Wednesday, May 22, 2002
Ha'aretz has a couple of articles (here's another, and another and another; here's JPost's take) analyzing what Sharon is up to with the firing of the Shas ministers. Some things I didn't know; for one, the Shas ministers knew in advance they'd be fired if they voted no. That suggests Shas either wants new elections or expects, ultimately, to be invited back into the government. The former seems to me highly unlikely, because Shas will lose at least a third of their seats in the next round. Why? (1) The change in the election law means that in the next election Israelis will only cast one ballot, not a separate one for Knesset and Prime Minister. So marginal Shas votes from the last election have a strong incentive to vote Likud this time around. (2) The current Shas representation is inflated by the coincidence of the Deri conviction and the last election. Shas gained 7 seats in the last election. They could easily lose them all this time without an issue like Deri's conviction to rally around. (3) Sharon will win the next election, and two can play the game of revenge. After the next election, Likud will be the only party even plausibly able to form a government. Sharon will have the choice of several coalitions: a coalition with Labor and without Shas, with Shas but without Labor, with Labor and Shas but without the far-right, or a combination of all three. Now, he really needs all three if he is to be able to control his own government. Even after an election, Sharon will likely seek to include all three elements in his coalition, because of the various benefits they provide, domestic and foreign. But he'll be less dependent on having everyone on-board to keep his government together than he is now.
I think Shas is playing a game of chicken, expecting to be invited back in. And I suspect they will lose the game. Sharon can bring the right-wing parties (Ihud-Leumi and Moledet) in and gain 7 seats; he can bring in Shinui and gain 6, though it's questionable whether the NRP would sit with Shinui. In any event, he has options. Could they take him to 2003? I don't know. The far right is probably eager to have new elections; the NRP and Ihud Leumi expect to gain significantly at the polls. They can afford to exact a high price for membership in the government. Shinui, meanwhile, is never eager to actually join a government; that would mean sacrificing their precious purity they maintain by being in opposition. So they probably don't care if there are new elections or no. Labor is probably dreading the prospect; they expect to be eviscerated. So Sharon is probably safe from Labor but somewhat vulnerable to blackmail by the far right without Shas in his coalition. But the far right also knows that they brought down Netanyahu and wound up with Barak. They may be loathe to go into new elections with the public thinking that they brought down the currently very popular Sharon.
As for Netanyahu, I don't think he's in any rush to challenge Sharon, not after the fiasco of his orchestration of the Likud vote against a Palestinian state. The public blames him for playing a silly game that might have negative diplomatic consequences, and praises Sharon for being a leader of the nation. Bibi will continue to cultivate his own followers, and wait for an opening. If he is too clearly trying to make that opening, he'll be slapped down. It's possible that if Sharon calls new elections, Bibi might not even challenge him in a primary this time; after all, better not to fight than to fight and lose, and if elections were held today, Bibi would lose. But he's young. He can wait.
I don't take Shinui's perspective that Shas is illegitimate. But I think it's very important that they have a big loss to make them reconsider how they relate to Israel's democracy. They need to lose big in political infighting and big at the polls. If Sharon keeps them out of the coalition, and doesn't call new elections himself, Shas will have lost in the former. The longer the government lasts, the more clearly they will have lost. And, having lost in the inside game, they'll be even more likely to lose at the outside game in new elections, whether in 2003 or before.
As an aside, Roni Milo has returned to Likud. His party - Center - is now spiritually part of the Likud coalition, and should vanish altogether in the next Knesset. In the broadest sense - if you include the MKs from Gesher, Center and Yisrael B'Aliyah who are natural parts of their coalition, and could well run with them on a single slate in the next election - Likud encompasses 31 MKs in the current Knesset. The far right - NRP, Ihud Leumi/Yisrael Beiteinu, and Herut - have 13 MKs. Labor has 24 MKs, Shinui has 6 and Shas and UTJ together have 22 MKs. Assuming a Likud-centered slate gets 40 MKs in the next election, and the far right gets between 15 and 18, Sharon will be very close to a governing coalition before he turns to Labor, Shinui or the Haredi parties. That's what Sharon and Likud need to be focused on, not on how to appease Shas in the short term. Shas wants to be in the government, so long as the government appears likely to survive. If Sharon gives them what they want, his government is more likely to survive short-term, but he will reduce his vote total in the next election. If Sharon sticks to his guns, he may face elections sooner, but he'll have something to run on that will appeal to Shinui and Labor voters that he needs to win for Likud to dominate the next government.