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Israel: Prime Minister Faces Tough Challenges

Prague, 27 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Israel's Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak faces a tough challenge as he tries to assemble a ruling coalition broad enough to push through his programs but cohesive enough to survive the kind of political wrangling which brought down Benjamin Netanyahu.

Negotiators for Barak's Labor Party began the process this week by meeting with representatives of the two largest parties on the opposite side of the political spectrum. They are the right-wing Likud party, which led the outgoing government, and the ultra-orthodox Shas party.

Analysts say that Barak would like to bring either Likud or Shas into a coalition government because he hopes to form a majority government strong enough to push ahead with the peace process and to address divisive issues -- such as the growing divide between secular and religious Jews -- which dominated the Israeli elections two weeks ago.

Barak's Labor-led One Israel Alliance won 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. Its arch-rival Likud won 19 seats while Shas took 17.

Mark Heller, a specialist on Middle East politics at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, told RFE/RL that Labor's natural allies among Israel's secular and leftist parties cannot alone give Barak the absolute majority in parliament he wants.

"His natural allies would bring him to a total of 56 out of 120 [seats]. To get over 61, which is half plus one, he will either need to bring in other parties who are not considered his natural allies or alternatively rule as a majority government, relying on the tacit support of three [Israeli] Arab parties with a total of 10 members."

Heller says that Barak is determined to try to get a majority in parliament so as not to repeat the mistakes of the previous Labor government which sought earlier this decade to rule without one. That happened when Labor's then-partner Shas withdrew from the ruling coalition in 1993, forcing Labor to rely on the tacit support of Israeli Arab delegates to push ahead with territorial concessions to the Palestinians under the peace process. Labor was criticized for relying on Arab parties and this helped bring about the party's defeat by Netanyahu in 1996.

Analysts say that as Labor now looks to the other side of the political spectrum to form a majority, it has only Likud and Shas as good choices for partners, despite a multitude of smaller right-wing parties

One reason for the limited alternatives is tactical. Heller says that if Barak turns away from one of the big right-wing parties, he would need at least two smaller ones in its place. That would mean sharing the only 18 ministerial portfolios in the Israeli government among more coalition partners, leaving less for the Labor party and diluting its leadership.

But Heller says a more important reason for concentrating on Likud and Shas is Barak's concern for the appearance of legitimacy and strength of any broad-based coalition he forms. Mark Heller says:

"If his concern is with the legitimacy of government decisions on highly controversial issues, then it is almost obligatory that he include a major element from the other side of the spectrum rather than a couple of small fragments."

But bringing either Likud and Shas into a coalition government as a junior partner could seriously complicate Barak's ability to carry out campaign pledges even as it would expand his power base.

Including Likud could slow the Labor government's ability to move ahead with the peace process. Labor leaders have said they will pursue the process more rapidly with the Palestinians and Barak has vowed to withdraw Israeli forces from south Lebanon within a year.

Many analysts say that Likud, as a coalition partner, would continue to seek to slow the peace process but nevertheless work toward a peace settlement. They note that Likud is now freed of pressure from more radical right-wing groups such as the settlers movement which supported it in the last government and whose opposition to implementing the Wye Accord helped topple Netanyahu's government at the start of the year. Mark Heller says:

"What could be called the center-right of the spectrum, which is basically represented by Likud, is part of what many analysts think has been an emerging consensus over the last four or five years in Israeli politics about the broad shape of a peace settlement and therefore it is not inevitable that the constraints that the Likud would impose would be of a crippling sort."

Analysts say the emerging consensus recognizes there will be a Palestinian entity on the West Bank and Gaza Strip and only its size, borders, and degree of independence remain to be defined. Barak has expressed part of this consensus in a 10-point program he has asked any potential coalition partners to accept. The program says that Israel will not withdraw from all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that Jerusalem must remain united under Israeli sovereignty. But it also says that a majority of Israeli settlers on the West Bank will live in settlement blocks, suggesting that isolated settlements may have to choose between moving or eventually falling under Palestinian authority.

Shas, which is considered moderate on the question of peace settlements, would pose Barak with domestic policy challenges. The ultra-orthodox party has built a powerful system of schools and social welfare organizations aimed at Jews of Sephardic (Middle Eastern and North African) origin who see themselves as disadvantaged by Israel's traditional Askenazi (European) elite.

The ultra-orthodox party, which supported Netanyahu in the elections, would be sure to try to force Barak to backtrack on campaign promises he made to secular Israelis to curb the growing strength of ultra-religious pressure groups. Barak promised to reallocate government spending away from religious schools and into general education, and also challenged exemptions for ultra-orthodox students from military and national service.

As Barak now weighs the question of who will be his coalition partners, analysts predict that he will take the full time allotted to him by law -- 45 days -- to make his final choices. That means that no final decisions are likely before July, giving plenty of time to continue a process of defining Israel's next government which, so far, has only just begun.