In the wake of the tragic death of Israeli astronaut Ilan
Ramon on the Space Shuttle Columbia, there was Ariel Sharon, the prime minister and prime healer, providing solace on national television.
Just five days earlier, Sharon had won a stunning election victory, and it is
clear that here is a man who had forged a unique bond with the Israeli people
in their time of unrelenting sorrow.
But comfort will not be enough. Sharon must begin to address
his growing problems — and soon — or his spectacular victory may be
The Coalition. One place where the election made Sharon’s
task easier is the need to build a coalition. Beforehand, the pundits all
predicted that he would have three choices: a right-wing government, a secular
national unity coalition with Labor and Shinui or a national unity government
with Labor and the religious parties as existed before November.
These three options still exist, but Sharon did better than
expected; the far right and the left did worse, freeing Sharon from an
unpalatable choice made worse by his own refusal to accept the dictates of the
far right and Labor’s refusal to join, except perhaps under the dire pressures
of a war with Iraq.
Fortunately for Sharon, the results permit him another two
critical options: he can begin with a nucleus of his own Likud, the National
Religious Party (NRP) and Yisrael B’Aliyah — 46 in all — and he may be able to
add the One Nation worker’s party — three more to 49.
To get above 61, he can go with the ultrasecular and
spectacularly successful Shinui (15), which has refused generally to align with
religious parties, but would accept NRP for a total of 64 seats. Or Sharon
could go with the two other religious parties: Shas (11) and UTJ (five) for a
total of 65.
Either a basically secular or the religious parties-included
coalition produces a moderate conservative government with which Sharon can
live. Both have problems: the first might alienate Likud’s traditional
religious party alliance; the second might turn off the growing number of
Israelis disgusted with the largesse distributed to religious institutions and
individuals in tough times.
However, both may be workable and stable, because Sharon
could always threaten to turn to an alternate alliance if the parties’ demands
became too great.
The Political System. The good news begins to dissipate when
one considers that Sharon emerged from the campaign — one should perhaps better
say escaped — with a cloud surrounding him over a series of scandals engulfing
both his party and his family. In this sense, his reelection was more Nixon in
1972 than Reagan in 1984.
If the attorney general’s office issues indictments, and absent
the blunders by liberal leakers, columnists and judges that helped save Sharon
during the campaign, the prime minister could be in big trouble.
Moreover, the fractured Knesset continues as a devastating
obstacle to political stability. A country with its third election in less than
four years confronted the worst turnout in its history (68.5 percent) and a
continued multitude of political parties eroding any prime minister’s capacity
to pursue genuine achievements on most issues.
On the one hand, the abandonment of the direct election of
the prime minister, designed to save the two major parties from further decline
(because voters tended to select a Likud or Labor prime minister and a smaller
party for the Knesset) did achieve some limited results. Between them, Likud
and Labor received 57 seats this time compared to 45 in 1999. And the
just-elected Knesset has 13 parties, which began with 15 parties but after
splits and dissolutions ended with 19.
But the differences between the parties, their competing
demands and the difficulty of forming a coalition and keeping it — with all
Sharon’s current assets — suggests what many Israelis think: it won’t be long
before they’ll be going to the polls again.
Democracy is grand, but like ice cream, too much isn’t right
either, and no country can function efficiently if government has to stop for
months every year or two to campaign, elect and form governments.
The Economy. Sharon’s first term was disastrous for the
economy, which continues its free- fall. The gross domestic product is actually
down. The tourism industry has collapsed. Unemployment (now more than 10
percent), defense spending, inflation and emigration are up. Immigration and
foreign investment are down.
No Israeli has been unaffected by the downturn, and Sharon
does not seem to have a clue how to stem the tide, other than to gain new loan
guarantees from the United States that are absolutely critical. Israel needs a
new economic plan, but whatever coalition is formed is unlikely to produce one.
The Labor Party has the most able candidates — at least on
paper — for dealing with this issue, but is reluctant to have Sharon get the
credit, and, in any case, failed to produce viable ideas or a concerted
argument on the question in the campaign. If Sharon does not address this issue
effectively soon, it could easily overcome his other concerns. Some will say it
Security. Saving the worst for last and overshadowing all
issues today is the question of what to do to stem the violence. During Sharon’s
first term, more Israelis died as a result of terrorism than during the years
of any other previous prime minister, and he was only in office less than two
One conclusion that more and more Israelis came to assume
was that true security could not be achieved by military force alone. And
Sharon seemed to have no idea how to solve the issue diplomatically, or if he
did, it was to await the next election.
However, the election is now over. He may get a temporary
reprieve from the need to confront the next crisis, the war in Iraq, which may
have long-term security benefits for Israel, but in the short term, could
involve a direct attack on Israeli territory. Though Saddam on paper is weaker
than in the last war, no one can be certain what he is actually capable of
doing and whether he will do it.
But the war will end, and with it will come the probable
confrontation with worldwide pressure for doing something about the continuing
Israeli-Palestinian hostilities. During Sharon’s first term, relations with the
Arab states and the Europeans deteriorated. Sharon begins his term with better
relations with the United States than ever, but he is also more dependent on
American preferences than any of his predecessors.
There are straws in the wind that hint at possible new
opportunities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made a dramatic call to Sharon
after the victory (his first) and suggested a meeting soon (another first).
Egypt is also newly vigorous in trying to gain agreement
among the Palestinians for a cease-fire. Even Arafat offered to meet with
Sharon in an act either of farcical duplicity or as a sign of growing
Palestinian desperation. This was followed by a Palestinian offer for the first
time since the intifada began for cease-fire talks — without preconditions, no
Sharon himself has hinted at new ideas that would be
consistent with the roadmap endorsed by the Quartet (the United States,
European Union, United Nations and Russia). Sharon, after all, has refused to
ally with the far right over issues of a possible renewal of the peace process
and the objective of a Palestinian state. And there must be some reason he is
ready to be so generous to the Labor Party as a lure for its joining him.Â
Yet, Sharon’s actions can all be explained by his desire to
maintain a strong relationship with the United States, and even moderate
concessions would require a major turnaround. The Likud primaries produced
scandals, but also a right turn within the party, further limiting Sharon’s
flexibility, which will be constrained further if the scandals become more
serious. And the last two years have proved that there is always an excuse for
So there remain two things the election has not changed: The
other Arab states need to become more active in constraining and guiding the
Palestinians and in taking confidence-building measures toward Israel, and the
United States must become more active in pushing the Israelis and Palestinians
from confrontation toward limited conciliation.
There are signs of very tentative movement by the Arabs. But
there are no signs under the current pressures of even tentative diplomatic
activity by the Bush administration.
Likud governments are often underestimated: They have
brought a peace treaty with Egypt under Menachem Begin, the critical Madrid
Conference under Yitzhak Shamir and the successful Wye Conference under
Benjamin Netanyahu. The latter two led Labor governments to try to move further
under Yitzhak Rabin in Oslo and the Jordan-Israel peace treaty and under Ehud
Barak at Camp David.
Sharon is the only Likud prime minister who does not have a
diplomatic accomplishment on his record. Perhaps the key question of his second
term is whether he can end the intifada and begin a process of resuscitating
the Israeli people’s tattered well-being. Â
Steven L. Spiegel is associate director of the Burkle Center for International Relations and professor of political science at UCLA. He is also a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum and advises the Center for Israel Studies at the University of Judaism.