November 7, 2002
Yasser Arafat exiled. Tel Aviv striking back forcefully at Iraq against America's wishes. The expansion of settlements. The permanent reoccupation of Palestinian territories.
If you find yourself caught unaware by any of the above scenarios occurring in the coming months, perhaps it's because you weren't paying attention to the collapse of the Israeli government this week. Maybe you think it's too parochial, too confusing.
And while Ariel Sharon's motives for dissolving the current Knesset on Tuesday might seem confusing, it's important to take note, because the move could bring immediate, wide-ranging results that will reverberate far beyond the Jerusalem Knesset's corridors.
The call for new elections -- which will probably take place in January, after billions of shekels are spent and bitter enemies are made -- began last week when Labor left the government over a budget crisis (see page 24). Where it will end, nobody is quite sure. But in the meantime, Israel is left with a lame-duck right-wing government, to be replaced possibly by an even more extreme right-wing government. Likud -- whether led by Ariel Sharon or newly signed in Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- will undoubtedly pick up seats in the upcoming elections, selected by a country whose desire for security right now outweighs a desire for almost anything else.
And this new government might implement the above scenarios without compunction. Without Labor in the government, without Shimon Peres as foreign minister to temper its actions, the interim government and the next Knesset could take Israel where some of it wants to go -- although it is certainly not the direction America wants Israel to go in.
Moderation, restraint and reconciliation are some of the traits America values in an Israeli government. President George W. Bush -- who, as of Tuesday's election,s enjoys unprecedented support in the Republican-led House and Senate (see page 22) -- may get along with the Sharon of a national unity government, but he may not get along as well with the Sharon of an unabashedly right-wing government. He certainly won't get along with a Bibi-led government of the same nature, if Bibi remains the newly transformed, tougher Bibi as a premier (that's a big if).
And if America goes to war -- not such a big if -- Israel's new coalition of security-conscious parties intent on defending themselves could prove to be too independent from an America demanding unilateral cooperation on all fronts.
So is the call for new elections a good or a bad thing?
Of course, it wholly depends on which side of the political spectrum you fall.
For those leaning toward the right, the internal power struggles between Netanyahu and Sharon is destructive, but ultimately will not lose the party any power. Likud will be in a stronger position than before.
But for those on the left, the short-term results are worse than the long-term ones. In the immediate future, Labor will probably lose seats in the January elections. They will also be powerless to restrain the government as they did while in power: no more dismantling of outposts; no more Peres scurrying off to meet with Palestinian Authority officials; no more internal government demands to withdraw from the "latest" incursion into the territories.
Yet even before the government fell, Tom Segev, a columnist for Ha'aretz who visited Los Angeles last week, told me that a collapse would be a good thing, because there has been no democracy in Israel. "Politics is dead," said Segev, who spoke on behalf of the New Israel Fund at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Irmas Campus. "Labor is dead, and they need some time to become alive again."
Many Labor leaders agree, that leaving the government -- however belatedly and for whatever seemingly marginal motives -- was a good thing. "The national unity government in Israel was wrong from the start, though many Israelis have tried to deny this," Yossi Beilin wrote in The New York Times on Sunday, Nov. 3.
"After most of the highest-ranking Knesset members from the Labor Party had resigned from the Knesset or refused to serve in a government under Sharon, most of the Labor Party ministers who entered the government were a group of backbenchers headed by Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a group determined not to give up its rare and unexpectedly elevated share of power," he wrote.
Beilin, a former justice minister under Ehud Barak, noted that in this month's Labor elections for a new leader, " ...it is vital that a candidate advocating peace be elected, someone who can present a genuine alternative to the present policy of paying lip service to any solution put forward."
Of course, there's another scenario that could take place at Israel's next elections. Sharon could get re-elected, and unable to form a coalition solely with religious and right-wing parties, he could reach out to the Labor Party (which, with a new leader and clear vision just may garner more seats) and form -- you guessed it, another national unity government.
That would put Israel right back where it started, before Labor pulled out, before the government fell. But the chances of everything remaining the same -- with Netanyahu in the picture, Hamas on the loose, a war on Iraq imminent -- are slim. In other words, there was no calm before the storm, and there won't be one afterward, either.