10 - 16 June 1999
Issue No. 433
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Barak's coalitionBy Graham Usher
"for all the people"
As Israel's 15th Knesset commenced its opening session this week, Israel's prime minister-elect Ehud Barak was having a tough time agreeing guidelines for even a "narrow coalition" of some 66 members. Barak's current strategy appears to be to have a small coalition in place prior to negotiating the possible entry of Likud or Shas or both into the government.
Israeli PM-elect Ehud Barak surrounded by ultra-Orthodox members during the opening session of the Knesset on Monday
The most contentious guidelines were those to do with the new government's settlement policy in the occupied territories and its electoral pledge to draft Yeshiva religious students into the army. The leftist Meretz bloc is demanding a "clear break" on both matters from the policies of the Netanyahu government while the rightist National Religious Party (NRP), the Russian Yisrael B'aliyah and the orthodox United Torah Judaism are broadly insisting on a maintenance of the status quo.
The problem is that the guidelines - as they are presently drafted - are so nebulous as to invite both readings. Thus while One Israel is absolutely clear that "Jerusalem will remain in its entirety the united capital of Israel", on settlements the guidelines become a good deal less definitive.
According to Israel's "leftist" Haaretz newspaper, a One Israel government will neither establish new settlements nor dismantle existing ones. But, according to the "rightist" Jerusalem Post, the government will "meet the development needs of existing settlements" and establish a "ministerial committee" to "examine policy toward the settlements and discuss decisions of previous governments."
For Meretz - taking its cue from the Haaretz version - this means a freeze on all new settlement construction in the occupied territories and the removal of the "preferred development status" granted the settlements under Netanyahu. For the NRP - leaning toward the Jerusalem Post reading - it means that the new government must "honour all commitments" on settlement issues made by the outgoing government. For Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority (PA), neither the "leftist" nor "rightist" version would appear to meet its demand for an "absolute cessation" of all settlement activity as the precondition for progress in the Oslo process.
Barak clearly wants the guidelines to be as vague as possible. In this way, he can garner support for them from diverse sectors and parties of Israeli society the better to fulfill his goal of being a prime minister "for all the people". Yet in his coalition talks so far it is also clear that certain "people" are more "Israeli" than others.
The most visible absentees from One Israel's embrace are the million or so Israeli citizens who happen to be Palestinians as well. Thus while One Israel's negotiators have given inordinate time to coalition talks with Yisrael B'aliyah and the NRP (which either opposed or was neutral toward Barak's candidature in the elections), they have held just two meetings with Israel's three main Arab parties who, between them, mustered around 400,000 votes in support of Barak.
For outgoing leader of the five-member United Arab List, in the Knesset, Abdul-Wahab Darawsha, the only "majority" Barak is truly interested in is a Jewish one. "The time has come for us (the Palestinians in Israel) to be an equal part of the coalition, not just to give support from the outside," he says. "However, to my regret, Barak has not overcome the psychological barrier of seeing Arabs outside the (Israeli) consensus, despite his promise that he would be everyone's prime minister."
As for the leftist Arab parties - Hadash and Azmi Bishara's Al-Balad alliance (which have five Knesset members between them) - they have already resigned themselves to another term in the opposition. "Our voters did not choose Barak as a (simple) replacement for Netanyahu, and never imagined that the day after his election he would crawl to a coalition with Likud and the NRP," Hadash leader, Mohammed Baraka, told Haaretz on 31 May. "If Barak embraces these two parties and compromises with them over the basic guidelines of the government, we will not support a rightist government led by him."
Nor is it only the Palestinians who appear set for exclusion. On 5 June, Meretz leader Yossi Sarid and leader of the centrist Shinui party, Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, agreed to form a "secularist bloc" within the coalition with the sole intent of keeping the orthodox Sephardi Shas movement out of it. This may appear a little rich - not to say undemocratic - given that Meretz and Shinui between them gained 16 seats in the last elections while Shas, alone, garnered 17 and the support of around 420,000 voters. It is also ironic given that Meretz not only wants Likud to join the coalition, but is also in ongoing negotiations with the far right and pro-settler NRP to work out a "compromise formula" on the settlements.
Meretz's grounds for excluding Shas is based on the bizarre logic that because the movement is led by a convicted criminal (Aryeh Deri) it, therefore, follows that the Mitzrahi constituency it represents is somehow "suspect". Legalistic arguments aside, it is difficult not to see Meretz's hostility to Shas as another instance of Ashkenazi hostility to Sephardi culture, an attitude clearly evinced in an interview given by former Meretz leader, Shulamit Aloni, to Haaretz on 4 June. Shas "does not accept the other," she said. "I am a stranger to them because my Hebrew is different. I don't believe in superstitions and I am an Ashkenazi".
Given these auguries, the PA and the Arabs generally should perhaps spend a little less time in forging alliances with the Zionist left and a little more time building a common platform with Israel's non-Zionist Arab lists, the only political parties in Israel that now openly call for a shared sovereignty in Jerusalem and for Israel's full withdrawal to the 1967 borders. But they should also study a little deeper "the peculiar phenomena of Shas", if not to forge an alliance, then at least to understand the enormous sense of Mitzrahi grievance from which it was born.