by Ferry Biedermann
(IPS) JERUSALEM --
the stunning victory of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's right wing Likud party in Israel's elections Tuesday, the question persists: 'what next?'
While Sharon is preparing the ground for a new coalition, many others, even in his own party, are creating obstacles. Being the first Prime Minister to be re elected since the 1980's does not put an end to his political woes.
"Today is not the time for celebrations -- no celebrations," said Sharon in his victory speech. "This is a time for soul searching, for coming together in unity, for fusing all forces in order to bring about a genuine victory -- victory over terrorism, and the beginning of a true peace process."
While Sharon invited the defeated left of center Labor party to join in the coalition, the triumphant activists of his Likud party booed the idea, chanting "no unity government".
When Sharon persisted, they even started calling for 'Bibi' Netanyahu, Sharon's greatest rival in the party. Apparently the victorious right would rather see its programme realized rather than having it watered down by the renewed participation of Labor in a government.
Not that there is much chance for now that the Labor party will join a Sharon led coalition this time, as it did until November last year. The party's relatively new chairman, Amram Mitzna, is sticking to his guns.
"It is no shame to go into the opposition," said Mitzna.
Labor says it needs time to regroup in the opposition in order to be able to provide a viable alternative next time. And Mitzna thinks that his turn may come again soon, if he is not first deposed as leader of the party.
As long as he is in charge it is hard to see Labor renege on its campaign promise not to serve under Sharon. Mitzna says he does not want the party once again to become "a fig leaf for Sharon's failing policies".
In fact just one day after the elections, Sharon seemed to bear out the suspicion that he is not serious about peace moves. While he keeps insisting that he will agree to the United States' peace program -- President George W. Bush's so called road map -- he is making it very difficult for any credible Palestinian leader to negotiate with him.
In a statement he went one step further than the Bush Administration, which for now seem to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat from such talks.
"In the framework of Israel's efforts to move forward on the diplomatic track and bring about quiet and -- in the end -- peace, Israel will be prepared to speak only to those Palestinians who are not involved in terror in any way, shape or form," said Sharon.
The statement came in response to Arafat's offer of immediate talks.
This can be read to exclude almost anybody since the intifada and resistance to the Israeli occupation are articles of faith among the Palestinians. Many potential replacements for Arafat may in one way or another be engaged in such acts of resistance, which the Israeli's invariably call terrorism.
Such statements will make it ever more difficult to lure the Labor Party into a coalition. Sharon has plenty of other options but they are much less attractive to him.
His Likud Party has doubled its strength in the 120 seat Knesset, Israel's Parliament, to at least 37 seats according to preliminary results. Labor crashed from 26 seats in 1999 to 19. Altogether the right wing and religious bloc in the Knesset now hold a comfortable 66 seat majority.
Some 10 seats have shifted from the left and center to the right, an unprecedented earthquake in Israel's political landscape. Usually both camps are roughly equal, with either side only holding small advantages.
Sharon's problem is that the 66 seat right wing majority includes the far right National Union party. He has vowed rather to go to new elections than govern with them and without an offsetting left wing presence in the form of the Labor Party.
The Prime Minister is said to be mainly worried about the impact of the National Union's participation on Israel's international standing. The party's ideas are incompatible with Bush's road map and Sharon is worried about losing Washington's backing for his actions against the Palestinians.
Sharon also hopes to get additional U.S. aid in order to counter a worsening economic crisis. He suspects that with the National Union in the government the United States may be less inclined to provide that aid.
So without Labor and without the National Union, what are Sharon's options?
The third biggest party is also problematic. The anti religious Shinui party was one of the big winners in the elections, almost tripling its representation to 15 seats. It has vowed, however, never to take seat in a government with the religious Shas party that saw its strength fall from 17 to 11.
These are two of the most desirable coalition partners after Labor, but the chance of them sitting in the same government is slim. Sharon could go with Shinui and abandon Shas but the latter are the natural allies of his Likud. Leaving them in the lurch now may spell trouble in the future.
So despite his landslide victory it may not be easy for Sharon to come up with a stable government that will last longer than the two year average for the last four coalitions.
No wonder several Israeli commentators are now saying that the only way that Sharon will get his broad based government is in case of a U.S. attack on Iraq while the coalition talks are still underway. In that case he can call on everybody to set aside differences and join an emergency government.
Shinui and Labor have already said, though, that they may join such a government if necessary but only for the duration of hostilities in Iraq. "The moment the last missile has been launched we are out," said Shinui's leader, Tommy Lapid.
January 29, 2003 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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