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Soft Side to Sharon’s ‘Hard-line’ Coalition

JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon was hard at work this week cobbling together a coalition government that seemed to be leaving almost everyone unhappy — including much of Sharon’s own Likud party.

The prime minister’s closest aides were insisting it was all part of a plan, a classic Sharon high-wire act that would eventually lead toward a reconstituted unity coalition and a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. If so, the juggling was leaving many of Sharon’s longtime allies with a severe case of vertigo.

Sephardic Jews, Sharon’s traditional support base, were complaining that his new center-right coalition was “elitist” and much too Ashkenazic. Ultra-Orthodox leaders were lambasting the unholy alliance Sharon had brokered between the secularist Shinui and the National Religious Party, which some rabbis called a “new covenant” — the Hebrew phrase also translates as “New Testament.” Social workers and labor activists were muttering against the new cabinet’s “anti-worker” slant. And the Labor Party, when it wasn’t busy chewing up its own leader, Amram Mitzna, for failing to reach agreement with Sharon in the first place, was depicting the prime minister’s new team as “dangerous,” “extremist” and — no surprise — “right-wing.”

Most worrisome from Sharon’s point of view was the growing discontent inside the Likud itself. Rank-and-file activists, especially from development towns, were grumbling over Sharon’s decision to opt for the secularist Shinui and to sever the traditional Likud alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party Shas. Knesset members and Cabinet wannabes were accusing Sharon of selling the store to Shinui and the NRP, leaving only slim pickings for the party that actually won the recent elections by an overwhelming majority.

Sharon and his aides were portraying the Shinui-NRP coalition as designed to wear down Labor’s resistance and bring the dovish party into the coalition. Sharon, they said, had become convinced that the time had come to renew the peace process with the Palestinians, and to do that he needed a partnership with Labor. If he needed to tread on a few toes to get there, so be it.

Indeed, the only happy faces in Israel’s Knesset this week were those of Sharon’s new partners, Shinui and NRP. Shinui’s leader, journalist-turned-politician Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, appeared to have reneged on more than a few pre-election promises to steer clear of religious parties, but in his followers’ eyes he more than made up for it by bringing home a bounty of Cabinet portfolios: the pivotal Justice Ministry, for himself, plus the powerful Infrastructure Ministry and the ultra-sensitive Interior Ministry.

More than anything else, it was the transfer of the Interior Ministry from outgoing Shas to incoming Shinui that enraged and insulted Sharon’s traditional ultra-Orthodox allies. The ministry’s duties include maintaining Israel’s population registry, which gives it practical control over administrative interpretation of the volatile, never ending “Who is a Jew?” question. “This is the end of the Jewish state,” Shas leader Eli Yishai hyperbolically declared on radio, while the party’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, described Sharon as “the leader of the garbage gang.”

If Shinui was delighted at Shas’s humiliation, the leaders of NRP were hardly less so. During the last decade NRP has seen itself pushed increasingly to the sidelines of religious politics by the upstart Shas. This week it struck back. As a Zionist, Modern Orthodox party, NRP was able to agree with Shinui on plans to end the mass exemption of yeshiva students from army service and curtail bloated government handouts to large families, most of which go to charedim. After agreeing to those reforms, NRP leader Effi Eitam managed to rein in Lapid’s broader aspirations for a grand overhaul of synagogue-state relations, winning him plaudits from Orthodox backers. Eitam’s star only rose further when he secured two significant ministerial portfolios, Housing and Welfare, plus control of a reconstituted Religious Affairs Ministry — and all this for a party that won a meager six seats in the Knesset.

But Shinui’s and NRP’s gains were Likud’s losses. Sharon maintained Likud control over the top three Cabinet portfolios — Defense, Finance and Foreign Affairs — but he had little left over to offer other aspiring Likud leaders. Second-tier party leaders found themselves faced with the prospect of taking lesser ministries or being shunted out of the Cabinet altogether.

Sharon also boxed himself into a corner in his pick for finance minister. His choice of outgoing Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert incurred the wrath of the incumbent finance minister, the powerful Silvan Shalom. This could hurt Sharon badly. Shalom has legions of angry supporters inside the Likud Central Committee. He also has close ties, by marriage, to the publishers of the country’s largest newspaper, Yediot Aharonot. Most important, Shalom is of North African origin.

Even though Shalom is generally considered a failure as finance minister, his replacement with the Ashkenazic Olmert is fueling a public outcry against the so-called “white” complexion of Sharon’s new Cabinet. For years successive Israeli governments, especially those under Likud, have had almost equal representation for Ashkenazim and Sephardim. Sharon’s new Cabinet will probably include at most two or three ministers of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

In response to the criticism, Sharon named Shalom foreign minister in place of Benjamin Netanyahu. As of press time, Netanyahu was still weighing Sharon’s offer to become finance minister instead of Olmert.

Labor leader Mitzna is trying to convince party colleagues that the looming split between Sharon and his charedi-Sephardic support base could offer Labor a rare opportunity to break out of its Ashkenazic ghetto and forge new alliances. But Mitzna must first secure his own political survival. His rivals are actively scheming for his ouster, hoping to clear the way for Labor to join the government. Several Labor leaders, including Shimon Peres and Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, are pursuing not-so-secret contacts with Sharon in the hope of presenting the party with a done deal that could turn the tide toward unity at the last minute.

Peres and Ben-Eliezer reject Mitzna’s portrayal of Sharon as an unreformed hard-liner. They claim the prime minister has mended his ways and seeks genuine progress in the peace process. Sharon himself has buttressed those arguments in recent days. Since the election he has repeatedly voiced his support for President Bush’s “vision of peace” from last June, and restated his qualified agreement to a “provisional” Palestinian state, with negotiations to start as soon as the violence ends or Yasser Arafat is removed, whichever comes first. Just last week Sharon told a Yediot Aharonot reporter that Israel cannot hope to solve its catastrophic economic woes unless it achieves a “political solution” with the Palestinians.

Mitzna is having none of it. The Labor leader claims Sharon’s vague promises of diplomatic progress are contradicted by his flat refusal to commit to any evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories. Mitzna says Sharon refused to put in writing any of his diplomatic pledges, seemingly proving his disingenuousness. As final proof that Labor belongs in the opposition, Mitzna points to Sharon’s inking of a coalition agreement with the hard-line NRP.

Meanwhile, Sharon’s surprising courtship of the far-right National Union Party, led by ultra-hardliner Avigdor Lieberman, appeared to be playing into Mitzna’s hands. Sharon had repeatedly promised not to allow “extremists” such as Lieberman to enter his coalition. And yet at midweek he brought the National Union Party into his coalition, adding its seven Knesset seats to his slim, 61-seat Likud-Shinui-NRP majority.

Peres and Ben-Eliezer insist Sharon’s deal with Lieberman is simply a gambit to spur Labor to dump Mitzna and join the coalition. Sharon, they believe, will pursue a peace opening if it comes, keeping his promises to President Bush, and dump Lieberman at the first sign of resistance. Mitzna counters that in courting Lieberman Sharon is only showing his true colors. In private he describes the prime minister as “Lieberman in drag.”

Some political analysts maintain that Sharon is unruffled by his current predicaments. The assumption is that the imminent American campaign against Iraq will still criticism of his new coalition and probably drive Labor into a unity government, with or without Mitzna. But more than a few pundits, noting Sharon’s heavy-handed, overly-generous conduct of the coalition talks, were saying the prime minister may have lost his famous political touch. The wily and seasoned Sharon, say the nay-sayers, may have reached the point that he is now too smart for his own good.

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