As he labours to court potential coalition partners in a desperate bid to buttress his government before it caves in, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon finds himself cornered between the devil and the deep blue sea, writes Jonathan Cook
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon opened a round of hurried negotiations this week with the two main Israeli opposition parties, Labour and the ultra-Orthodox Shas, in the hope of finding a third leg to prop up his collapsing government.
Labour officials said they believed the talks could be completed before the Knesset leaves for its summer recess in two weeks. If an agreement cannot be reached, elections will loom large.
The negotiations to create a unity government gained an unexpected urgency last week following the dismissal from the cabinet and his party of Yosef Paritzky over revelations that he had plotted to frame a senior rival figure in his centrist secular Shinui Party before the last elections, in January 2003.
Paritzky's sacking came on the heels last month of a loss of support from two small, extreme right-wing parties in the coalition which are deeply opposed to a "unilateral disengagement" from the Gaza Strip, Sharon's proposed next stage for dealing with the Palestinians.
The National Union Party quit the government after the prime minister dismissed its two ministers in order to push the disengagement plan through a largely unconvinced cabinet. Shortly afterwards Sharon suffered a further setback when two members of the pro-settler National Religious Party deserted the government. He now relies on the backing of a minority of the 120-seat Knesset.
But while the obituary writers in Israel have been sharpening their pencils for some time for the moment of the Sharon government's demise, the prime minister appears to be planning at the very least a lingering death.
Although the addition of either Shas or Labour to his government would instantly correct the maths in his favour, neither option is as simple as it looks.
Both parties have been hungry for power since the break-up of the last national unity government in the winter of 2002. In particular the ageing Labour leader Shimon Peres has been longingly eyeing the seat next to Sharon, the foreign minister's, since he lost the post 18 months ago.
But there are plenty of obstacles in the way.
The first comes from Sharon's own party, which knows that the prime minister wants a unity government with Labour only as a cover for forging ahead with the only plan he has on offer, the evacuation of settlers from Gaza.
The most influential Likud ministers -- including Treasury Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom -- are either openly or privately hostile to the plan, as are a majority of the party's central committee.
Sharon will need to offer an important portfolio, almost certainly the foreign ministry, to snare Peres, as he implicitly conceded in a cabinet meeting on Sunday: "We stand now at the beginning of negotiations, and it is possible that there will be no choice but to exchange portfolios between ministers."
A senior Likud central committee member, Uzi Cohen, predicted "a political World War Three" if Shalom lost his post.
At the weekend officials close to Sharon were quoted in the Haaretz newspaper as admitting that the prime minister had yet to win a majority among his own faction for a unity government.
But even if Sharon can hold together his party, the talks will be far from plain sailing. Peres is leading a party bitterly divided about joining another Sharon unity government after its fingers were badly burnt at the last election. Many senior figures believe that Labour lost votes because of its slavish support for the first Sharon cabinet.
Peres is trying to reassure the doubters in his party by talking tough from the outset, demanding as a condition for talks that Sharon agree to major changes to the free market programme and budget cuts being pursued by Netanyahu, which are hitting the poorest sections of the electorate hardest, and a quicker timetable for the evacuation of Gaza.
Although Sharon has said there will be no "taboos" in the discussions, he has refused to accept any preconditions. He cannot afford to upset Netanyahu, who is his main challenger for the leadership among the Likud rank and file.
There is the added complication that the other main partner in his current coalition, the secular Shinui Party, is refusing to countenance a marriage with the ultra- Orthodox Shas Party. Whether it would carry out its threats to leave the government were Shas admitted is less clear: Shinui is a recent electoral phenomenon and its leader, Tommy Lapid, may fear that the
party could quickly lose its visibility outside the government.
It is also unclear how serious Sharon is about recruiting Shas. He may be encouraging its overtures simply to add to the pressure on Labour in the negotiations.
More problematic for Sharon is that a Likud-Labour- Shinui pact would break one of the cardinal rules of Israeli coalition-building: making sure that most of the rainbow colours of the Jewish polity are included.
Such a coalition cabinet would be an "all Ashkenazi" affair: it would represent only privileged European Jews and exclude most of the Oriental Jews, the Mizrahim, and the ultra-Orthodox. Shas represents both the latter sectors.
Shas' spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, has come out against Sharon's disengagement plan but the party's political leaders may be enticed with the Interior Ministry, which would return to their power issues of personal status law, and the offer of increased spending on their religious institutions.
Shas, which lost a substantial share of its vote at the last election after it quit the previous unity government, risks terminal electoral irrelevance if it stays out of power for too long and fails to reap financial rewards for its ultra-Orthodox constituency.
But Netanyahu's economic austerity programme has only been made possible because of the absence of the ultra-Orthodox parties from the government. Their return would spell a protracted fight over spending.
In the meantime, the talks and the weekly votes of no- confidence in Sharon's government will continue. "The country is stuck, the government is confused," warned Labour negotiator Dalia Itzik. None of the current solutions on offer seems likely to end the mess in the long term.