TCS Daily

The Other Election

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - November 7, 2002 12:00 AM

This past week, Israel's Labor Party ditched the governing coalition set up in 2001 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Despite the fact that Sharon is able to form a temporary governing coalition (in large part by offering the post of foreign minister to his Likud Party rival, Benjamin Netanyahu), an election will be called to determine the character of Israel's next national government.

It is well that Sharon has called for new elections. It is important for Israel to try to reconcile the character of its government with the wishes of its citizenry.

When Ehud Barak, Israel's previous prime minister and a member of the Labor Party, resigned his office and prompted new elections in the winter of 2000, he did so without dissolving the Israeli Knesset. Barak did this because he knew that the polls forecast a right of center landslide that would reshape the nature of the Knesset, as well as determine that a Likud prime minister would take the helm in Israel. Barak's only hope was that he might be able to stave off defeat by having the election solely determine who is the prime minister. He knew that if the election were only about the premiership, instead of being about the entire Knesset, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister favored to defeat Barak, would choose not to run, and that Barak would then be able to face Likud party chief Ariel Sharon-a man most experts believed would be easier for Barak to defeat.

Barak's gamble almost worked. Disgusted by his ploy to keep the character of the Knesset intact, and to merely have the election be about the premiership, Netanyahu refused to run for Prime Minister. Barak then was able to face Sharon in a direct contest for the premiership. Labor Party activists breathed easier, not believing that Sharon could possibly defeat Barak.

They were proved disastrously wrong. Sharon racked up about two-thirds of the popular vote, crushing Barak, and propelling him to power. Israeli voters were quite clearly fed up with the terrorism that was rampant in their country, and with the fact that Barak's various territorial concessions to Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians had done nothing to bring peace, and that instead, a new intifada had been launched against the Israeli people-this despite the fact that at the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David in 2000, Barak afforded Arafat the most generous land for peace proposal the Palestinian leadership has ever seen, or is likely to ever see. Israeli voters were clearly in a mood to see their government take the fight to the Palestinians, to crush the terror cells, and to make no further significant territorial concessions until the Palestinian leadership was finally able to get terrorism under control. Sharon, a successful general of Israel's wars, and a man renowned for his tough-some would say "brutal"-approach to fighting Arab terrorists, was seen as the man for the job, and was afforded an overwhelming vote of confidence from the Israeli people to bring security to Israel by taking a tough line against Islamic fundamentalism and Palestinian terrorism.

The problem, however, is that in making the election solely about who occupies the chair of the premiership, Ehud Barak prevented voters from having the choice of giving their overwhelming favorite for the premiership the necessary coalition to back his policies. Instead of being able to work with a Knesset that was reshaped and reconstituted in accordance with the voters' demands, Ariel Sharon was forced to contend with the same divided and faction-plagued Knesset with which Barak had to contend. Of course, Sharon will never complain about this fact. If, per usual custom, the Knesset had been dissolved when Barak resigned the premiership, and there was an across-the-board election for political offices in Israel, Sharon would have likely been pushed aside by Benjamin Netanyahu, who would have stood as the leader of the center-right in Israel (assuming, of course, that Netanyahu would have been allowed to run for the premiership even though he was not a member of the Knesset at the time). Even now, a number of news reports make clear that Sharon would rather reconstitute a coalition with Netanyahu as the foreign minister, rather than have across-the-board elections and risk having Netanyahu selected as the leader of the center-right in those elections.

This arrangement has been calamitous for Israel. The whole point of having a parliamentary system of government is that the prime ministerial candidates are supposed to agitate not only for their elections as premiers, but for the election of a majority or plurality in the Knesset that will help implement their policies. The Israeli people were not afforded the opportunity of backing their choice for prime minister with electoral changes in the Knesset that would have had the effect of strengthening the prime minister's hand in dealing with various national problems. In other words, the Sharon government has suffered all of the problems of a parliamentary government, without enjoying any of the benefits. One cannot help but wonder why Sharon was content with this state of affairs for so long. Was the mere possession of political power so important that it was not deemed necessary to have the tools to wield it effectively?

An election is supposed to decide things. The elections for the premiership in 2001 decided only who would be the Israeli prime minister. It did not conclusively or decisively set the Israeli government upon a consistent policy course, because there was no opportunity to change the makeup of the Knesset. To be sure, the policies of the government took a rightward turn, but they also lurched all over the map ideologically because of the fundamental incongruity between the existence of a badly divided Knesset from the Barak era, and a center-right prime minister in Sharon who was elected overwhelmingly to change and depart from Barak's policies. As a result of having to please and appease his Labor coalition partners (partners who would have never held prestigious cabinet posts like foreign minister and defense minister if elections for the Knesset were allowed), Sharon was never able to consistently follow the policies he promised the Israeli people that he would implement.

Whether or not Israeli voters decide to elect a center-right or center-left coalition to govern them next is certainly an important matter-especially considering all of the activity that is concentrated in the Middle East, and the fact that a new Israeli government may have to assume its defense and national security responsibilities very quickly in light of the possibility of an American war with Iraq. Just as important, however, is the ability of Israeli voters to be able to choose the nature of their government free of the cynical ploys that characterized the Barak gambit in 2000, or Sharon's initial machinations to hoist a new artificial coalition on the Israeli body politic. Voter choice is a beautiful thing. It is about time that the Israeli people got the opportunity to not only determine the premiership, but to also determine the nature of the Knesset that will work with the next prime minister.



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