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PM Sharon Invites Labor And Ultra-Orthodox Parties To Join New Coalition After Decisive Victory At Likud Convention

Negotiations With Labor Expected to Be Wrapped Up In Couple of Weeks

Right Wing Opponents Warn Sharon’s Steamroller Withdrawal Could Trigger Civil War

MK Peres Prepares - PM Sharon Votes

After his decisive victory at the Likud convention, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lost no time in inviting Labor, Shas and United Torah Judaism to join a new government coalition. The dramatic vote reversed an earlier decision three months ago, giving Sharon a 62-38% win. Although Likud cabinet minister Ehud Olmert says the inclusion of Labor will mean the Gaza withdrawal is now ‘in the bag’, MK Zvi Hendel of the National Union warns that Sharon’s brutal withdrawal tactics may trigger a civil war. David Essing has this analysis of what is being as an historic milestone in the country’s history:

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has won back his Likud party and apparently a new coalition. The door is now wide open, for Sharon to carry out a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements.

:: IsraCast Audio ::

On May 26th 2003, Ariel Sharon astounded his Likud party and the country when he spoke of an Israeli ‘occupation’ of three and a half million Palestinians. He called it a terrible thing. From then on, Sharon began losing the Likud and his government coalition with the far right. Last night, the Prime Minister won back the Likud and apparently a new coalition which will support his disengagement plan; for bringing Labor in the coalition will mean that Israel will be out of the Gaza Strip plus four settlements in Samaria.In Hebrew it could be called a ‘Sharon Victory Netto’, for the Prime Minister started virtually from scratch, in pushing and pulling the Likud ‘Land of Israel’ party into accepting the evacuation of settlements from the biblical Jewish homeland: settlements that he, the ‘Bulldozer’, had built in the Gaza Strip and all over the West Bank.In the Likud, ‘The Big Three’ Netanyahu, Shalom and Livnat at first voiced their opposition to the unilateral disengagement. Although Sharon had run in the election calling for painful concessions for peace, who could have imagined the hard-liner ‘would retreat under Palestinian fire’. Although twice defeated in the Likud central committee, the Prime Minister never took ‘No’ for an answer. And his critics have a point when they charge that ‘by hook and by crook’ Sharon finagled his way into cajoling the Likud into the disengagement.It was not easy, but the Prime Minister had two things going for him: most Israelis were fed up the cost in blood and treasure of remaining in Gaza and secondly, Sharon is by far and away the most popular leader in the country. Likudniks knew it, that’s why they blinked first and voted for the Prime Minister when he left them the choice of going to an early election. Bibi Netanyahu certainly knew it, that’s why he backed down in his confrontation with Sharon although the Finance Minister opposes the withdrawal.Nonetheless, Sharon allowed himself to be hamstrung by the party when he held the May referendum banned the disengagement. Last night, he got his grip back on the Likud; it’s fair to say that if any other Likud leader had tried to sell a unilateral withdrawal in cahoots with Labor, the Likud would have sent him packing: the whole shebang rests upon Sharon’s impressive credibility with the Israeli public.

‘Land of Israel vs. State of Israel’ The Likud vote, in favor of Labor which is tantamount to implementing the withdrawal, spells the demise of the Land of Israel ideology which has always been the cornerstone of the Likud party. Likudniks have accepted Sharon’s thesis which boils down to the fact that a strict Biblical Land of Israel approach is not compatible with the interests of the modern day state of Israel. Sharon’s buzzword ‘occupation’ was his wake-up call to both the party leadership and rank and file. In the current government, the PM fired two far right Land of Israel parties and then Shinui which actually supported the evacuation. His message to the Likudniks:’ I’ll do everything it takes for this disengagement; either you fire me or I’ll fire you and let’s see what happens in an early election!’ Although some 850 hard-core Likudniks stuck to their guns, more than 1400 others chose to stick with Sharon. Most of the ‘rebel’ MKs say it’s time to throw in the towel; Sharon has won and is empowered to form a coalition with Labor and without Shas. The PM was forced to fire the secular Shinui because it would not sit in the same cabinet with the ultra-orthodox. On the other hand, the Likud would not agree to a coalition with only Shinui and Labor because withdrawal supporters would have ruled the cabinet. Now Sharon can go only with Labor and still implement the withdrawal.

The Palestinians By coming up with the Gaza pullout, Sharon has put the ball squarely in the Palestinian court. Today, without it Israel would be facing massive international pressure to jump - start the ‘Roadmap’ after the death of Arafat. But now that Sharon has the green light to build a disengagement coalition with Labor, the Palestinians will be expected to rein in the terrorists. What happens after the withdrawal, if the Palestinians step up their attacks? Israeli officials say the Palestinians will not be able to contend it’s legitimate resistance to the settlements. Israel will exercise her full right to self-defense and hit back like it would say if Syria rocketed Israel. The Gaza Strip will turn into a ‘laboratory’ which will put the new Palestinian leadership to the test of its intentions and ability to promote the peace process. An Israeli observer puts it:’ The Palestinians will have to start acting like a state if they want to acquire rights and powers of a state’.

‘Right of Return’ The Likud vote supports Sharon’s position that a territorial compromise is a factor in the equation for a Palestinian and Jewish state living side by side in peace. There is another factor; the Palestinian recognition of an independent Jewish state. Yasser Arafat never told the Palestinian people this would have to be the quid pro quo. Moreover, his successors Muhmoud Abbas and Ahmed Queira, on a tour of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, have declared they insist the refugees be allowed to return to Israel. Maybe this is only election rhetoric, otherwise it does not auger well for where the new leadership is headed.

Rabbi Ovadia Yossef

Coalition Negotiations Barring a respectable amount of sound and fury from some quarters in Labor, party leader Shimon Peres can be expected to join the Sharon coalition without too much fuss. It is inconceivable that left-wing Labor, which charges that Sharon has adopted its peace policy, would dare balk before the altar of what is being called a ‘marriage of convenience’ with the Likud. Shas - there is no love between the ultra-orthodox party and Sharon. Sharon once kicked them out of the former government and then opted for secular Shinui in the current. Even with the Shas educational and social networks in need of government funding, who knows what Rabbi Ovadia Yossef will decide; he is on record to opposing the withdrawal unless there’s a deal with the Palestinians. The Rabbi has been pondering the possibility of an early election, but Sharon’s big win might persuade him this is not in the offing and it’s wiser to get on the coalition band wagon.

Postscript What if the Likud convention had turned down Sharon in the crucial vote? One Sharon official retorts: ‘Enough, I don’t even want to think about it!’After the Likud vote, barring unforeseen circumstances the Gaza Plus withdrawal should be a done deal. Whether pro or con, Sharon’s statecraft has been remarkable. Against his party’s wishes, he totally demolished one far right coalition against withdrawal and is now in the process of building a new disengagement government. Everything is changing before the country’s very eyes, except really one thing, Ariel Sharon himself, who has single handedly forged an historic shift in the country’s perception of its national interests. After the Likud convention vote, less than 25 MKs in the 120 member Knesset are seen as still holding out against the withdrawal. In light of the astounding turn of events during the first half of Sharon’s term, the question now is what is still in store?

David Essing

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