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A Frog's-eye view

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Tuesday, November 05, 2002

You’ve got to hand it to the BBC. Even reasonably balanced reporters have a very skewed and short-sighted view of the Israeli political map and Israeli political realities.

In a moderate sounding article, that avoids the usual sloganizing, Martin Asser gives us the following classics:

Mr Sharon had been determined to stay in power at the head of a narrow rightwing government, but he would have been left at the head of an inherently unstable ruling coalition whose small Knesset majority could easily have been erased if Mr Sharon fell foul of the hardline religious right

Why would Sharon’s right-wing government be “inherently unstable”? All coalitions are inherently unstable, as the break-up of the unity government proved. Nobody really believes that the settlements were the real issue – it was clearly the Labour primaries that led to the fall of the Sharon’s government.

The term “religious right” is equally misleading. Avigdor Lieberman is not religious but is certainly “right”. Memad is religious and is “left”. Is the “hardline religious right” harder than Lieberman?

Meanwhile, the departure of the Labor ministers robbed him of the veneer of inclusivity and moderation which he enjoyed with figures such as peace process architect Shimon Peres in his team.

The term “veneer” implies that Peres’ involvement in the Sharon government was only a façade. In fact, as respected Israeli commentator Zeev Schiff has shown, Peres and Ben Eliezer were active partners in the decision making process, and sometimes their opinions were adopted against Sharon’s initial inclination.
A change of leadership, or a new mandate for Mr Ben-Eliezer, may or may not significantly improve Labor chances of wresting power from the right.
But many in the Labor Party will be glad that one of the least distinguished periods in its history - half-in, half-out of one of Israel's most hardline governments - has come to an end.

The opinion polls are showing that the chances Ben Eliezer wresting power from the right are miniscule – and a far-left candidate such as Mitznah or Ramon, while offering a viable alternative to the left-wing voter who would have voted for Labour anyway, is likely to lose the Labour party its middle-ground support.

Nor can it be said that coalition with Sharon is “one of the least distinguished periods” in the Labour party’s history. The climate of political corruption that led to Begin’s rise to power in 1977 was also a disasterous period Labour; Labour joined a coalition with the far-right leader Shamir, who was a less accomplished politician than Sharon; and the short-lived Barak government brought the Labour party to an unprecedented level of unpopularity.

Asser concludes:

At least the party will now be able to devote itself to the business of opposition - whose absence in recent months has rendered Israel's politics, in the words of one commentator recently, "populist, parochial and one-dimensional".

For “populist” read “popular” – this government enjoyed a very high level of public support; for “parochial” read “protective”, in that the government pursued the role for which it had been elected, namely to protect its citizens from unprecedented levels of terrorist violence; for “one-dimensional” read “consensus-based”, in that the government pursued the policies of majority and not the marginal fringes.

For all these reasons, the Labour party needed to be in the coalition. They didn’t join out of strength; they joined because following the shameful fall of Barak’s unethical government (don’t forget what happened after his resignation) the Labour party was in total disarray. It was entirely to Sharon’s credit that he realized that the public interest demanded a stable centrist government. Had he called general elections immediately after his election, the right wing parties would have swept the board and Labour was have been destroyed. Sharon rebuilt the Labour party by bringing them into the government.

It’s a hard fact to swallow for Western journalists who still idealize the Israeli left. But the fact it that the Israeli Labour party, with its messianic solution of the Oslo Process, failed to bring about Israel’s salvation no less than Gush Emmunim.

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