TEL AVIV — Even if Ariel Sharon’s new government doesn’t last long, it already has made Israeli political history. In a bizarre turn of events, Sharon — for decades the most visible and most vilified symbol of the Israeli right — managed this week to survive as prime minister only because the left and several Arab nationalist lawmakers supported him in a Knesset vote of confidence, after the right abandoned him almost entirely.
The reason for the unlikely reversal is Sharon’s plan to withdraw Israeli troops and settlers from Gaza and parts of the West Bank next summer. The plan, first aired a year ago, has thrown Israeli politics into chaos, splitting parties and shattering old alliances left and right. Sharon’s longtime political base in the settler movement has virtually declared war on him, leaving him in control of a constantly shrinking coalition and frantically searching for new partners.
Monday was to have been his day of triumph, when his new coalition, combining the center-right Likud with the center-left Labor and the small ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, was to be approved and sworn in.
But after a strange day of unpredictable twists and turns, Sharon was able to win the Knesset’s confidence only by a plurality of 58 to 56, propped up by a brace of his life-long enemies. His own Likud was badly split, with 13 of its 40 lawmakers voting no confidence in their own leader. A day later, even the tiny Torah Judaism faction, with just five Knesset seats, split into two rival parties, though both vowed continued allegiance to the new coalition.
By the end of the day, Sharon was able to swear in a new Cabinet with 22 members –– 14 from Likud and eight from Labor –– though it was unclear whether the coalition would last as many days.
The opposition was in no better shape. Its two main components, the secularist Shinui and the Sephardic Orthodox Shas party, are blood enemies. Shinui’s Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, kicked off his new status as opposition leader with a speech bitterly attacking the government in which he had been a key partner just weeks ago. Orthodox lawmaker Yisrael Eichler heckled him as he spoke, calling him “Tommy Le Pen” and throwing him what appeared to be a Nazi salute, prompting a complaint to the Knesset’s Ethics Committee.
As for Sharon’s new friends on the left, they were turning on each other throughout the day in confusion and rage. Five of the six members of the Yahad-Meretz party voted for Sharon, including two, Ran Cohen and Avshalom Vilan, whose political careers took off amid the riotous Peace Now protests against Sharon during the 1982 Lebanon War. The leftist party’s sixth member, Yossi Sarid, decided to abstain rather than vote for Sharon, prompting accusations from his own party leader, Yossi Beilin, of a “stab in the back.”
In fact, Sarid later told Army Radio, he only abstained because his name comes second-to-last in the Knesset’s roll call, making it clear that Sharon would survive without his vote. “Had my name been Cohen or Levy, I probably would have had to vote for the government,” Sarid said.
Whether Sharon survives in office will depend in part on how he manages what are in effect two different coalitions, either of which can assemble a parliamentary majority but not at the same time. The first is the disengagement coalition that voted him in this week; it includes about two-thirds of the Likud members plus Labor, Torah Judaism, Yahad-Meretz and a handful of Arab parties. The second is a budget coalition, which must come together for the state budget to be approved by March 31, as the law requires (otherwise the Knesset is automatically dissolved). The budget coalition includes much of the anti-disengagement right but does not include Yahad-Meretz, the Arab parties and several lawmakers who are allied to Labor but reserve the right to vote their conscience on economic issues.
Holding all those pieces together will require all Sharon’s legendary political skills in the months ahead as passions rise over the disengagement plan. The plan is an almost-exact replica of the platform that then-Labor leader Amram Mitzna presented to the voters in 2003 when he ran against Sharon — and got roundly trounced. The contradiction is a source of intense resentment within the Likud, even among Sharon’s loyalists.
As if to add insult to Likud resentment, Sharon’s two-vote margin in the Knesset this week depended on the “yes” votes of the two-man United Arab List, including lawmaker Abdulmalik Dahamshe, who was once imprisoned for his ties to Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement. After the vote, one of Sharon’s top lieutenants, Agriculture Minister Yisrael Katz, sourly remarked that “elections are better than a government which survives only by the support of the Arabs.”
Not all of Sharon’s in-house opposition is ideologically based. The leader of the 13-member “Likud rebels” is veteran lawmaker David Levy, whose last Cabinet post was as foreign minister under Labor’s Ehud Barak; his current oppositionist role is widely believed to be a vendetta against Sharon for years of political slights. Others in the rebel group include Naomi Blumental, a former deputy minister whose career stalled after she was caught up in a recent corruption scandal, and Ayoub Kara, a Druze lawmaker with no pronounced commitment to the settlement movement. Some commentators this week suggested that the rebels’ main motivation was to win visibility and endear themselves to populist hardliners the Likud central committee, who will choose the party’s next Knesset slate.
Sharon himself seemed little perturbed by all the commotion around him. After completing one of the most complex moves in Israeli political history, one of the first people he called was the newly elected Palestinian Authority chairman, Mahmoud Abbas. “We will meet soon,” Sharon told Abbas after congratulating him on his victory in the Palestinian elections a day before. It seemed that for Sharon, initiating the actual implementation of the disengagement plan is far more important than dealing with rumble in the Knesset.
Moving the disengagement forward could also be the key to his political survival. Sharon’s most urgent goal is to bring Shas, the Orthodox Sephardic party, into his coalition, adding 11 Knesset seats and shoring up his right wing. Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has issued an edict against disengagement but has indicated that he may support it if it is negotiated with the Palestinians, rather than carried out unilaterally. No wonder Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, Sharon’s right hand man and the Cabinet member in charge of implementing the plan, said in the first meeting of the new Cabinet that “now that the Palestinian elections are over, we may carry out the plan in coordination with the Palestinians.”
This seems to be Sharon’s plan for the moment: Use the fear of elections (in Likud) and the commitment to disengagement (on the left) to survive politically, while slowly creating the terms that would facilitate the actual implementation of the plan. This would require some complicated maneuvering, and more than a little help from the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the United States and Europe. But after a week in which Dahamshe, Ran Cohen and others raised their hands in favor of a Sharon-led coalition, nothing seems impossible or surprising anymore.