Convinced that 2005 will be a year of great peace opportunities, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is throwing his considerable political weight behind a coalition with the Labor Party.
Sharon sees a Likud-Labor partnership, bolstered by at least one ultra Orthodox party, as the ideal tool for carrying through his disengagement plan and beyond. To that end, Sharon is following a two-stage strategy: first, ensuring that the centrist, secular Shinui Party, which has refused to sit in the government with ultra Orthodox parties, leaves the coalition, and then breaking resistance in Sharon's own Likud Party to a partnership with Labor.
The first stage of Sharon's strategy already has gone off nicely. Shinui pulled out of the government last week over a deal between Likud and the ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party, under which the government would allocate about $65 million in next year's budget for religious institutions and needs.
Sharon may not have planned Shinui's walkout, but he did nothing to stop it. It was a question of simple arithmetic: Likud and Shinui together had 54 seats in the Knesset, a minority in the 120-member house, but Likud and Labor would have a majority of 62.
Replacing Shinui with Labor will be a bit trickier, though, because of opposition within Likud to an alliance that party hard-liners fear will drag the government leftward. But Sharon was strengthening his hand ahead of a key Likud Central Committee vote this week.
A defeat in the Central Committee almost certainly would lead Sharon to go to new national elections. A victory and a coalition with Labor would enable the prime minister to push forward on peace moves with the Palestinians, Syrians and others.
At a business conference Monday in Tel Aviv, Sharon spoke of "restoring Israel's regional and international position" and declared that it would be "a terrible mistake" to miss opportunities in 2005, because of petty party political squabbles.
According to aides, Sharon is particularly buoyed by what he sees as a potential strategic partnership with Egypt for promoting regional stability. Given Egypt's leadership position in the Arab world, Sharon believes the recent sea change in relations between Cairo and Jerusalem could create an atmosphere conducive to accommodation with Israel throughout the region, and that this could come to fruition next year.
Analysts see the new Egyptian attitude toward Israel as especially significant, given the ostensibly more pragmatic Palestinian leadership that has emerged in the wake of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's death and ongoing Syrian efforts to renew a peace dialogue with Israel.
These developments have encouraged some outside players to start thinking in terms of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. In an article in the Washington Post last week, former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger argued that the internationally backed "road map" peace plan no longer was relevant.
What is needed, Kissinger wrote, is a more detailed blueprint for a comprehensive peace agreement that the United States and Europe should impose on the parties. The Europeans, who want to hold a Middle East peace conference, seem to be thinking along similar lines. The key probably lies with the Bush administration, which so far remains wedded to the road map's more incremental approach.
In pursuing a stable coalition with Labor, Sharon hopes to be able to exploit the winds of change on the Arab side and, at the same time, resist international pressure on Israel to make concessions that Sharon believes are too risky. The stronger and more stable his government, Sharon reasons, the better Israel's chances of making the best of what 2005 has to offer.
Still, Sharon needs his party's support for an alliance with Labor, and he was playing hardball ahead of the Thursday Central Committee vote. He warned that he would "punish" Cabinet ministers who didn't do enough to bring out pro-Sharon voters, and warned Knesset members that if he has to go to national elections, there's no guarantee they would be re-elected.
The strong-arm tactics seemed to be working. Ahead of the vote, all the Likud Cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had lined up behind Sharon, and the group of rebel Knesset members who opposed Sharon over his Gaza withdrawal plan also seemed to be disintegrating. At its height, the rejectionist group numbered around 20 of the Likud's 40 Knesset members; this week, its was down to fewer than 10.
It all could come down to voter turnout. In last month's election of Likud officers, more than 90 percent of the Central Committee voted.
Similar figures this time around would seem to assure a Sharon victory. But it will be Chanukah, and in the Prime Minister's office, the worry is that personal holidays could conflict with what Sharon sees as the national interest.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.
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