TEL AVIV — For months, Shimon Peres had been assuring anyone who would listen that this time, the coalition talks between his Labor Party and Ariel Sharon’s ruling Likud were not about anybody’s ego or job title but were focused, laser-like, on principle. “The only thing we’re interested in is the disengagement plan,” Peres repeated like a mantra whenever the subject came up. “We’re ready to do it even with no minister’s portfolio for any of us.”
In the end, to nobody’s surprise, the final deal hinged on one thing alone: Shimon Peres’s title.
On Monday, the Knesset rushed through preliminary approval of an amendment to Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Law, permitting the prime minister to designate two senior deputies instead of one to substitute for him in case of incapacity or foreign travel. The so-called Peres Amendment, which makes the aging Labor leader equal in rank to Industry and Trade Minister Ehud Olmert in the largely ceremonial role, was passed handily after the Labor Party made clear that without it there would be no new coalition, no Sharon-led government and no Gaza-West Bank disengagement.
More surprising than the result was the makeup of the vote. Supporting the amendment were Likud, Labor, United Torah Judaism and — unexpectedly — the Shas Party, which Sharon has been wooing to his new government for weeks without visible success. The party’s support prompted speculation that it is only a matter of time before the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic bloc joins Sharon’s new coalition. That will deal a serious if not fatal blow to the settler movement’s dwindling hopes of blocking Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and the northern West Bank by next summer.
Coincidentally or not, the passage of the Peres Amendment, guaranteeing Sharon a secure new government to pursue his plan, coincided with a press conference outside the Knesset in which the chairman of the main settler group, Pinchas Wallerstein of the Yesha Settler’s Council, called for mass civil disobedience when the troops move in to begin removing settlers in the spring. Wallerstein’s call prompted a furious media debate over the limits of dissent and led the state’s attorney general, Menachem Mazuz, to order an investigation into whether the settler leader should be indicted on incitement charges.
And while Wallerstein was attempting to cast himself as the Gandhi and Dr. King of the settlers, a parade of foreign dignitaries was streaming into Ben Gurion International Airport, at a pace unseen in years, to show support for Sharon the peacemaker. On a single day, this week the British prime minister, the Italian foreign minister, the Egyptian intelligence minister and the president of the World Bank were all making the rounds of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Ramallah, looking for a role to play in the drama of peace.
Compared with the furor outside the Knesset, the political drama surrounding Sharon’s battle for political survival seemed almost banal. The negotiations over the Likud-Labor agreement, a foregone conclusion even before they started, went through the usual stalls, accusations and insults before their final resolution. Most observers believed that both sides were simply playing out their parts, intent mainly on masking their eagerness to reach a conclusion that both saw as inevitable. The prime minister could have no government without Labor. Labor, in turn, couldn’t let itself be seen as responsible for the downfall of Sharon and his territorial withdrawal plan. And still, true to immutable Israeli tradition, once the sides entered the room the game got rough, with fierce arguments erupting over such fateful questions as whether Labor would accept the Transport Ministry instead of Housing.
Finally an agreement was reached. But that was hardly the end of the crisis. Alongside the Peres Amendment, assuring the Labor chairman his standing as second in rank, if not in command, there was the matter of choosing the Labor ministers-to-be — seven in all (not counting Peres himself). With three additional deputy ministers and a brace of Knesset committee chairs, only a handful of the former opposition party’s 21 members of parliament would remain without a new and improved position. The competition for corner offices, phones and chauffeurs set off a furious battle inside Labor.
Again following tradition, Peres was raked over the coals by the media for his seemingly endless appetite for honors. As expected, he responded with a familiar posture of indignation. “Don’t lecture me,” he barked at one group of journalists trailing him in the Knesset corridors. “I never demanded a change in the Basic Law for my benefit.”
Peres and Sharon make a fascinating couple. Between them, they boast 157 years of life and close to a century of political experience. Beyond their age and their obvious contempt for younger politicians, they seem to have little in common. Sharon is Israeli born and raised, one of Israel’s most illustrious and revered soldiers, idolized by generations of his troops and his right wing followers and just as fervently reviled by the Israeli left and most of the rest of the world. Peres is a Polish-born intellectual who never lost his accent, never served in the army and has been a central fixture of Israeli politics for his entire life: He entered public service in his teens as a special aide to then-prime minister David Ben-Gurion, by age 30 was the architect of Israel’s budding nuclear arsenal, and ended up being the living embodiment of the peace process and an icon of hate and contempt to the right.
Few if any outsiders know what the two really think of each other. In recent years, their respective entourages have spread the notion that they share the respect and instinctive understanding of elder statesmen, convinced that they and no one else can lead Israel on the rocky road ahead. There were years when they were separated by Peres’s lifelong personal feud with the man who was Sharon’s first military mentor and confidant, the late Yitzhak Rabin. Some say there were years when Sharon, despite his ever-more extreme rightism, was one of the few figures who could get close to both the feuding Laborites.
But their recent history has been, to all appearances, one of tense cordiality masked as familiarity. As the heads of Israel’s last national unity coalition — the government Sharon led from 2001 to 2003 — they were barely able to conceal their impatience with each other. Now, in their final years, their interests have become ultimately entwined, having come to share a fierce commitment to territorial compromise. Yet their years of bitter ideological warfare remain visible in their eyes.
Whatever they might think inside, it is finally clear this time who is in charge. By bringing in Labor, Sharon has completed one of the most intricate and ruthless political maneuvers made by an Israeli prime minister in many years. Barely nine months ago, he led the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. He now heads a government with a solid majority for territorial compromise. The terms of their coalition lock Labor safely inside until the plan is either carried out or dies slowly — by which time the 2006 elections might be too close for any major counter-move. Sharon could hardly be more secure.
In the end, it was Sharon who ordered his lieutenants to give Labor their ministries, no matter how many and how important. His view is that bigger political spoils create greater indebtedness. Some in Labor and Likud would have preferred a temporary marriage in which Labor entered without formal ministries, merely to implement the disengagement. Sharon reasoned that it would be harder for a junior partner to leave a coalition with its members comfortably ensconced in Cabinet positions, free to allocate large budgets and to dispense jobs to their own supporters. As he expected, he met with little resistance.
As soon as the Knesset ratifies the new government — a matter of days, at most, it appeared at midweek — the road will be clear for Sharon to proceed with disengagement. Now it’s up to him.