TEL AVIV — Prime Minister Sharon, his right-wing base decimated by opposition to his Gaza disengagement plan, lost his last coalition partner and moved perilously close to losing his government this week, bringing him to the brink of early elections. And yet, through a week of white-knuckle political brinksmanship that was riotous even by Israeli standards, the prime minister seemed almost cheerful.
Sharon’s fate was seemingly sealed Wednesday evening when his state budget suffered a trouncing defeat in the Knesset, losing by a 69 to 43 vote. Among the opponents were the 15 lawmakers of Shinui, his only coalition partner, whom Sharon promptly fired from his government for voting no. That left him in tenuous control of only 40 seats in the 120-member house.
For all that, most observers insisted that Sharon had planned it this way. Up until the last minute, Sharon refused pleas to put off the budget vote for a week, which would have given Shinui time to cool off and return to the table. Instead he took his coalition to the brink and stood there, alone and defiant.
His goal, his allies said, was to create a crisis in order to force his unruly Likud party to accept a unity government with Shimon Peres’s Labor Party. That would give Sharon a coalition broad enough and liberal enough to proceed with the disengagement. Such a coalition was ruled out last summer by a vote of the Likud’s central committee, precisely because it would smooth the way for the Gaza disengagement, which much of the Likud’s rank-and-file opposes. Sharon’s logic was that by pushing the government to the brink of collapse, he would force the Likud to choose between giving up Gaza and facing a new election, in which many members would lose their Knesset seats. He was betting that they would opt to keep their seats.
“Sometimes you have to intensify a political crisis in order to solve it,” said Likud lawmaker Roni Bar-On, a Sharon ally.
The advantage of Labor over Shinui, from Sharon’s point of view, is the militantly anti-Orthodox baggage that Shinui carries with it. Sharon has been operating with a minority government of 55 seats since early last summer, having lost two right-wing coalition partners in the spring because of their opposition to the disengagement plan. Last month, Sharon opened talks with the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which are moderate on territorial issues but militant on the ritual and social issues that are Shinui’s calling card.
When Sharon reached a deal over the weekend with the smaller United Torah Judaism, promising the party $67 million for its institutions in return for support on the state budget, Shinui exploded. Shinui’s leader, Justice Minister Yosef Lapid, fumed publicly at Sharon’s offering million to the Orthodox “for matzo balls” while security budgets went begging.
The larger ultra-Orthodox Shas party balked at striking a similar deal, setting too high a financial price and refusing to endorse the Gaza disengagement plan as long as it remained “unilateral.” Nonetheless, Shas leader Eli Yishai appeared delighted at the prospect of Shinui departing the government, calling it a “new miracle of Hanukkah.”
Sharon’s maneuver got support from an unexpected source on the eve of the budget vote. Former internal security minister Tzahi Hanegbi, who supports Sharon but has strongly opposed negotiating with Labor — and was elected chairman of the Likud central committee last month on a no-Labor promise — told reporters Tuesday night that soon the committee might reverse itself and authorize the talks. It was not clear whether Hanegbi was voicing a wish or a prediction, but his declaration gave Sharon a strong boost at a critical moment.
Following the budget vote, Likud officials announced that the central committee would convene next week to discuss the Labor option.
Labor, for its part, went through some white-knuckle maneuvers of its own to keep Sharon’s options open for him. On Tuesday night, the center-left party had scheduled a leadership meeting to set a date for primaries that will choose a new party standard-bearer. Primaries are currently set for November 2005, a date that gives the 81-year-old Peres time to settle in as a partner in a Sharon-led government. Peres’s main challenger, former prime minister Ehud Barak, wants the primaries moved up to April 12. That would put the party on a confrontational course toward elections and make entry into a Sharon government all but impossible.
The Labor meeting erupted into a melee of shouting and shoving after Barak, alarmed that no vote would be taken, seized the microphone and tried to take over the meeting. In the end, the decision on scheduling the primaries was postponed to December 12, giving Sharon time to negotiate a coalition deal with Peres that would sideline Barak altogether.
Barak is frustrated at the cold reception his comeback has received. He has been out of party politics since his devastating loss to Sharon in 2001. He used this hiatus to amass a fortune in business — his income is now estimated at more than $1.5 million a year — and to fight over his legacy as prime minister. But after planning his comeback for more than two years, the event itself became an instant flop.
He was criticized for announcing it November 4, the anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. His claims that he has changed and that he will be less arrogant from now on were met with skepticism. And few Labor lawmakers rushed to support him. In fact, the rush was in the other direction: to form a stop-Barak front, uniting party figures who have little in common other than opposing him.
The vote on the date of the primaries was to be Barak’s coup, his first shot in the campaign to oust 81-year-old party leader Shimon Peres. When he failed, not only did he grab the microphone, but he also tried to evoke memories of the Peres-Rabin rivalry, which had raged for decades before Rabin’s death. “This was Stinking Maneuver number two,” Barak told television’s Channel 1, referring to a famous Rabin comment on one of Peres’s political maneuvers. But even this was perceived as another attempt by Barak to associate himself with Rabin, something that might have worked five years ago but now only serves to remind everyone how far he really is from the slain leader.
Sharon, who instigated all this mayhem, surely enjoyed watching it. But as the chances of elections became larger, the main question haunting Israeli politics for the past three years became even more acute: What’s on Arik’s mind? The answer, it seems, may come only in the place reigning prime ministers dread the most — the polling booth.