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Early Election Intricacies

05 November 2002

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Israel may be heading towards elections.  Three opposition parties, Meretz, Labor and Shinui are already discussing March 11, 2003 as the desired date (as opposed to the official Oct. 28).  Former prime minister Netanyahu, now battling for the Likud leadership concurs and the far right wing National Unity – Yisrael Beitainu party led by Avigdor Lieberman and Benny Elon is split, with the former against joining a narrow right wing coalition and the latter in favor. 

Lieberman demands Sharon obligate himself to a right wing government after the regularly scheduled elections in October and only then will he commit his seven seat faction to participating in the coalition over the next year.  PM Sharon has made it clear he always prefers national unity governments over narrow led coalitions.  Lieberman refuses to be ‘used’ and should his party stay out of the coalition Sharon will be forced into early elections. 

The government has only 55 mandates out of the 120 in the Knesset and can certainly be voted down in a ‘no confidence’ vote.  Even if the opposition (both right and left together) cannot muster the necessary 61 to topple the administration, they can paralyze all legislation, including the state budget.  This is certainly not in the public interest.

Sharon says he does not want elections now, possibly hoping to shore up support in the Likud for his up coming battle with Netanyahu for party leadership.  Elections in the winter could possibly take place in the middle of the American attack on Iraq, intensified Palestinian terrorism and Israeli counter terror responses, a further worsening of the economic situation and certainly a down slide in Israeli diplomatic successes (especially in Europe as Labor has resigned from the coalition).  The worst threat is the probability of Hizbollah firing thousands of rockets at northern Israel.

But no one is sure all this is to happen. Likud Education Minister Limor Livnat has suggested elections within 90 days, saying Israel can ill afford any more instability at the moment.  Meretz chairman Yossi Sarid pointed out that election expenses are already included in the 2003 state budget, so nothing is wasted unless one waits until October because in essence the campaign has already started and certainly a year long campaign is more expensive than one lasting a few months.

Sharon is refusing to change the political, diplomatic, social and economic guidelines of the coalition agreement he signed with Labor even though Shimon Peres and Benyamin Ben Eliezer are no longer in the government and he is ‘trying’ to establish a right wing coalition.  The PM is contradicting himself.  But Sharon has a long memory and knows whoever topples governments (esp. NUGs) or publicly demands early elections usually pays for it in his own party and at the polls, so he will wait for others to ‘force’ his hand.  And lastly he hopes to win the Likud primaries and go to the polls extolling the virtues of a NUG with Labor. 

Should Labor left wing candidate Amram Mitzna win his party’s primaries his position against a future NUG could cost him quite a few seats.  Former defense minister Ben Eliezer does not appear to stand a chance at success but if he manages in his quest for re-election the Labor – Likud duo could be back. 

Most interesting is the aftermath of a victory by Haim Ramon.  A charismatic Labor centrist, he speaks of being in the opposition yet when reading between the lines and studying his political past one realizes he prefers the power of decision making to the opposition benches (as idealistic as one may be).  Early on Ramon began to voice doubts about the NUG and for months has been calling for a Labor pullout.

His stance is predicated on two major points:  Israeli one sided separation from the Palestinians but keeping the Jordan Rift Valley as a security zone until there is a permanent status agreement with the Palestinian Authority.  On the domestic front he has consistently demanded a reallocation of funds away from settlements and the ultra-orthodox and to the poorer sectors of the economy.  Hence he did not agree with the present state budget, nor last year’s which he was forced to support.

Sharon is consistent in speaking national unity, finding great favor in the public eye.  Ramon does not discount it but in a coalition agreement could force the Likud to shift its domestic priorities.  He could also pressure the Likud into more dovish policies towards the PA.  Lest we forget, Sharon favors the establishment of a Palestinian state.  The two could make an interesting duo.

But as a prerequisite Sharon must defeat Netanyahu, Ramon must overcome his rivals and Labor and Likud together need to attain a majority of the Knesset (the magic 61 seats).  Only then can serious negotiations begin. 

We are all familiar with the ancient Chinese blessing/curse ‘May you live in interesting times.’