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The Joys of Minority Government

By Andrew Friedman

When Ariel Sharon breezed to a second term as Israel’s Prime Minister in January 2003, I wrote on this page that despite the massive electoral victory, the 16th Knesset (parliament) would be a difficult, unwieldy ship to steer. Despite being the first premier in two decades to win re-election, Sharon faced a tough project to form, and maintain, a stable government.

Sharon's government keeps getting smaller, but it may not derail his agenda

Less than two years later, that prediction has come true. The 68-member coalition that originally included the Likud, National Union, National Religious and Shinui parties began to unravel when four right-wing cabinet members (National Union MKs Avigdor Liberman and Benny Elon, and NRP members Effie Eitam and Yitzhak Levy) quit/were sacked in early June for opposing Sharon’s Gaza Disengagement Plan. That move prompted the withdrawal of the National Union and National Religious Party and whittled the coalition from 68 to 55 members, or a minority of the Knesset.

Now, having dismissed the 15-member Shinui party in early December for voting against the 2005 budget, Sharon is left with only his own Likud party in government, comprising only 40 Knesset seats and is having difficulties attracting coalition partners to shore up the tottering government. Worse, he cannot even count on all Likud members to vote in favour of his major program, the Gaza Disengagement Plan. And although the Likud reversed its earlier decision on Dec. 9 and voted to open coalition talks with the Labor Party, negotiations broke down after just one meeting as Labor demanded broad changes to Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s economic reform program. As The Review went to press in mid-December, it was unclear whether the gap between the parties on economic issues can be bridged.

Remarkably, however, several factors may preclude imminent elections, even if Labor fails to join the government. Firstly, virtually all Knesset factions are wary of calling early elections. Despite the heated words of senior Labor Party figures such as Shimon Peres and Dalia Itzik, the once-powerful party is well aware of its recent electoral performances— Labor has lost between eight and ten seats in each election since 1992–and will not rush to the polls if they can avoid it. Most pundits also believe that the ultra-orthodox Shas (11 seats) and ultra-secular Shinui (15 seats) parties would prefer not to jeopardise their current Knesset representation by holding elections.

Lastly, after five election campaigns in less than a decade, there is a wide-spread feeling of frustration amongst many Israelis, and many Israelis feel that politicians have used early elections as an excuse not to govern the country.

Conversely, although Sharon has promised he would do everything possible to form a new government, he has also warned Likud members he would call an early poll if lawmakers fail to back the main points of his government, namely disengagement and the budget. By law, the Knesset will dissolve if the budget is not passed by March 31, and as the leader of the Likud there is virtually no chance Sharon would not return to the Knesset were there early elections, and he is likely to be willing to gamble that the Israeli public will return him to the Prime Minister’s office as well. In contrast, most other MKs would be forced to lobby members of the Likud Central Committee to secure their places on the party’s electoral list.

In many ways, the strategy has worked. Despite the fractious coalition, Sharon has managed to survive numerous parliamentary no-confidence votes since June, and has made significant progress on his core issues. Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has planted seeds of economic reform that have started to bear fruit: for the first time since the turn of the century, most economic indicators in Israel are showing positive signs. And despite the opposition of right-wing MKs and well-organised settler groups, Sharon has created a functioning Disengagement Authority, has instructed the army to prepare for a pullback, and has started preparing to compensate families who are removed from their homes as a result of it. By all accounts, the plan has reached its advanced stages and will be ready to executed as soon as Sharon gives the green light, probably sometime in 2005.

In other words, against all odds Sharon seems to be firmly in the driver’s seat. Even if Labor remains in opposition, there is a healthy chance that Sharon can continue to move from issue to issue, keeping the Knesset intact without calling elections. From outside the government, the Labor, Meretz, One Nation and Shinui parties will certainly support Sharon on disengagement whilst opposing Finance Minister Netanyahu’s economic policies. Religious parties Shas, United Torah Judaism and NRP will continue to oppose disengagement, but might give the PM a razor-thin majority to pass the 2005 budget in return for tens-of-millions of shekels to Orthodox institutions. Such a move, while unprecedented and unstable, could in fact be the only way forward, at least in the short- to- medium term, for a successful minority government which would allow Sharon to continue to pursue his main priorities. That, in turn, could produce Israel’s longest serving government in well over a decade– an ironic turn, to say the least.

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