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Not Much of a Mandate

By Michael Freund
11/1/2005, 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may have won approval from the Knesset yesterday for his new coalition government, but he most certainly didn’t receive the mandate he had been hoping for.

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By the slender margin of 58 to 56, with 6 abstentions, the Knesset backed the formation of the new unity government consisting of the Likud, Labor and United Torah Judaism. But there are several good reasons why the outcome of the vote is likely to leave Sharon more than a little concerned:

1) One-third of the Knesset members from Sharon’s own Likud party defied his wish to have Labor join the coalition. 13 Likud members, referred to by the media as “the rebels”, voted against the move, while one other member, Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, chose to abstain. If left untended, the “rebellion” simmering in the Likud could very well lead to a split in the party.

2) Since Sharon cannot count on many of his own fellow Likudniks, he is essentially heading a minority government, one which does not command the loyalty of a majority – i.e. 61 – of parliamentarians. This means that on critical votes, such as the national budget, Sharon may find it difficult to achieve his policy objectives.

3) In yesterday’s tally, Sharon was forced to rely on the six votes of the Yahad party, headed by super-dove Yossi Beilin, to stave off defeat. This reinforces Sharon’s image as one who is pursuing the agenda of the far-left, rather than of his own electorate.

4) While United Torah Judaism (UTJ) in the end voted for the coalition (actually, 4 out of its 5 representatives did, with one – Meir Porush – abstaining), they certainly made clear that they are not overly thrilled with the new political constellation. At the very last moment, they sparked a crisis over the wording of the coalition agreement, thereby signaling both to Sharon and the public that their participation in the government should hardly be taken for granted.

Sharon’s new government, then, is characterized by a level of instability far greater than those of his previous two coalitions. Both Communications Minister Dalia Itzik (Labor) and Health Minister Danny Naveh (Likud) essentially acknowledged as much today, with Itzik even suggesting that elections may be near.

Sharon’s only chance of achieving some stability would be to entice the Shas party to join the government – a scenario that would necessarily require a great deal of political maneuvering that may even be beyond Sharon’s legendary prowess.

But for opponents of the Gaza withdrawal plan, the goal is now clear – pound away at the government at every political opportunity, and focus on the weakest link in the coalition chain – namely, UTJ.

With some skillful planning, and a little bit of mazel, they can succeed in ensuring that the only withdrawal this year will be that of Ariel Sharon from the premiership.