The Fall of the 15th Knesset

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The Sharon Government

After Ehud Barak's decisive 1999 election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon--leader of the opposition Likud--worked on the reconstruction of his party. With a determined campaign, he gained a large lead in opinion polls as the February 2001 elections approached. Sharon's campaign spin, which played to the Israelis' anxieties about the violence of the Palestinians, presented Sharon as a gentle grandfather figure who would combine his strong military background with the maturity of years and his learning from past mistakes to guide Israelis to safer times. 

Now the tables were turned. As the Likud celebrated victory, a glum Labor party watched its leader, Barak, leave politics behind and resign from public life. Once again, it was a retired general--Benjamin Ben-Eliezer--who stepped into the breach. Ben-Eliezer did not have as storied a military career as Barak or Sharon, but he did retire as a well-known brigadier general after serving as military commander of the West Bank.                      

The 2001 elections were conducted for the post of prime minister only, since at the time Israelis voted in separate elections for prime minister and for Knesset. This situation left Sharon to work with the same fractured Knesset with which Barak had had such difficulty.

ariel sharonRather than building another government on a narrow basis, Sharon proposed that the two large parties, Likud and Labor, together form a "unity government," a coalition that would include the two rivals. He found a willing partner in Ben-Eliezer, who was eager to burnish his public image with a senior ministry position. The two retired generals also shared rather similar views with respect to the tough military actions they believed would be necessary to combat terrorism. Ben-Eliezer and the Labor Party signed on to the coalition, and the resulting Sharon government was the largest in Israel's history, comprised of 26 ministers from eight separate parties.

Despite early skepticism regarding the staying-power of such an seemingly unwieldy coalition, Sharon--in contrast to Barak--managed to exhibit impressive skill in avoiding internal government turmoil. Even as the Israeli economy slipped into its worst depression in 40 years and hundreds of Israelis continued to be killed in terrorist attacks, Sharon managed to maintain his grandfatherly image and benefited from extraordinarily high public approval ratings in opinion polls.

The End of the 15th Knesset

The appointment as defense minister of Ben-Eliezer, with his background and hawkish views, enabled Sharon to claim that his tough military moves and refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians without a total cease-fire were fully supported and implemented by the Labor Party leadership. With Shimon Peres of the Labor Party as foreign minister--a man with impeccable credentials as a peace negotiator--Sharon was often able to effectively deflect foreign criticism of his actions by sending Peres on explanatory tours of European capitals. With his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, safely out of both government and Knesset positions, Sharon consolidated his hold on power.

Ben-Eliezer's position was less rosy than Sharon's. His participation in the government as defense minister had the immediate positive effect, from his point of view, of public exposure in a pivotal defense position at a time when security eclipsed all other items in the Israeli news cycle. At the same time, it left him open to criticism from the left that he was playing number-two in a Likud-led government whose policies sometimes ran contrary to those of the Labor Party.

By the summer of 2002, press leaks revealed that Ben-Eliezer's advisors were telling him to distance himself from Sharon if he was to mount a serious run for prime minister by the time general elections were to be held as scheduled, in late 2003. The Labor Party could not afford to appear to be subordinate to the Likud. A challenger must always present himself or herself as a sharp critic of the incumbent with an alternative message, which is impossible if the challenger has been a partner to the incumbent's policies. The common wisdom was that sooner or later Ben-Eliezer would need to confront Sharon openly in order to establish himself as a potential prime minister, with the only question being what issue would serve as Ben-Eliezer's excuse for his challenge.

Buoyed by left-leaning approval of his tough tactics against West Bank settlers, Ben-Eliezer continued to play on the same theme when he decided the time had come for an open challenge to Sharon. With the 2003 fiscal year government budget under discussion in the Knesset in late October 2002, Ben-Eliezer demanded that Sharon reduce the allocations of some $150 million in state funding for West Bank settlement expansion and divert some of the money to social spending. Sharon, concerned this would cost him too dearly in support within the Likud, refused to give in. The crisis having been set in place, Ben-Eliezer led the Labor Party out of the coalition, leaving it with only 55 remaining members, less than the Knesset majority it would need to survive.

Following Ben-Eliezer's departure, Sharon made attempts to forge a new coalition consisting solely of right-wing parties in the Knesset. After this met little success in the face of high demands on the part of potential coalition partners, Sharon went to President Moshe Katsav on November 5, 2002, with a request that the Knesset be dissolved and new elections be called within 90 days. The 15th Knesset had come to an end.

Elections…Again

Once again, after another government had been dissolved, Israel began to prepare for elections. Sharon, having beaten back a challenge by a revitalized Netanyahu, leaned on his grandfatherly guardian image in his campaign spin, while battling off accusations of corruption.

His main challenger was not Ben-Eliezer, but a fourth retired general in this story, Amram Mitzna, who wrested the top Labor Party position from Ben-Eliezer in the party's primaries. Ben-Eliezer's machinations in bringing down the Sharon government were intended to give him the opportunity to run for prime minister at the head of a major ticket, but he ended up demoted to number-two in his own party. Even the best-laid plans in politics can go awry.

As the 15th Knesset adjourned and Israelis prepared to go to the polls for the third time in three and a half years, a growing sense of frustration with politics could be discerned in the Israeli public. Instability and paralysis seemed to characterize the Israeli political system more than anything else. Too many governments had come into power in the preceding years full of optimism only to come crashing down long before scheduled elections. The questions that had eclipsed all other political issues for 35 years --centering around what to do about Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and relations with the Palestinians--seemed as irresolvable as ever.

Concerns about corruption in the government intensified in the run-up to the 2003 Israeli elections, leading to the perennial subject of electoral reform being again raised in public discussions. But with no clear consensus emerging about the direction to be taken regarding electoral reform, most Israelis only expected more of the same.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.