On Tuesday morning, a reluctant Ariel Sharon had to concede defeat and call for early elections. After holding Israel's prime ministership for 20 months, the master tactician had finally been outmaneuvered by his political rivals. Recognizing the hopelessness of his position, Sharon decided to cut short the period of humiliation. Instead of bleeding away his power in fruitless coalition negotiations and parliamentary maneuvers doomed to failure, he tried to regain the initiative by rushing to the polls.
Israelis will vote on Jan. 28 for the new Knesset, nine months ahead of the original date. Before that, both major political parties, the right-wing Likud and left-wing Labor, will hold their primaries. Sharon will try to defend his Likud leadership against Binyamin Netanyahu, the former premier and newly appointed foreign minister. On the Labor side, party chairman Binyamin ("Fuad") Ben-Eliezer, who served as defense minister until last week, faces challenges from Amram Mitzna, an ex-general and mayor of Haifa, and veteran party operator and former minister Haim Ramon.
Both party contests are close. The outcome, still unclear, might change the political scene with new candidates -- or retain Sharon and Ben-Eliezer for another round, despite the poor performance of their "national unity" government. The country has been devastated by the ongoing war with the Palestinians and a declining economy; public morale is low. Sharon will run on his conservative platform of "national responsibility"; Netanyahu will pledge to win the war and revive the markets; and the Labor Party, now in opposition, will promise to change national priorities from settlement building in the West Bank to assisting the poor and needy.
Sharon's alliance with the Labor Party in the "national unity" government was his major achievement, the centerpiece of his political and diplomatic strategy. Contrary to his activist reputation, Sharon governs by reaction, rather than initiative. After his Lebanon debacle in 1982, Sharon learned the importance of national consensus, and has striven to create Labor-Likud governments. In coalitions that cover so much of the political spectrum, the extremes neutralize each other, giving the prime minister relative freedom of action as long as he remains in the political center. As a result, national unity governments have traditionally suffered from policy paralysis and been unable to lead the country toward peace. But this perfectly fits Sharon's ideology and personality.
Sharon's coalition gradually escalated the war with the Palestinians, responding to a wave of terrorist suicide attacks by reoccupying the West Bank cities and isolating Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader. All these actions would have been unthinkable in a narrow right-wing government, which would have faced strong international censure and domestic opposition. But with a prize asset like Shimon Peres, the Nobel Peace laureate, as his foreign minister, Sharon had a perfect shield of respectability and acceptance.
Unlike his Likud predecessors, Sharon got along very well with Washington, forming a deep personal alliance with President George W. Bush. The Labor leaders, Ben Eliezer and Peres, were largely cut out of the Sharon-Bush exchanges, and played only a marginal role in policy making. But their presence in the government shielded Sharon from his political allies in the right wing, who demanded an even harsher military response to the Palestinians. They enabled Sharon to declare his "acceptance" of the Bush Middle East plan calling for Palestinian statehood, without ever bringing it to a Cabinet discussion, where the right-wing majority was bound to reject it.
Happy as it was from Sharon's point of view, the right-left marriage could not hold forever. From the first it was clear that Labor would have to break the coalition at some point, if it wanted to survive and present a rival agenda. As much as Ben Eliezer loved holding the top defense job, his aides planned to jump off Sharon's wagon during the summer or autumn of 2002. Knowing that the Israeli public was angry with the Palestinians and would not embrace a peacemaking agenda, they preferred to pick a fight over Israel's mounting social and economic crisis. This made the most political sense: Despite his huge overall popularity, Sharon is lagging far behind in his economic ratings at the polls. No wonder, then, that Netanyahu has focused his attack against Sharon on the flailing national economy and touted his better economic record.
Ben-Eliezer hesitated. But he could not wait too long: Labor challengers, coming from his left, were beating him up over his alliance with Sharon, saying that Labor should have pulled out of the government long ago. Ben-Eliezer's challengers must be seen within the context of the left's increasing disenchantment with the national unity government. At first, that government represented a genuine public consensus against Arafat and the Palestinians. But as time went by, and the war escalated, the paralyzed government could find no way out. The solution favored by the right, outright military victory, was unattainable, short of drastic actions that would lead to widespread condemnation of Israel and might even torpedo its all-important special relationship with the United States. The solution favored by the left, peace through negotiations with the Palestinians, was equally out of reach: neither Sharon nor his Likud partners showed any inclination to engage in substantive negotiations, certainly not while Palestinian terror attacks continued.
As the stalemate deepened, a group of business leaders pushed Mitzna, who had never played a part in national politics, to run for the Labor leadership. His appearance in the summer energized the political system. The left wing, devastated by the peace process failure, found a new hope overnight. Mitzna advocates resuming peace talks with Arafat, regardless of whether violence continues; his starting point for negotiations is roughly the Camp David position. Ever since he entered the race, Mitzna has led the polls among left-wing voters. The veteran Labor candidate Ramon, by contrast, advocates a more centrist position: He opposes negotiating with the Palestinians at this time and advocates a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from much of the West Bank behind a security fence, leaving large settlement blocs in place. Both men vowed to leave Sharon's government if elected.
Lagging behind in the polls, and aware of the growing threat from his left, Fuad had to act. The excuse was the budget vote, the first of two stages a bill needs to pass to be approved by the parliament. This year, the budget carries unprecedented significance. It calls for major welfare cuts during a depression, which makes voting for it extremely painful. But failure to approve the budget cuts, or enlarging the budget deficit, will result in the country's international credit ratings being lowered. Ben-Eliezer forced Sharon to move first, demanding that he reassign budget funds from the settlements to other, more deprived layers of society, like the elderly and students. Sharon, facing his own Likud primary contest, could not turn his back on the settlements, the right wing's pet issue. So after a couple of days of make-believe negotiations to "save the national unity," involving top businessman and lawyers, Ben-Eliezer bid farewell to Sharon. A reluctant flock of Labor ministers, chief among them Peres, submitted their resignations. Sharon's government had lost its Knesset majority.
Sharon was in a corner. Instead of calling new elections immediately, he tried to plot his way out and keep his job for another year. But that only caused him further humiliation. As a first step, he recruited the ex-general Shaul Mofaz, who retired in July as chief of staff of the Israeli military, as the new defense minister. It had long been rumored that the popular Mofaz would join the Likud: Now he put himself at Sharon's side. But when Sharon offered the foreign affairs portfolio to Netanyahu, his rival agreed on one condition, that Sharon resign and call an early election. Sharon refused. As late as Monday afternoon he still held firm against going to the polls. But it took only a few more hours before he realized that he had no real alternative. He needed a new coalition partner to give him a majority, but the only possible candidate was Avigdor Liberman, the leader of an extreme-right party. But Liberman had no incentive to help Sharon: The polls indicate that his party will gain more seats in the next Knesset. (In fact, Liberman and Ben-Eliezer, though leaders of opposite ideological camps, quietly coordinated their moves to oust Sharon.) As the price of joining Sharon, Liberman demanded that Sharon reject the U.S.-backed peace plan. Sharon refused, saying that he would do nothing to harm Israel's "special relationship" with the United States.
Late on Monday night, Sharon convened his aides and decided to give up, pinning his hopes on a quick primary contest over Netanyahu. Since the Likud is likely to win the general election, the party contest will probably decide who will be the next prime minister. Sharon announced his decision on Tuesday morning. A couple of hours later Netanyahu, who won his minor battle with Sharon over the election date, agreed to join the short-lived government as foreign minister, meaning the two bitter enemies would fight each other as nominal colleagues.
During the crisis, Sharon had to look in another direction, toward Washington. On the eve of its Iraq campaign, the Bush administration is highly sensitive to any seismic waves from the Middle East. From the American standpoint, it is important that Israel disappear from the radar screen right now. Three weeks ago, Sharon called on Bush at the White House, and agreed to keep a low profile until the war in Iraq is over. He pledged not to escalate the Palestinian front, or the Lebanon border, and to avoid retaliating to Iraqi attacks, unless Israel was hit with chemical or biological weapons. For his part, Bush promised to do everything to prevent an Iraqi attack on Israel. Since their meeting, Sharon has avoided retaliating for Palestinian terror attacks. Preparations for war have entered a higher gear. Adm. James Metzger, the assistant chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was appointed as liaison to Israel during the coming war. He visited Israel last week for a get-together session with local military and intelligence chiefs.
Knowing how sensitive the subject was for America, Sharon acted quickly to defuse any concerns in the administration over the new right-wing government. A few hours after the coalition collapsed last week, Israeli Ambassador Danny Ayalon met National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and told her that Sharon would stick to his policy and all his understandings with Bush, even without the Labor Party at his side. On Friday, Sharon summoned American Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer to give him the same message. He repeated it later in public.
Those messages are not meant only for an American audience. Sharon needs them as a domestic insurance policy as well. Without Peres and Ben-Eliezer, Bush's need for Israeli restraint remains his only safety belt against right-wing pressures for escalation. The new ministers, Mofaz and Netanyahu, support the expulsion of Arafat. With them holding the senior Cabinet positions, a militant military command, and his own brutal instincts, Sharon needed better protection. At least for now, this tactic has worked. Mofaz decided to change course and rebrand himself as a relative moderate, a change from his highly activist image while in uniform. Netanyahu's position is that this temporary "caretaker" government is not the proper forum to advocate major policy changes. Both are likely to adopt Sharon's official response to the so-called "roadmap," the American plan for a gradual, post-Iraq Israeli-Palestinian settlement. However, the true test of the new leadership troika will come only after a major terror attack or a hit from Iraq. Only then will Sharon's promises to Bush have to contend with cries for retaliation.
According to Israeli officials, America was most concerned with two issues: the humanitarian distress of the Palestinians in the occupied territories, and the Israeli settlements. Washington would like Israel to ease its economic blockade, and to avoid any controversies involving the settlements before the election. Beyond that, any serious talk about a revived peace process would have to wait until after the Iraq war, and the forming of Israel's next government, which will take office in February or March.
In the meantime, there was one person who was probably smiling: Yasser Arafat, who has seen many Israeli governments collapse. Just weeks ago Israeli tanks ordered in by Sharon were smashing his Ramallah compound and he was threatened with ouster and exile. The Palestinian leader not only survived, he witnessed the fall of his arch-rival -- at least for now.