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Backgrounder Back to the Future: a Look Inside Israeli Unity Governments


Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s attempt to bring the Labor Party into a national unity coalition to help him carry out his withdrawal plan offers the alluring promise of problem-solving for many Israelis. The track records of unity coalitions, which bring together the two largest political parties from Israel’s different ideological camps, are mixed.

The first Israeli national unity government was born in June 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War.

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, the head of the Mapai Party, the precursor to Labor, sensed he would need majority backing in the Knesset to launch a pre-emptive strike against Arab nations.

Eshkol achieved it by joining forces with Herut under Menachem Begin. The move also gave the Israeli right-wing its first foothold in government. Herut would later evolve into the Likud, which first took power on its own in 1977.

When Eshkol died in 1969, he was succeeded by Golda Meir. She also inherited his partnership with Herut. But the national unity government soon fell apart, as Mapai and Herut squabbled over whether to maintain a cease-fire with Egypt in the absence of a peace treaty.

Almost a generation was to pass before Israel’s leaders turned to a national unity government once more, but this time the objective was to wage war not on Arab foes, but on the dire economy.

Under a novel rotation system, Labor leader Shimon Peres and the Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir shared the top job. Peres served in the top office between 1984 and 1986, and again between 1988 and 1990. Shamir was prime minister in between.

Although this longest-serving national unity government had success in quelling inflation and partially withdrawing Israeli troops from Lebanon, it was to dissolve in ignominy. In what became known as the "stinking maneuver," Peres brought down the government in a bid to form his own narrow coalition. In the end, it only resulted in Labor’s walkout.

Labor was not to be courted for a broad coalition again until 2001, when Sharon, after his first election victory, cast his net wide to show that his tough policies against the Palestinian initifada had wide support.

But the union frayed as fighting with the Palestinians carried on unabated. Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, like Sharon a former general, broke ranks with the Likud by calling for a return to peace talks stalled since 2000.

Then Labor opposed the 2003 budget in a protest over funding slated for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Eventually, Ben-Eliezer quit the coalition, leading to elections in 2003 that Sharon won.

Early elections loomed again earlier this year after Sharon lost his parliamentary majority when the National Religious Party quit the coalition in June in protest of his plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2005.

The crisis intensified when Sharon fired Shinui from the government on Dec. 1 after the secular party blocked funding budgeted for religious groups. The government is now made up of just the Likud’s 40 seats in Israel’s Parliament, the Knesset. Israeli governments are allowed to rule with less than a majority of the 120-member Knesset.

But the prime minister appeared likely to form a new broad coalition with Peres’ Labor which, along with its allies Meimad and Am Echad, commands 22 Knesset seats. This coalition, at least for a while, would restore political stability.

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