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Government depends on Sharon-Peres chemistry

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JERUSALEM, March 6 (JTA) – Ariel Sharon’s national unity government, which was to be sworn in Wednesday night, will rely on two key factors for stability and longevity.

One is a close and harmonious relationship between Likud Prime Minister Sharon and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the senior Labor Party minister in the Cabinet.

The other is the continued absence of realistic prospects for negotiations with the Palestinians toward a final peace agreement.

Less tangibly, the unity government will need a great deal of luck, that unpredictable commodity that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak so lacked during his stormy 21 months in office.

To say that Sharon, 73, and Peres, 77, have a long history together is an understatement. Both have been there since Creation – that is, the creation of the State of Israel 53 years ago.

The young Peres was an aide to founding father and first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and quickly rose in the 1950s to become director general of the Defense Ministry. There, Peres – the standard-bearer of today’s peace camp – was intimately involved in developing Israel’s nuclear potential.

Sharon, a dashing infantry officer, served in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. In the 1950s, he gained fame and notoriety as the founder of Unit 101, an elite commando crew that carried out aggressive and controversial anti-terror reprisal raids across the Jordanian border during the precarious first decade of the state’s existence.

In those days, Menachem Begin’s Herut Party – which later became the core of the center-right Likud bloc – was a powerless opposition. Politics were dominated by Ben-Gurion’s Mapai Party, forerunner of today’s Labor.

Rising stars like Peres and Sharon naturally saw themselves as proteges of the “Old Man,” as Ben-Gurion was called.

Sharon’s unity government, with almost 30 ministers and another half-dozen deputy ministers, will be unwieldy at best, unworkable at worst.

The Labor component, moreover, is beset by internal conflict. Several of the defeated and dispirited party’s leaders – Yossi Beilin, Avraham Burg and Shlomo Ben-Ami – oppose unity under Sharon and have opted to stay out of the Cabinet. As the party’s leadership battle unfolds in coming months, the ideological and personal fissures between pro- and anti-unity groups likely will widen.

For both of those reasons, the perception of Peres’ role will be critical.

Any sense in Labor that Peres is being sidestepped or marginalized will exacerbate internal party tensions and strengthen the hands of those calling for Labor to leave the alliance. The government’s survival will best be served by Sharon sustaining the understanding that he and Peres together comprise an informal inner Cabinet where key decisions are thrashed out.

That was the recipe for the success of the unity governments that ruled Israel from 1984 to 1990 under prime ministers Peres and Yitzhak Shamir.

In those Cabinets, an inner “prime ministers’ club” made up of Peres, Shamir and Yitzhak Rabin took the main decisions, far from the debating-club atmosphere of the full Cabinet.

That inner sanctum never leaked. Though political rivals, its members set aside their rivalries in the shared interest of conducting the nation’s business and preserving the viability of their awkward coalition.

Ultimately, the longevity of the 1980s coalitions rested on an absence of progress in the peace process. A near-fatal crisis erupted when Peres, behind Shamir’s back, tried in 1987 to negotiate an agreement with King Hussein of Jordan.

The same logic will probably pertain in Israel’s present political constellation.

Under Barak, Labor lost the election chiefly because of the collapse of peace negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the eruption of Palestinian violence.

The alliance-of-convenience with the Likud is predicated, in effect, on the impossibility of reviving those talks. Laborites roundly blame Arafat for that; many have come to believe that as long as he is power there will be no further thrust toward peace.

In practical terms, that means Israel’s two major parties can work side by side to reduce the current level of violence and to aspire to limited or interim accords with the Palestinian Authority.

In any case, Sharon believes interim accords over a long period are the best approach. Labor believes they are a poor substitute for full-fledged peace talks, but acknowledges that the ideal is not feasible at this time.

If that reality changes, it’s difficult to see how the Likud-Labor coalition could survive. The pressures inside Labor would become too powerful for Peres to stay put, even if he wanted to, which he probably would not.

Presumably, Beilin and friends will try, through unofficial channels, to revive the negotiating option with the Palestinian leadership.

Meanwhile, Peres and the Labor defense minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, will seek to ensure that the “no peace” situation also remains one of no war, trying to steer Sharon clear of the more militarist strains in his own personality and past, and in his present political camp.

For instance, one Sharon ally – Rehavam Ze’evi of the National Union Party, who will be Sharon’s tourism minister – urged this week that the Palestinian Authority be given an ultimatum to turn over mortars used to fire at Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip.

If it declines, said Ze’evi, a former general and anti-terrorism advisor, the army should invade Palestinian- ruled areas, “clean out the nests of terror” and take the weapons by force.

An old personal friend of Peres and Sharon, Ze’evi is to be a member of Sharon’s smaller defense Cabinet.

But while Peres sees his role as restraining Sharon, he also recognizes that the new government will prosper only if it can deliver on the overriding issue of current public concern: security.

The Israeli public is living in fear. A suicide bombing in Netanya this week underscored the cruel and undiscriminating nature of terrorism.

Three elderly Israelis were killed. The enraged mob then beat a Palestinian passerby, almost to death. And the Hamas movement in Gaza promised another nine such attacks to “welcome” the new government.

Short of invasion and open-ended escalation, Israel does not enjoy many military options. Modern history is rich with examples of well-trained and well-equipped armies failing to suppress a determined guerrilla force that enjoys the support of a civilian population – even when those armies were less reluctant to inflict civilian casualties than is Israel’s.

Aides say Sharon wants to ease the daily hardship that is the lot of so many Palestinians after five months of uprising. He opposes collective punishment, they say, and would like to lift the sieges and encirclements that are pauperizing hundreds of thousands of people and perhaps creating more terrorists and suicide bombers.

Sharon’s policy is expected to aim more directly and forcefully at the terror groups themselves. It also could be aimed at the Palestinian Authority, which – in the view of growing numbers of Israel’s political and military leaders – effectively condones terrorist actions by doing nothing to curb them, and whose security forces even take part in attacks.

As a statement of policy, that emphasis undoubtedly enjoys the approval of an overwhelming majority of Israelis. Now the country, bruised and apprehensive, waits to see how Prime Minister Sharon will go about implementing it.

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