With Labor Seeking Leverage, Sharon Considers How to Save Shaky Coalition

A week ago, it seemed like a mere formality: At a time of his choosing, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would add the Labor Party to his tottering coalition, gaining the political muscle to withdraw Israeli troops and citizens from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank. But stern opposition in the Likud, and rumblings of discontent in Labor, are complicating the scenario.

Compounding the confusion, Sharon has been hinting that he has other coalition options. Labor leaders are intimating that they may withdraw the parliamentary safety net they promised Sharon — the pledge they made not to topple what has become a minority government on the understanding that they might soon join it. At least, they supported its main diplomatic initiative.

In both cases, the tough talk may be merely tactics, designed to influence the price in policies and portfolios that Labor can exact for joining the coalition. But such jockeying for position! can assume a momentum of its own, and some pundits now say the projected alliance could fail to materialize.

In the balance could hang the fate of the Israeli withdrawal, a step that has garnered international support and that, ironically, originated in many ways in the Labor Party.

Sharon now has four coalition alternatives:

persist with his present minority coalition of 59 legislators in the 120-member Knesset and hope that the fractured opposition won’t be able to agree on an alternative candidate for prime minister, which would be necessary to bring the government down without forcing new elections;

bring in two breakaway Knesset members, David Tal of the One Nation workers’ party and Michael Nudelman of the right-wing National Union bloc, to secure a shaky 61-seat majority;

convince the five legislators from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc to support the government from outside the coalition; or

bring in Labor for a solid ! plurality of over 70 and, more importantly, a guaranteed majority in t he Cabinet for settlement evacuation, which none of the other options provides.

Clearly, the Labor option is by far the most attractive for Sharon, though Labor likely will want to modify the reformist economic policies that have been one of the Sharon government’s proudest achievements to date.

The other alternatives can keep Sharon’s government afloat for several months, but only a national unity government with Labor could create the political ambiance to implement his controversial disengagement policy.

The snag is that many in Sharon’s own Likud faction are adamantly opposed to the idea. Some still harbor hopes of stopping settlement evacuation, while others fear Labor’s entry could lead to a modification of current government policies or cost them their Cabinet portfolios.

More than 20 Likud legislators are threatening to vote against any coalition with Labor. If they stick to their guns, Sharon will be hard-pressed to win a majority for a national unity g! overnment.

Sharon therefore has been sweet-talking individual Likud legislators, winning some of the dissidents over to his side.

But that’s only half the battle. Harder for Sharon is the fact that Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, two major Likud power brokers, remain strongly opposed to a coalition with Labor.

The conventional wisdom is that Labor would demand one of the three top portfolios — defense, foreign affairs or finance. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has been assured he won’t have to give up his portfolio, which leaves Netanyahu or Shalom.

On Sunday, Netanyahu opened up a new front. Adding Labor to the government, he declared, would destroy his hard-won achievements in pulling the Israeli economy out of a deep recession and effecting free-market reforms.

Moreover, he added, it wasn’t worth making political, economic or other concessions to woo Labor because they would “come crawling anyway. They are the wor! ld champions at crawling.”

Netanyahu’s contemptuous tone drew an a ngry response from Labor leader Shimon Peres. He accused the finance minister of conducting a policy of “piggish capitalism” that had created “6,000 millionaires in Israel and 6 million beggars.”

Labor’s Shalom Simchon, a former Cabinet minister, also weighed in, saying Labor now would insist on getting the Finance Ministry, and arguing that both economic growth and social justice had advanced more under Labor governments.

Sharon came down on the side of his potential coalition partners. In a warning to Netanyahu to stop rocking the boat, he said he would not support a national budget for 2005 that fails to assist the needy.

But Netanyahu’s attack, and the fact that Sharon has yet to formally invite Labor to coalition talks, have prompted second thoughts in Labor about the safety net it promised Sharon.

Several recent supporters of national unity, including former Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, now are taking a tougher line. Ben Eliezer says Labor should ! provide Sharon with a safety net only on matters directly connected to the withdrawal process; in other areas, it should seek to bring him down.

The chairwoman of Labor’s Knesset faction, Dahlia Itzik, says Labor should make continuation of the safety net conditional on Sharon keeping his promise to the Bush administration to dismantle unauthorized settlement outposts in the West Bank.

On Monday, to show Sharon that they meant business, Labor legislators decided to ignore the safety net, voting for an no-confidence motion related to the economy. Though the motion was defeated, 55-50, the move was intended as a warning to Sharon that unless he agrees to deal with Labor seriously, they might force early elections.

“We are closer now to elections than to the coalition,” Peres declared after Monday’s vote.

Unfortunately for Labor, some leading Likud legislators got the opposite message. The head of Likud’s Knesset faction, Gidon Sa’ar, argued that the vote showe! d Sharon doesn’t really need Peres or his party.

Sharon, though, i s keeping his options open. He has summoned Peres and Itzik to a meeting set for Thursday, where he probably will put out feelers about a unity government.

In any case, nothing is likely to happen before October. The Knesset goes into recess in early August and reconvenes only in the autumn, when coalition contacts can be expected to come to a head.

Sharon will want to bolster his coalition for the winter session, the run-up to the withdrawal process — set to begin in earnest next March — and the 2005 national budget, due to be passed by the end of this year.

Netanyahu and others may well try to throw a monkey wrench into the works. The outcome of that showdown could decide the fate of Sharon’s withdrawal plan.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.

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