With elections only a week away, the biggest concerns in the Likud camp of front-runner Ariel Sharon have less to do with what will happen on election day, and more about how Sharon can ensure a stable government once he is elected. Facing a tight budget deadline and the possibility that outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak will continue talks with the Palestinians even after the election, Sharon has already begun making contacts for quickly forming a coalition, preferably a national unity government.
Barak has attempted to accelerate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the midst of the election season, and the joint statement out of Taba over the weekend promised the two sides would resume their discussions right after the February 6 balloting. If Sharon wins, as looks increasingly likely, he has up to 45 days to submit a new coalition government for a vote of "confidence" in the Knesset. Barak is hinting he could carry the rush to strike a peace deal right up to the day Sharon gets Knesset approval for his government. So to cut down on the time Barak would have to tie his hands with such an agreement, Sharon is already preparing for streamlined coalition bargaining.
Another time constraint for Sharon is the March 31 deadline for passage of an annual state budget for 2001, which Barak has failed to achieve thus far. If this deadline is not met and no grace period is extended in light of the special circumstances, the Knesset will be dissolved and so, too, will Sharon's embryonic premiership.
Eager to swiftly establish a stable and workable government to address these matters early on, Sharon revealed Sunday that contacts are already underway to establish a unity government with Barak's Labor party immediately if he wins the February 6 election. "When I am elected, that same night I will call for a national unity government," Sharon said.
But senior Likud members admitted Sunday that the Left's rejection of a unity government could pose a significant problem for Sharon, since he then would be forced to form a narrow government dependent upon support from far Right factions. This would greatly limit Sharon's ability to gain broader support for his policies.
Barak keeps insisting he will not join a "Tehran-Aswan government," a reference to Sharon's potential coalition partner MK Avigdor Lieberman of the National Union-Yisrael Beiteinu joint list, who recently has suggested that Sharon consider bombing the Iranian capital and the Aswan Dam on the Egyptian Nile if a war erupts. Barak said on Sunday night that if he were to lose the election, the Labor Party would not join a Sharon government "that would be extreme and dangerous for the State of Israel," even if he was offered a top portfolio. "I will not be Sharon's defense minister," Barak said in response to the reported offer from his campaign opponent.
But the denials may be intended not to discourage potential Barak voters, and Likud sources insisted that after Sharon's victory "[Barak] will speak differently." In addition, several senior Labor figures were careful on Monday not to rule out a coalition pact with Sharon, so long as it excluded far-right politicians and Labor had a clear say in formulating the government's policy guidelines.
The Likud's campaign chairman, MK Silvan Shalom, confirmed reports that contacts over a possible unity government have already begun with members of the Labor party. "I myself have held talks with Labor party people, from both wings (dovish and centrist) of the party. Both wings support joining a national unity government, or at least, holding serious negotiations to explore the matter," he said.
Barak continued to express confidence that his campaign will coalesce during the last five days before the elections and said that the current gap is really less than the 16% to 20% surveys indicate. But Barak has little chance of making up all that ground without overwhelming support from the Arab sector, and that is still an unresolved question.
Leaders of Arab Knesset factions united with a coalition of Arab movements in issuing a joint call this past weekend to Arab voters to boycott the upcoming election. Meantime, hundreds participated in a mass demonstration organized by Balad in Nazareth Saturday to support the boycott. The Arab protesters waved Palestinian flags and held placards with the pictures of the 13 Israeli Arabs killed in clashes with police in the October riots.
Though the ever-popular Islamic Movement in Israel factions signed on to the boycott memorandum, THE JERUSALEM POST reported Monday that the movement's national council is expected to convene later this week to decide whether there are any grounds for reconsidering its edict. Other Arab parties and factions are expected to hold similar debates in the next few days prior to a scheduled meeting of the Arab leadership's Supreme Monitoring Committee at the end of this week to decide on an overarching official Arab stance.
The Arab community's 554,000 eligible voters represent 12.3% of the overall electorate, and are considered crucial to Barak's hopes for re-election. Several Arab leaders have said recently they would reconsider their stance if a draft Palestinian-Israeli peace accord were to be reached and if Barak were to publicly apologize and take responsibility for the government's handling of the riots last October. The peace talks ended inconclusively on Saturday, and Barak has expressed "sorrow" for the 13 deaths, but has refused to shoulder outright blame.
Meanwhile, Sharon called yesterday for a "real revolution" in the Arab sector and said that if he is elected on February 6 he would work to achieve full equality for all of Israel's citizens in education and infrastructure. Sharon said he would treat Arab citizens as complete partners and he raised eyebrows by referring to Arabs for the first time as "Palestinians living in Israel."
Sources in Sharon's campaign said that the Likud leader's use of the term was not coincidental, and was meant to show Arab citizens that he recognizes their identity as Palestinians and is willing to improve their standard of living.
Used with Permission from International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.