind. He can attempt to prise control of Labour from Mitzna, though most senior Labour figures, including former leader Ben Eliezer, stand firmly behind him. He could try and enlist in his cabinet the biggest fig leaf, Shimon Peres, who would bring a group of Labour MKs with him. Peres’s displeasure with Mitzna is well-known though he denies holding secret talks with Sharon. Lastly, Sharon could engineer a situation in which Labour and Shinui are in no position to reject his offer. Just such a situation is on the horizon: an American-led war against Iraq.
 
Both Lapid and Mitzna have said they have no objections to joining an “emergency cabinet”. Sharon lost no time to launch his opening gambit. On Monday he called on all parties to join Likud in discussing an “emergency economic programme and a political emergency plan”.
 
He has six weeks to dangle the bait.

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