Labor Says It Won’t Play Ball

By Chemi Shalev

Published January 17, 2003, issue of January 17, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Desperate to turn the tide in the upcoming elections, Amram Mitzna and his Labor Party declared this week that they would refuse to join a national unity government headed by Ariel Sharon — under any circumstances. The end result, some observers are darkly predicting, could be the unimaginable: no government.

Mitzna’s surprising and controversial political ploy, privately opposed by many in Labor itself, is meant to present voters with a stark choice on election day: either an extreme and narrow right-wing government headed by Sharon, or a national unity government headed by Mitzna. With less than two weeks left before Israelis go to the polls, Labor is hoping to scare the public, which fears a narrow-right government, to galvanize the left and to pry votes away from both the left-wing Meretz and the centrist Shinui.

Labor leaders admit the move is an act of desperation. Critics describe it as an exercise in futility. Mitzna was spurred to act dramatically after polls released early this week showed Likud starting to regain ground lost because of the recent corruption scandals, while Labor continues its downward slide: Labor is now hovering around 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, compared to the Likud’s 32-33.

The turnaround in Likud’s fortunes appears to stem from Sharon’s controversial press conference late last week, in which he was supposed to “explain” to the public how and why he received a $1.5 million loan from South African millionaire Cyril Kern. But rather than going into the details of the loan, Sharon launched a furious diatribe against Labor and Mitzna. About 20 minutes into Sharon’s speech, Supreme Court Justice Mishael Heshin, chairman of Israel’s Central Elections Committee, ordered television and radio stations to stop broadcasting the press conference. Heshin’s reason: Sharon was violating Israel’s arcane election propaganda laws, which prohibit news programs from broadcasting electioneering propaganda as news during the month preceding the elections.

Initially, Labor was delighted at Heshin’s decision, believing it would lead the public to distance itself even further from Sharon and his party. But a funny thing happened on the way to this week’s polls: defying all the expectations and predictions of politicians and pundits alike, Sharon actually picked up between three and five new Knesset seats in the polls, while Labor plunged to new and previously unthinkable lows.

Political analysts believe that, contrary to Labor’s expectations, Sharon’s interrupted press conference actually caused wavering Likud voters to return home. Enraged by Heshin’s perceived censorship of Sharon, longtime loyalists began to view the prime minister differently: not as a leader caught with his hand in the till, but as a beleaguered underdog hounded by a host of Likud’s traditional enemies — the press, the police, the judicial establishment and the leftist “elites” as a whole. According to press reports, this was exactly the reaction anticipated by Likud’s American campaign adviser, Republican guru Arthur Finkelstein.

Now confronted by confounding polls, and facing increasing criticism for what is widely described as lackluster leadership, Mitzna was forced to pull out what may be the last rabbit left in his hat — an all-out refusal to serve under Sharon in the next government, come what may. “It’s either us or Sharon, there is no other choice,” Mitzna announced.

Labor pollsters are hopeful that the move will jar left-leaning voters out of their complacency, and provide Labor with new momentum that could reverse its predicted downfall on January 28. But most analysts remain skeptical, suspecting that Mitzna’s daring brinkmanship could backfire on Labor. The move is seen as signaling to the electorate that Mitzna has in fact given up any hope of winning the elections.

According to this analysis, Mitzna is no longer seeking to capture centrist and right-leaning voters, and is now concentrating solely on the left, where opposition to a new unity coalition runs highest. Mitzna, according to an analysis in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, is no longer running for prime minister, but is now “seeking the post of leader of the opposition.”

Most of Labor’s top leaders ostensibly lined up behind Mitzna’s move, although most, including former unity ministers Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, are privately opposed. The opponents told journalists in off-the-record conversations that Mitzna’s “day of reckoning” will come on January 29, when the election results are made known. At that point Labor’s leadership and institutions will probably opt to ignore Mitzna’s opposition and to accept an invitation from Sharon to join a new broad coalition. “And if Mitzna insists,” one aide to Ben-Eliezer said this week, “he will be swept away to the dustbin of Labor history. Easy come, easy go.”

Still, Mitzna’s adamant stand could complicate Sharon’s life after the elections, assuming he is re-elected. Sharon does not want to lead a narrow-right coalition, in which he will be beholden to far-rightists such as Avigdor Lieberman of National Union, Effi Eitam of the National Religious Party and, perhaps more important, to Likud’s own Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu commands the loyalty of at least half of the new Likud caucus in the Knesset. Sharon, already weakened, will have to deal with the ongoing investigations against himself and his sons. A far-right government, Sharon is distinctly aware, will be unpopular with the vast majority of Israelis and would probably mar his close relationship with the Bush administration. Such a government’s days would be numbered, even before it started its term.

Whatever his shortcomings as a peacemaker, and they are numerous, only an unambiguous victory by Sharon would enable any sort of progress in a potential post-Iraq peace process. Governing with a slim parliamentary majority, led by a truncated, disgruntled Likud caucus, Sharon would be beholden to the hawkish leanings of his coalition and party colleagues. His ability to make any concessions at all would be seriously diminished.

Sharon’s troubles will be further compounded if, in the final analysis, Likud and its allies fail to pick the 61-seat Knesset majority needed to control the new parliament. If that happens, and if Mitzna stands firm in his opposition to serving under Sharon, then Sharon may not be able to put together any coalition whatsoever. Israel will then be plunged into a lengthy period of political instability. Already, there are politicians and experts who are predicting that Israelis may have to go back to the polls before the year is out.

Given the public’s mercurial mood right now, such a scenario is not impossible. The press is known to be sitting on new stories of corruption in Likud, which are scheduled to be published before Election Day. The topsy-turvy sentiments of the public may thus turn against Sharon once again: the Likud will go down, Shinui or Labor or both may go up, and no single political bloc will emerge with a clear majority.

This election campaign has, after all, unfolded in a way that defied all expectations and conventional wisdoms. It was supposed to be a landslide for Likud. Then it became a horse race. Now almost no one is daring to predict the final outcome of the vote. One disturbing possibility, no matter what one’s political preference, could thus be phrased: What if they held an election, and nobody won?

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