by Ferry Biedermann
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's broad-based coalition collapsed Oct. 31, barely 24 hours after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat won approval for his new cabinet by an unexpectedly wide margin.
The domestic political situation of the two leaders fighting for political survival has been dramatically reversed.
"The Israelis said recently that the days of Yasser Arafat's government are numbered," said one Palestinian legislator gleefully. "It seems instead that the days of Mr. Sharon in government are numbered."
Sharon's government came apart over the Labor Party's opposition to what it considers excessive funding for Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territories in the proposed 2003 budget. Defense Minister and Labour chairman Benjamin Ben-Eliezer wanted some of that money diverted to social and education projects within Israel.
Ben-Eliezer resigned after the government refused to accept his demand, and his ministers went with him. Labour was the main partner in Sharon's coalition.
Sharon remained defiant after a day of angry negotiations. "We hope to continue to lead the country in a responsible and clear-headed manner," he told the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. This was seen as indication that he does not intend to resign.
Sharon and his right-wing Likud Party have already started negotiations to form a narrow government that leans on smaller extreme right-wing factions. These parties may demand more money for religious institutions and the settlements, political analysts say.
Likud and its supporters accuse Ben-Eliezer of torpedoing the coalition for narrow party interests. Ben-Eliezer faces internal elections for leadership of the Labour Party in less than three weeks. He is trailing his two left-leaning rivals in the polls.
Ben-Eliezer insisted that he had done all he could to rescue the coalition. "We have always attached the utmost importance to national unity," he told the Knesset in his resignation speech. "But how is it possible that in the year 2002 in the State of Israel thousands of children go hungry... we have to take money away from the settlements."
Sharon said the settlements get no more money that other Israeli communities. He was willing nevertheless to set up a commission to study the matter. This did not satisfy Ben-Eliezer, who resigned after a series of stormy meetings in which he failed to get a commitment $150 million for projects he supports.
The budget later passed the first of three readings in the Knesset with a comfortable majority despite Labour opposition. This may mean that Sharon can count on support that will let him hang on for now. He will face a vote of no confidence Monday.
If Sharon loses the vote or resigns, elections may have to be held within 90 days. Or, he may hang on to power at the head of a narrow coalition government and let the Knesset set a date for early elections.
Sharon will almost certainly face a challenge for leadership of his own Likud Party now that elections seem imminent. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will more than likely attempt to regain the leadership. Polls put Likud well ahead of Labour if elections were held now.
Sharon's internal troubles prompted accusations from left-wing parliamentarians that he had failed to compromise with Labour for his own party reasons. "Is there anybody in this House who does not have his own political considerations?" asked Yossi Sarid, head of the Meretz Party.
The political upheaval in Israel contrasted sharply with a surprisingly easy victory for Yasser Arafat in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) in Ramallah Tuesday. The PLC approved the new cabinet of the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a wide margin.
Arafat's victory was remarkable because the new group of ministers barely differs from the team that resigned two months ago because it was then considered unacceptable to the PLC. Only four of the 19 ministers are new, and all of them appear to be Arafat loyalists.
Arafat was supported by the Fatah faction that holds the majority of the seats, though there was plenty of grumbling among delegates. "I do not think it is a reform government," said Hanan Ashrawi, a prominent reformist member of the PLC. Ziad Abu Amr, an independent member form Gaza who heads the political committee of the PLC said he doubted that the new government would carry out reforms demanded by the PLC.
More radical Palestinian movements were also scathing about the new cabinet. "The Palestinian Authority has become addicted to ignoring the will of the people and the cries of the uprising," said the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in a statement from Damascus.
Representatives of Arafat's Fatah movement nevertheless chose to back their leader for the sake of national unity. They said they would refuse to go with U.S. and Israeli plans to sideline Arafat.
The Americans and the Israelis have demanded reforms within the PA, especially of the security services. But the new Palestinian Interior Minister, Hani Al-Hassan, said "security and occupation cannot co-exist. If the occupation retreats, there will be security."
Elections for PA chairmanship and for the PLC are due in January. Arafat is far ahead of rivals in all opinion polls.
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