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Tortured Road to National Unity

20 February 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

Figuring out Labor Party politics often leads one to the heights of absurdity.  Chairman Amram Mitzna, known for his dovish foreign policy and defense views is willing to continue negotiations with Likud PM Ariel Sharon, even though during the entire election campaign he swore off any sort of national unity government with the Likud.  Although he is only having meetings of ‘clarification’ everyone knows he is negotiating with a prime minister who is quite willing to dump his former right wing alliances with the right wing National Union and National Religious parties and begin to implement the Bush ‘Road Map’ working towards a Palestinian state.

As for domestic issues the Likud is known to resent the massive yeshiva funding, draft deferments and other perks given to the ultra – orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism, but have never had the chance to get out of their clutches. 

In principle Labor and the Likud agree on quite a bit, especially if there is no real Palestinian partner to speak with since PA Chairman Arafat is known to still aid and abet terrorism.  According to the US ‘Road Map’ he is to be replaced.  So where are the differences?

Basically in nuance and degree and ‘where one draws the line’.  Labor would be more generous in negotiations with the Palestinians and could possibly demand the immediate dismantling of an isolated Jewish settlement in Gaza to start with or at least declarations of that kind as part of a coalition agreement.  As for final borders the Likud will demand to keep more of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Labor less.  But this is fairly irrelevant since a long term interim agreement is the only real option at the moment.  A permanent status agreement will have to wait for the next Knesset (end of 2007) after long standing international aid will be sought to reform the Palestinian Authority.

On state and religious issues there are many traditional, middle of the road Jews voting for the Likud.  Sharon needs to be careful as to just how much money he will cut from yeshiva budgets and the Ministry of Religious Affairs (which the secular Shinui party wants to cancel).   In the battle against the massive draft deferments the parties are in basic agreement (never mind how they voted on the Tal Law upholding such exemptions) since both were against the law when in opposition and for it when in a coalition with the ultra – orthodox.  The voters in both parties object to the law and Shinui demands its cancellation as part of a coalition agreement.

On economics, all three parties basically agree.  There will need to be a capitalization, massive firings of government employees, investments made in national projects such as transportation, water desalinization and industrial infrastructure while the financial apparatus of state must be revamped (especially pension funds and banking).  However workers’ rights will have to be guaranteed (at least on paper) and for this the One Nation faction of three may be brought in.

Strangely enough, Benyamin Ben Eliezer is now against a NUG, even though he happily served as defense minister until October and championed the Labor – Likud alliance for almost two years.  Left wing Labor MK Avrum Burg continues to make lots of noise against such a government, swearing allegiance to his electorate (and in essence to himself) that Labor has no right to join a Likud led NUG.  MK Haim Ramon has also gotten into the act declaring if the Likud does not accept the entire Labor platform the government will not receive his support.

Veteran politician Shimon Peres is resigned to the idea and the logic.  He prefers moving ahead on the peace front, reforming the economy and drawing off power from the ultra-orthodox with the Likud as the major coalition partner (and taking most of the blame) to a narrow right wing religious government.  He also considers it the responsible action to take.  He speaks of loyalties to the state and people, and much less the party. 

And to top it off Sharon is considering removing the governor of the Bank of Israel (in a way like the Federal Reserve) David Klein since his performance over the past three years has been less than successful.  His predecessor, the internationally respected Ya’akov Frankel may be brought back.  It is rumored he is demanding serious moves on the peace front if he is to accept the post, a fact apparently not to bothersome to the PM.

In short, there is a very real possibility of putting the country back on track should a Likud, Labor and Shinui coalition be established.  Sharon has until March 6 to close an agreement (and then he can get a two week extension from the president if necessary).  Labor can ‘make it or break it’.

It is just too bad Israelis may have to live through March 20 in semi chaos to see an obvious deal come to a close.