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Labor Resignation Strategy

31 October 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Yesterday Labor quit the National Unity Government.  56% of the population blames Defense Minister Benyamin Ben Eliezer for the break-up as he faced increasing pressure in the Labor primaries to leave the Sharon (Likud) led administration.  The state budget was at issue and lacking as it was, the general consensus was that it should be passed (at least during yesterday’s first reading) in order to avoid an international downgrading of Israel’s credit rating.  The Labor leaning Israel business community (especially on the foreign policy front in relation to the Palestinians) urged Ben Eliezer to keep his faction in the government.

Despite all the attempts at bridging gaps between Labor and the Likud over the matter of ‘an equality’ in the distribution of funds between development towns (where much of Israel’s more needy population lives) and the West Bank settlements, the bottom line was disagreement more over semantics than anything else. 

Many are angry at Ben Eliezer in a paradoxical situation where his two opponents in the November 19th primaries Haim Ramon and Amram Mitzna demand a break with the NUG while the Labor ministers and rank and file want to remain.  The Labor Knesset faction leans towards a break enabling them to take leadership of the parliamentary opposition.  In short, nothing is a complicated as a home grown ‘made in Labor’ mess.  Some analysts believe should Ben Eliezer win the Nov. 19th vote he will re-enter the government, but first he has to win.

To make matters worse, the impending American attack on Iraq is a major security concern and Israel cannot remain without a full time defense minister.  Former Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz may be appointed by PM Sharon to take Ben Eliezer’s place well before the Labor primaries, leaving Israel with a narrow right wing government until general elections a year from now. 

But there is a certain logic to the madness.  Labor is fairly confident such a government will not last more than a few months and bring about elections by the spring 2003.  The different world view concerning a settlement with the Palestinians will be the main issue, meaning separation between Israel and a Palestinian entity.  The war against terrorism has not been won totally but despite continuing terror attacks the Israeli public is facing much less Palestinian violence today than they did a year or half a year ago and much of the credit goes to Ben Eliezer (and Sharon). 

Everyone is waiting for the next step, and that means disengagement from Palestinian territories.  78% of Israelis polled (including the Arab population) by the Hebrew daily Yediot Aharonot are willing to abandon certain Palestinian areas.  This still means a Jewish majority is for the establishment of a Palestinian entity (state?) as a part of a permanent status solution and is willing to take down settlements – not all, but apparently the majority, while some 75 – 80% of the settler population would remain in Israel since they live in close proximity to the 1967 borders.  This is not so far from the ideas forwarded by former President Clinton and former PM Barak in the summer or 2000.

Ben Eliezer and Labor quit the government over the settlement and yeshiva budget issues where they have ‘gut’ consensus support from the Israeli population.  At the moment they are being blamed.

But even if is only a few months from now it is still a long time until election day.