Can the Sharon-Barak-Coalition Survive its Honeymoon?

Published February 18th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

By Nigel Thorpe 

Senior Editor - Amman.  


Articles in the Israel press and the comments of many Palestinian and Israeli analysts have certainly confirmed the truth of the adage that “a week is an eternity in politics.” Barak’s decision to join Sharon’s proposed unity government has caused a serious revolt in his defeated Labor party. Despite the Sharon’s high approval ratings reported in a recent Israeli poll, there is general skepticism about the chances of the Barak-Sharon coalition surviving and achieving its ambitious goals.  


The voice of Israel confirmed on Friday that Ehud Barak, Israel’s out-going prime minister, who was swept from office in a landslide defeat in Tuesday’s election, has decided to accept the minister of defense post in a government of national unity lead by the hard-line victor, Ariel Sharon. In the interests of political longevity, the victorious Likud leader has thrown half of his bouquet of portfolios into the battle-scared Labor camp and offered equality in the number of cabinet posts each party would hold. Likud sources suggest that after three days of intensive political maneuvering, the unity government was a “done deal.” The Labor side, the radio station reports, is more cautious and emphasizes that the party feels there are still “differences that remain to be ironed out.” 


Barak’s “political U-turn” has raised a storm of protest at both ends of the political spectrum in the Knesset. The left wing accused him of “a sellout to Ariel Sharon” and reminded him of his concession speech on the night of elections last week when he announced his resignation from politics. From the right wing came the vitriolic comments “he has no right to be in the government after his crushing personal defeat” and “he is a leader without a party.” 


Barak’s acceptance of the defense post has certainly fragmented an already demoralized party. The Globes’ web site, which describes itself as Israel’s business arena, detailed the labor revolt in its Breaking News section on Sunday. The web site reported that Labor colleague Haim Ramon, and Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg, want unity without Barak, while former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami opposes the idea of a unity government. Former justice minister Yossi Beilin is also reported to be staying out of the coalition. Globe’s also reported, in response to the fallout his political bombshell had produced, Barak would “resign his Knesset seat while keeping the defense portfolio.” Meretz (Citizen’s Rights) party chairman Yossi Sarid attacked Barak’s decision saying,”It’s unfortunate and painful that Barak is ending his tenure with one zig-zag too many.” 


Most political analysts are pessimistic about the unity government’s chances of success. In an interview given to, the Palestinian analyst Wadi Abu Nassar commented that “a unity government has never been able to make comprehensive peace and Sharon will try to pin the failure on Labor. A government with two heads will fail. Sharon’s insistence on his list of no’s such as no negotiations while the Intifada continues, the no to a divided Jerusalem, together with the expansion of Jewish settlements, and the present US apathy towards the peace process” will be major stumbling blocks on the uphill road to a settlement.  

“Shas,” Nassar continued,” expected to be given four portfolios and serve as a safety valve in case the coalition splits. Shas therefore expects its demands to be met by any potential unit government.” 


Israeli Arabs are just as pessimistic. “The goals of the new government,” explained Arab MK Azmi Bishara in an interview with, “are national security, personal safety for Israelis, the curbing of Palestinian “terrorism”, fighting unemployment, and encouraging Jewish immigration into the State of Israel. The government also plans to resume peace talks with Syria and Lebanon on the basis of UN resolutions. Although they say they will not build new settlements, the government has declared its intention of expanding existing ones.” 

“Sharon could have built up a 62-MK pure rightist front in the Knesset,“ Bishara continued, “but he toiled instead to attract Labor and form a unity government since he cannot face the world with a hard-line government and had to give up half of the portfolios to Labor.”  

“The (Israeli) Arabs were right when they refused to vote for Barak who has endorsed the votes he received for the benefit of Sharon,” Bishara concluded. ”His acts reveal that he has never been serious about achieving peace.” Bishara expects the Sharon-Barak coalition to be a complete failure.  


In contrast to Labor’s trials and tribulations, Sharon and his Likud colleagues continue to enjoy the sweet smell of success and high popularity ratings during their post-election honeymoon period. In a poll conducted this week by the Smith research institute for “Globes”, 69 percent of a sample of the Israeli electorate “expect that Ariel Sharon will handle the country’s problems in an effective way.” The survey, however, suggests that the post-election electorate are not strongly in favor of hard-line policies since only 11 percent of those sampled prefer a “narrow base” government dominated by the right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties. Over one half of the sample (57 percent), in fact, supported the establishment of a national unity government without the extreme right-wing parties. 24 percent of the respondents stated a preference for a national unity government including these parties.  


Whether Barak’s zig-zags and U-turns, and Sharon’s saber-rattling war dances will choreograph the peace and security the Israeli voters crave for remains to be seen. 

One thing, however, is certain. If the levels of violence in both the occupied territories and Israel itself remain at their present level, Sharon’s honeymoon and Barak’s political resurrection are both likely to be short-lived.  



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