The recent dissolution of the National Unity Government in Israel should not come as a surprise to anyone closely following the Israeli political scene. The reason the unity government lasted so long was that it was comfortable for all parties involved. By keeping his opposing political party under his government umbrella Prime Minister Sharon was granted a much-needed degree of legitimacy in both internal and external politics. On the other hand, Labor party cabinet members found political relevance in their participation in Sharon’s government where, otherwise, their lack of ability to provide Israelis with an alternate national strategy would have consumed their few remaining political credits among Israeli voters. Israeli democracy will be sorely tested in the weeks to come, and to pass this test a bold, peace-oriented leadership must step forward.
The resignation of Binyamin Ben Eliezer, head of the Labor party and the former Defense Minister had nothing to do with the budget or the funding of the settlements. During the course of the coalition Labor ministers did not lift a finger against the funding and expansion of the settlements, which took place at an alarming rate. Ben Eliezer, as Defense Minister, did absolutely nothing to stop the violent actions of the settlers preventing Palestinians from harvesting their olives (a crucial source of income for entire villages, especially in light of the horrid economic conditions within the Occupied Territories), or settlers’ fatal attacks against Palestinian farmers. Even the widely reported removal of one of the illegal outposts (a strange choice of words, considering the fact that all of the settlements are illegal) was more of a public relations stunt than anything substantial, meant to toss sand into the eyes of the Israeli public and the world.
The real reason for the resignation (and the removal of a few illegal outposts in the Occupied Territories) is to be found in the internal party politics of the Labor party, and the upcoming Labor party primaries on November 19th. Ben Eliezer felt that by resigning, he would stand a better chance of being re-elected to head the party. The resignation leaves Sharon with a minority government, and he is now seeking partners for his coalition among the far right parties and the former Chief of Staff Mofaz as his Defense Minister. Sharon himself would most likely prefer to act as Defense Minister, but the official Commission of Enquiry into Sharon’s actions and responsibility during the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in Lebanon ruled that Sharon cannot serve as Defense Minister. Should he attempt to do so, it is likely that the Supreme Court would rule against him. If a right-wing coalition is indeed formed, the true political objectives of Sharon will at last become fully apparent to both the Israeli public and the world community. Indeed, as the conservative and senior Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea has recently noted, it is the settlers and their leaders who are actually dictating Israeli policy, not the elected government. This will become even more apparent in the coming months.
But the Labor party resignation is also an opportunity for the parliamentary Left in Israel to regroup and to show leadership from the opposition benches. It is an opportunity for Labor to redefine itself, and to present a truly alternative political and social agenda. As it stands today, the Labor party is no more than a pale reflection of its former self, with little to distinguish it from the Likud. Today there is a chance, albeit slight, for the party to serve as a focal point for the parliamentary Left. Labor will certainly find it easy to attack Sharon, who has not managed to provide security or peace, as he promised during his election campaign. They will certainly be able to expose Sharon’s true intentions–increasing expansion of the illegal settlements, brutal treatment and humiliation of the Palestinian people, the destruction of the Palestinian Authority, and any chance to reach a fair settlement with the Palestinians. They will be able to expose what Sharon meant when he said that he was “ready for painful compromise”–that both the pain and the compromise as far as Sharon was concerned would be on the part of the Palestinians, not Israel, as former Foreign Minister Peres used to joke. They will be able to expose the investment of at least 800 million US dollars in the settlements for the 2003 fiscal year (MK Mossi Raz of Meretz has found at least 400 million US dollars directly committed to the settlements within the 2003 budget, with a similar sum hidden under various expenditures, not to mention the cost to the defense budget in guarding these settlements) at the expense of a collapsing economy, the unemployed, and the disenfranchised.
In the days and months ahead, the Labor party and the Israeli Left are at what could be an historical crossroad. The real question is whether the Labor party is able to and capable of taking advantage of the changes of the past week, rising above petty internal politics and presenting an alternate leadership to the Israeli people–a leadership dedicated to moving forward in an attempt to reach a political solution to the problems at hand, and to finally end the brutal and illegal Occupation. If they fail to do so, they will cease to be relevant to the Israeli political system.