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The New Coalition

24 February 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

The Likud’s forty seats (including the two from Natan Sharansky’s Aliyah party) coupled with Shinui’s 15 and six from the National Religious Party gives PM Ariel Sharon’s new government a narrow coalition of 61.  Furthermore the opposition led by Labor and Meretz (together 25 seats) is split between the right wing National Union (7), the ultra – orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas (together 16) and the Arab lists (8).  The One Nation labor union party (3) could conceivably join in the future while the National Union is already negotiating for entry.

Shinui toned down its secular demands in its negotiations with the NRP and it appears the status quo between religious and non-religious will not change much.  One can expect more commercial activity on Shabbat and the allowance of secular marriage contracts in certain cases where Jewish law – Halacha imposes a ban.  The Tal Law exempting ultra-orthodox yeshiva students from serving in the army is to be revoked and replaced by other legislation within a year while the religious affairs ministry is to be cancelled and its activities held under other auspices.  Shinui’s far reaching secular demands were not answered.

But was that what they really stood for?  On the outside yes, but internally, not really.  Shinui received much support from the middle class whose dislike for the ultra –orthodox is more of a symbol and rallying point than the in depth issue.  Besides security, middle class concerns are economic.  The faction will have five cabinet posts.  Symbolically the party will control the justice and interior ministries to ensure secular influence in the legal sphere and population registrar but as for economics, only the national infrastructure ministry was obtained.  Chairman Tommy Lapid did not negotiate a very good deal, apparently under pressure from the fear that if he made too many demands, the Likud would prefer the ultra – orthodox parties instead.

Shinui truly hoped Labor would join to ensure a secular, centrist government.  The Mitzna (Labor) – Sharon (Likud) negotiations failed, with each blaming the other.  Labor is the big loser and Mitzna may become a passing phenomenon as he is under massive attack by the Labor centrists led by Shimon Peres who advocate partnership with the Likud. 

The NRP made a great deal obtaining two ministries (Housing and Construction and Labor and Social Welfare) while blocking most attempts by Shinui for secular changes in Israeli society.  On the peace front they are at odds with Lapid and Co., refusing to agree to a Palestinian state and even wanting to scrap the Bush ‘Road Map’ which mentions such an outcome.  While there is no real Palestinian negotiating partner none of this matters, but the NRP may find itself in the opposition once the Iraq issue is finished and the Quartet will force Israel’s hand while reminding everyone Sharon himself has spoken of a Palestinian state.

This commentator was incorrect in expecting Labor to join a national unity government.  Mitzna and the Labor left want to be in the opposition.  But Labor politics are boiling again and Mitzna could be removed, especially if there are moves towards peace, the NRP quits the coalition and he refuses to join.  Then Peres and Benyamin Ben Eliezer may very well be back.

Although an official government will be presented shortly, the coalition game is far from over.