Sharon coalition threatened

JERUSALEM, Oct. 16 (JTA) — His voice thick with sarcasm, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon accused the seven members of the hawkish National Unity bloc of “making Arafat’s day” with their decision to quit Sharon’s national unity government.

Addressing the opening session of the Knesset’s winter term Monday, the prime minister faced rumblings from his supporters and among pundits that the first defection from his coalition could spell the beginning of the end for his eight-month-old administration.

Veteran politicians already are predicting elections next April instead of in November 2003, when they are currently scheduled.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat was having a good day Monday even before the seven members of the far-right bloc — which includes two parties, National Unity and Israel Our Home — walked out on Sharon.

Arafat was being hosted in London by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who voiced his support for the creation of a “viable Palestinian state.”

With Blair applauding Arafat’s “effort to control violent rejectionist groups within the ranks of the Palestinian people,” the Palestinian leader basked in the West’s appreciation for his decision to back the American-led anti-terror coalition.

Given the overwhelming sentiment on the Palestinian street against the American and British campaign in Afghanistan — a Bir Zeit University poll last week found some 90 percent opposed — Arafat’s decision is bold, but clear- headed.

Arafat knows that if he makes the same mistake as in 1991, when he threw his support behind Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf War, he might not survive America’s wrath this time.

As it is, Arafat is hoping for a quick return on his investment: He told Blair that he needs to show his people good practical reasons for backing the U.S.-led coalition.

So far, Arafat can point to a series of public assurances from President Bush, Blair and, on Tuesday, Dutch Prime Minister Wim Kok, all supporting the creation of a Palestinian state.

Arafat also has assurances that the United States is determined to weigh in with a new peace plan and get the Palestinians and Israelis to sit down and negotiate again.

For his part, Arafat has begun making a limited number of arrests of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants — though far fewer than the 108 Israel wants him to nab. Israel claims the six or eight operatives arrested are being held in comfortable conditions that essentially shield them from Israeli reprisals.

Just the same, the level of violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip has dropped markedly in the past week, which Arafat attributes to his new measures.

Sharon’s sarcastic reference to Arafat in his bitter attack on the National Unity bloc was very much related to Arafat’s newfound popularity in the West.

The bloc quit the national unity government Monday, complaining that Sharon was succumbing to U.S. efforts to prod him toward a peace deal with the Palestinians.

The immediate catalyst was Monday’s withdrawal of Israel Defense Force troops from Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank city of Hebron. Ten days earlier, Israel seized two hilltops in Hebron after Palestinian gunmen repeatedly fired from them at Jewish neighborhoods in the center of town.

Over the weekend, Israel’s Inner Security Cabinet decided to accept Palestinian assurances that the shooting would cease. The decision came despite vehement protests from the city’s Jewish residents, who fear for their safety after the Israeli withdrawal.

The National Unity bloc move followed an unprecedented act of public protest by the IDF chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, who published an official statement opposing the Hebron withdrawal.

Sharon and Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer considered firing Mofaz, but instead Ben-Eliezer reprimanded Mofaz and ordered him not to grant interviews until further notice. Mofaz also issued a public apology for his criticism.

Some here tried to link the incidents involving Mofaz and the National Unity bloc to Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister who is campaigning against Sharon for the leadership of the right.

Mofaz is scheduled to retire in April and many see his recent behavior as evidence of his desire to enter politics, perhaps as Netanyahu’s candidate for defense minister. Sharon himself, at a Cabinet meeting, implied that Mofaz’s move could be seen in that light.

Netanyahu vehemently denies any involvement in either the Mofaz row or the National Unity defection.

The pundits note, though, that the leader of the Israel Our Home Party — Avigdor Lieberman — is a former senior aide to Netanyahu who has remained close to the former premier.

When he resigned as infrastructure minister — along with Rehavam Ze’evi, who gave up the tourism portfolio — Lieberman said he was concerned about the anticipated U.S. peace initiative and Bush’s expression of support for a Palestinian state.

“The great challenge before the State of Israel is how can we stymie this American initiative,” Lieberman said Monday.

National Unity’s resignation left Sharon in control of 76 of the Knesset’s 120 seats. It would take 61 votes to force new elections.

But the balance of power now rests with the fervently Orthodox Shas Party, which has 17 seats and has proven a notoriously fickle ally in previous governments.

Shas legislators this week said they intend to make vigorous use of their new leverage.

With economists predicting a negative growth rate for the Israeli economy this year, Shas, which represents a working-class constituency, can be expected to press for social welfare legislation that runs counter to the government’s tight fiscal policies.

It’s unclear whether Shas also will try to press other aspects of its agenda — such as legislation curtailing religious pluralism — that in the past have proven highly divisive.

But Sharon’s primary worry is the knowledge that Shas will be vying for voters’ sympathies against parties in the opposition — including National Unity and the National Religious Party — and therefore will be prone to pressures from the right.

The same logic applies to another, smaller, coalition partner, Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah Party.

This party competes for Russian immigrant votes with Lieberman’s Israel Our Home, and likely will find itself attacked from the right for supporting policies perceived as too conciliatory toward the Palestinians.

Yet if, in responding to these pressures, Sharon moves too far to the right, he could trigger a crisis in his uneasy partnership with Labor. Labor too is subject to incessant sniping from the dovish opposition party, Meretz, and is riven from within over its role as Sharon’s partner.

Last week, in a bid to reassure his hardline partners, the prime minister pledged to forbid future meetings between Peres and Arafat.

But now Peres is asking to be sent to Washington to prepare the ground for the anticipated American diplomatic initiative.

And the pressure on Sharon keeps building.

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