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Sharon's Coalition Falls Apart

Israel's Labor ministers resign amid a battle over funding of settlements. Analysts say the party's leader is moving to shore up his support.

October 31, 2002|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Israel's center-left Labor Party ended an uneasy 20-month alliance with conservative Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Wednesday, leaving Israeli politics in a state of disarray at a time of intense conflict with the Palestinians and looming regional confrontation between the United States and Iraq.

The Labor ministers submitted their resignations from the coalition government, which take 48 hours to go into effect, in the midst of a showdown with Sharon over how large a share of the budget should go to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The move, however, was widely read by political analysts as an effort by Labor's leader, Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, to strengthen his hand against rivals for the party leadership next month by making a decisive break now with Sharon and his conservative Likud Party.

The Labor Party was Sharon's largest coalition partner, and its defection forces him to either seek new parliamentary alliances with smaller right-wing and religious parties, or chart a course for early elections. If he opts for the latter, a vote could be scheduled as soon as the end of January, which would be nearly 10 months ahead of schedule.

After a day of stormy negotiations failed to stave off the Labor pullout, Sharon indicated that he would seek to stay in power -- for the time being, at least -- with a narrower coalition.

"We will continue to lead the country with responsibility and discretion," he said in a brief address to the Knesset, or parliament.

Labor and Likud were always strange bedfellows. As the principal partners in a coalition steering Israel through one of its most violent periods in decades, the two differed sharply on bedrock issues of war and peace. Shimon Peres, the Labor foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had helped craft the landmark Oslo accords; Sharon made it his mission to dismantle them.

Although Peres resigned along with Ben-Eliezer and four other Labor ministers, it wasn't without trying desperately to prevent the breakup. Peres has been one of the most ardent advocates of working from within to nudge the Sharon government in the direction of peace overtures to the Palestinians.

Without Labor in the government, reviving peace efforts could be doubly difficult, because Sharon would have to hew to a hard line to keep his right-wing coalition partners on board. They would probably object strongly to key provisions of a U.S. peace plan presented to Israel and the Palestinians last week, which envisions a freeze on Jewish settlements and an easing of Israel's military grip on the West Bank and Gaza.

The Israeli government shakeup also coincides with concerted efforts by the Bush administration to ensure that Israel will not be drawn into any conflict involving Iraq. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Israel held off on any retaliation, at U.S. behest, when Saddam Hussein's forces launched 39 Scud missiles at the Jewish state.

Although Labor is more open to rapprochement with the Palestinians than is Sharon, Israeli political factions are more united on the subject of Iraq. There is broad general agreement with Sharon's view that if Israel is attacked with any weapon of mass destruction, there would be no choice but to retaliate.

What had kept the two factions together was a widely held notion that maintaining a united front was paramount in a time of war. Sharon skillfully cobbled together the largest coalition government in Israeli political history, thus marginalizing any genuine opposition and bolstering his every stand against the Palestinians.

And Labor leaders -- coming off a devastating loss to Sharon and Likud in February 2001 elections -- were painfully aware that their following had dwindled; any hopes of power lay in sharing it with the right. So they papered over their differences, and as an entire, fearful nation moved to the right, so did the Labor Party, as part of Sharon's government.

Ultimately, it was raw politics that severed the alliance. Ben-Eliezer faces a tough internal struggle to hold on to leadership of his party ahead of its Nov. 19 primaries. A former army general who is almost as hawkish as Sharon, the Iraqi-born Ben-Eliezer is most vulnerable on his left flank and must distance himself from Sharon if he is to rebuild his power base.

Labor's collaboration with rightist Likud diluted much of the center-left party's political identity and erased an agenda that once reflected a growing national consensus that Palestinian statehood was inevitable and Israel should get on with the pragmatic task of negotiating terms with the Palestinians.

To regain any standing, the influential daily Haaretz said in an editorial, the Labor Party "must now awake from its political coma and sharpen its dulled positions on the major issues."

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