So Close but Yet So Far: Israeli Unity Proving Elusive

Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon is finding that achieving unity in Israel, even in the midst of a national crisis, is far from easy.

Sharon’s talks with the Labor Party toward forming a national unity government seemed all but completed late last week, but the efforts hit a snag over the weekend.

Likud officials blame the delay on strife within Labor over the possibility that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had promised to resign after losing to Sharon in Feb. 6 elections, would instead become Sharon’s defense minister.

A meeting of the Labor Party Central Committee – originally slated for Tuesday to endorse the unity government – was postponed until next week, with Labor officials citing ongoing negotiations with Likud on the coalition agreement.

But political observers said Barak, who still holds the party leadership, delayed the meeting because he feared he would not win the committee’s support to become defense minister.

Citing Barak’s election-night resignation notice, senior Labor officials have sharply criticized his decision in principle last week to accept the defense portfolio.

Labor must formally accept the coalition plan before Sharon can assign Cabinet posts and present the coalition for Knesset approval.

Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, a vehement opponent of a unity government, said Monday that the opposition of key Labor officials, including Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, would foil Sharon’s attempts for a unity government.

A bitter power struggle has erupted within Labor since Barak’s supposed resignation, with Ben-Ami, Cabinet minister Haim Ramon and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg among those considering a run for party leader.

Officials from the pro-settler National Religious Party, meanwhile, have threatened not to join the government if Barak becomes defense minister, claiming that Barak’s response to Palestinian violence has been restrained and ineffective.

Barak also took a drubbing in the media, where commentators noted the irony in the fact that the Israeli public, which rejected Barak as prime minister by an overwhelming vote, could now get him as defense minister.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz said that while Barak continues to fight for the appointment to save his political skin, he also is laying the groundwork to undermine the unity effort.

The paper reported that officials close to Barak turned to the leader of the “Awakening” movement, which advocates drafting yeshiva students, and asked them to prepare a public campaign. Sharon favors deferring the issue, and an impasse over the yeshiva draft could provide an out for Barak if needed.

For his part, Barak said Monday that he would not join a unity government that includes far-right legislators Rehavam Ze’evi and Avigdor Lieberman.

Sensing a rising tide of opposition to the unity idea, Sharon called on the political parties to “rise above petty politics and their own individual interests” and help create a unity government.

“Unity among the people in light of the difficult security situation is more important than narrow political interests,” he said in a statement Monday.

Likud officials were angered by Labor’s decision to delay its Central Committee meeting, a move they said thwarted Sharon’s hope to present a government this week.

Labor officials accused Likud of presenting new demands at a late stage in the coalition negotiations, including a clause giving the Prime Minister’s Office – not the Foreign Ministry – oversight over diplomatic policy.

Leading Labor dove Shimon Peres is expected to be named foreign minister if a unity government is formed.

Labor officials also claim that Likud has refused to grant Labor the portfolios it seeks beyond defense and foreign affairs.

Likud negotiators said that if the unity effort proves fruitless, Sharon still can form a narrow government with right-wing and religious parties.

Providing a possible way around the Labor infighting, sources close to Sharon said the prime minister-elect did not condition a unity government on Barak’s participation.

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