Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dissolved the Israeli parliament Tuesday and called an early election, which is expected to take place Jan. 28, 2003. The Jerusalem Post observed, “The dramatic developments throw Israel into a turbulent election campaign at a time when the nation is facing severe problems—the 2-year-old conflict with the Palestinians, a deepening economic crisis and the possibility of an Iraqi attack on Israel in the event of US strike against Saddam Hussein.” Ha’aretz welcomed “the end of a terrible government,” declaring, “Despite the heavy price that a political crisis will exact and the problematic timing of the election, the collapse of the outgoing government can only be welcomed. It will be remembered as one of the worst governments in Israel’s history.”
Last Wednesday, the Labor Party withdrew from the government of national unity in part, according to commentators, to boost former Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s chances in the party’s leadership election, scheduled for Nov. 19. Sharon spent a week trying to form a narrow coalition with nationalist parties but in the end declared that he could not submit to the right-wingers’ “blackmail.” According to the Financial Times, the National Union-Yisrael Beitenu Party “had demanded that he ditch Washington’s ‘road map’ towards Middle East peace and reject support for a Palestinian state.” Sharon told a press conference Tuesday, “Elections are the last thing this country needs right now.”
Ma’ariv praised Sharon for standing up to the right: “The prime minister will benefit on two counts: He will be remembered as someone who chose not to be dragged into a period of instability and repeated surrender to political blackmail; and as a result, it is very possible that he will enjoy renewed trust from Likud members in his ability to secure another term as Prime Minister.” Still, the Israeli business daily Globes said that by calling a snap election, “Sharon set Israel’s political agenda in accordance with his political needs.” The op-ed claimed the election’s timing presented “substantial political advantages” to the prime minister. If, as expected, one of Ben-Eliezer’s dovish rivals becomes Labor Party leader, they will only have 90 days to reorganize the party and present a “worthy alternative program to the one Sharon has ready.”
Ha’aretz claimed the most interesting election races are the party primaries. If Ben-Eliezer were to win the Labor race, his rivals have threatened to leave the party, thus splitting the main liberal voting bloc. If the front-runner, Haifa Mayor Amran Mitzna, wins, Labor would be running an untried leftist against an incumbent with decades of government experience. The 300,000 Likud members who must choose between Sharon and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will serve as foreign minister in the transitional government, at some point in the next seven weeks will probably decide the identity of the next prime minister. They face a tough decision: “To vote for a popular prime minister, even though his term has been marked by terror and despair, rising poverty, unemployment, and a deep recession, or to vote for a former leader … who preaches a different way, but was, in an understatement, a problematic national leader who led the Likud to being smashed in an election, divided society between left and right, and conducted heartwarming negotiations with Yasser Arafat.” Whichever man gets the nod, Likud is likely to come out of the election as the largest party in a coalition government, since Sharon would attract votes from the center and Netanyahu from the right.
A Globes column wondered if Benjamin Netanyahu is really ready to return to the public sector. Since he left office his income has taken a huge jump, and according to the op-ed, he currently earns at least $100,000 per month. “The calculation is now simple: if he takes up an official post, he’ll have to give up his other jobs. No more consultancies, no more overseas lectures for tens of thousands of dollars a pop, no more using his high-level connections for fat fees.” Since Netanyahu believes it’s inevitable that he will become prime minister at some point, he may want to build up a bigger bank balance “before jumping back into public service.”