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The costs and benefits of unity


JERUSALEM, Oct. 24 (JTA) – Prime Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Ariel Sharon are trying to get their respective parties to join a national unity government before the Knesset begins its winter session Monday.

They are calling it a “government of national emergency” and insisting that the ongoing violence engulfing the Palestinian territories makes its creation a historic necessity.

But their supporters in the Labor and Likud parties seem unconvinced, and certainly unenthusiastic.

Several Labor ministers and legislators are arguing that a partnership with the Likud would mean the end of even the most slender remaining hope of reviving the peace process.

And many Likud legislators are arguing that to join with Barak now would rescue him from almost certain defeat in a Knesset no-confidence vote, perhaps as early as next week, and also from his likely defeat in the early elections that would follow his government’s collapse.

Likud lawmakers also argue that Barak, his policies in tatters, should be forced out in a no-confidence vote, and a candidate who can win the peoples’ confidence should be elected in his place.

They are not, however, necessarily referring to Sharon.

Beyond the surface of the Labor-Likud negotiations looms the presence of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is more popular, according to all the opinion polls, than either Barak or Sharon.

Political observers believe that Netanyahu’s would-be return to active politics is motivating Barak and Sharon to override the opposition within each of their parties and press ahead with forging a unity government.

Both party leaders, according to the observers, want to defer elections. This is because Barak and Sharon are certain that once elections are declared, Netanyahu will plunge back into politics – first for the Likud leadership in the party’s primary, and then in the general elections for the premiership.

For now, Netanyahu has been playing a cautious and statesmanlike hand. On Tuesday, speaking from Paris, Netanyahu said he favored a unity government – but only if it were set up for a limited period, defined in advance, and if all parties agreed that following this limited period general elections would be held.

Netanyahu noted that, though not a legislator, he is still a card-carrying member of the Likud Central Committee, the party’s highest policy-making body, and that he would doubtless make his voice heard whenever the committee meets.

Later Tuesday, at a stormy meeting of Likud legislators, Michael Eitan demanded that if the party does join a unity government, then Netanyahu should be appointed one of its ministers.

A majority of the legislators plainly opposed a unity government, but Sharon managed to prevent a vote.

The negotiations with Labor were expected to continue, with the Likud Central Committee having the final word.

Among Labor officials, dovish ministers like Yossi Beilin and Shlomo Ben-Ami have been speaking bitterly – although privately so far – against a unity government.

Beilin announced Monday that he would quit the government if Sharon obtains – as he has demanded – the right of veto over future peace moves as a member of a unity government.

If Barak and Sharon do manage to force their will on their colleagues, and a unity government is set up, the initial reaction abroad is expected to be one of anger.

Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount on Sept. 28 is regarded among many of Israel’s friends in Europe as responsible, at least in part, for the current wave of violence rocking the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

President Clinton himself has reportedly sought in recent weeks to dissuade Barak from forming a government with Sharon.

In the Arab world, Sharon is regarded as an inveterate warmonger, and Israeli diplomatic and public relations officials will have to work overtime to allay fears that his inclusion in a unity government is a prelude to some massive military initiative against the Palestinians.

Barak insists that these negative effects will be transient, and that they will be dwarfed by the sense of unity and national purpose that will engulf the nation once Labor and Likud are seen to be pooling their forces and setting aside their differences.

In this, the prime minister harks back to the examples of past unity governments, especially to the one created in May 1967, during the unnerving “waiting period” before the Six-Day War.

At that time, street demonstrations took place protesting against the government of Levi Eshkol’s government perceived hesitancy to deal with the threat facing the Jewish state.

The upshot was that Eshkol had Moshe Dayan, then an opposition legislator, join the Cabinet as minister of defense. Also, the ostracized Gahal bloc – the largest of the constituents that later formed the Likud – of Menachem Begin joined the government.

Today, too, the polls consistently show that a majority of the nation would like to see a unity government formed, and that they would feel more secure and confident following such a move.

But opponents of the move, from both sides of the political divide, cite the Labor-Likud unity governments of the 1980s as more pertinent examples.

At that time, neither of the large parties was capable of forming a stable coalition. In election after election, they emerged virtually tied. As a result, a unity government was the only option.

For Labor, under Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, this spelled diplomatic paralysis.

Even when Foreign Minister Shimon Peres managed to reach a breakthrough agreement with King Hussein of Jordan in 1987, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was able to foil it, since it provided for concessions that Shamir was not prepared to contemplate.

Beilin and the other opponents of unity now say the same state of paralysis would descend on Israel today if Likud joins the government.

Barak’s supporters say the peace process is going to be dormant for a long time to come anyway, and that what matters in the short term is Israel’s strength and resilience in the face of the Palestinians’ violence.

They warn, moreover, that this violence could quickly spread to involve other Arab states.

Indeed, Barak, in a formal letter to Sharon this week, cited Iraqi troop deployments along the Iraqi-Jordanian and Iraqi-Syrian borders as providing additional reasons for Israel to put its domestic differences into abeyance and form a unity government immediately.

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