Israel’s Labor Party pulled out of the country’s ruling coalition Wednesday, signaling the end of 19 months of relative unity. The final straw for Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s refusal to redirect $150 million allocated to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 2003 budget to low-income “development towns.” It isn’t yet clear how Sharon will choose to proceed: He could form a new government by bringing more religious and right-wing parties into the ruling coalition, dissolve parliament and call an early election, or the government could fall on a vote of no-confidence. (The Jerusalem Post ran through the various early elections options.) Since the Labor ministers’ resignations don’t come into effect until Friday evening, it is also technically possible—though highly unlikely—that the “government of national unity” could be reassembled. Thursday morning it appeared that Sharon was contacting far-right parties in the hopes of forming a new, narrower coalition.
Israeli papers agreed that both Ben-Eliezer’s and Sharon’s actions were driven by their personal ambitions. The issue of the settlements is significant for both men: Ben-Eliezer is running third in mid-November’s Labor Party leadership race, trailing two opponents who opposed Labor’s participation in the government, and he needed a popular issue to boost his chances. Britain’s Guardian pointed out that the money allocated to settlements is a mere 0.3 percent of total spending, “and Mr Ben-Eliezer’s support is falling among the dovish party members he needs to keep on side.” Ha’aretz said Sharon, the “founder of the settlements, was unable, psychologically or politically, to even hint that the settlers would cease to benefit from government largesse.” Politically, Sharon could not risk upsetting settlers, his key constituency within the Likud Party, with a leadership showdown with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looming.
Ma’ariv said Wednesday’s blow-up between Labor and Likud was an inevitable result of built-up tension: “In one go, everything was let out, from all directions, to all sides, and heavy burdens of jealousy, hatred, bitterness, and anger were released, proving once again that everything in the Israeli system, absolutely everything, is political. Because the economic issues which encompassed this argument, have been completely forgotten.”
Sharon’s position—inside and outside Israel—will be tougher without Labor in the Cabinet. Ha’aretz said: “[Sharon] realizes that now, without the legitimacy provided by the Labor Party to all his extreme actions in the territories, without the diplomatic umbrella provided by [Labor Foreign Minister] Shimon Peres in the capitals of the world, his position on the seat of power is shaky. From now on he runs a right wing government, with settlers and ultra-orthodox, and the world will see him in a completely different light.” Ma’ariv opined that the prime minister has lost his “most precious political asset. … Ariel Sharon, who enjoyed a political paradise, will from now on learn what hell a coalition is, with all the blackmail, demands, and threats.”
Although several commentators suggested that this would be a bad time for an Israeli election, with the possibility of a war in Iraq in the near future, the Jerusalem Post disagreed. In an editorial headlined, “Good-bye and good riddance,” the paper declared, “[E]lections are not merely distractions; they are also great clarifiers. They offer the victors a mandate.” After two years of “faux consensus” it’s high time Israel had “a government that knows what it’s about, and an opposition that knows what it’s against.” The more liberal Ha’aretz expressed similar sentiments, declaring that Labor’s “near-merger” with Likud had “damaged Israeli politics, which have become populist, parochial and one-dimensional, with Labor losing its strength as one of the vital elements of a proper democracy.”
Outside Israel, the papers were less sanguine about a right-wing Israeli government. Britain’s Independent worried that the chances of peace are vastly reduced without Labor: “Nothing could now be worse for Israel, let alone what remains of the Middle East peace process, than that Ariel Sharon, having lost the support of the Israeli Labour party in his unity government, should throw in his lot with the religious zealots and extremists on the far right of Israeli politics.” Spain’s ABC said the fall of the Sharon government would be “a true disaster,” though the editorial admitted that the government of national unity formed in March 2001 had crumbled: “The repeated concessions by ‘dove’ Shimon Peres to ‘hawk’ Ariel Sharon have not served to bring peace any closer, and they have cheapened the international prestige of the Israeli Nobelist.”