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Interview: Hirsh Goodman Discusses A Coalition Government Set Up In Israel

Morning Edition: February 26, 2003

Sharon Reaches Right-Leaning Coalition Deal

BOB EDWARDS, host:

Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon today finished forming a coalition government. His Likud Party did not win an outright parliamentary majority in last month's election. Since then, it has won the support of the secularist Shinui Party, the National Religious Party and ultranationalist National Union Party giving it 68 seats in the 120-member Knesset. Hirsh Goodman is senior fellow at Tel Aviv's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies.

Isn't this sort of a strange mixture of parties?

Mr. HIRSH GOODMAN (Jaffe Center For Strategic Studies): It is, on the surface, a strange mixture of bodies, but they have a confluence of interest at the moment. And until they're challenged by peaces process at some point, they have enough common ground for cooperation.

EDWARDS: Well, they have uncommon ground, too. The National Union Party wants to expel Palestinians from the West Bank in Gaza and annex the territories.

Mr. GOODMAN: Yes, but they each have their own agendas, and basically, they want power. The Shinui Party very much wants to change the hegemony of the ultra-Orthodox in terms of not doing military service, in terms of how they get married and buried. And they know that, you know, the Nationalist Party, they can support them and that's--they sort of appear to support the Nationalist Party on what they're demanding which is not transfer the Palestinians, not expulsion of the Palestinians, but basically on the pragmatic agenda of not giving up the West Bank at the moment. So until they are challenged by a peace process, this government actually is strange bed fellows with common interest.

EDWARDS: Ariel Sharon had wanted a broader coalition that included the Labor Party. Why did the Labor Party not join?

Mr. GOODMAN: I'm not convinced he wanted a broader coalition with the Labor Party. Sharon's a very, very clever political manipulator. When he beat Barak at the polls, he beat Barak, but he inherited a class that was only 19 seats out of 120. He wanted this early election because the polls gave him 40 seats and that's exactly what he got, which is one-third of the house. I think that he wanted this right wing government. I don't think he wanted 19 members of Labor in there. I don't think he wants to be pushed on the peace process at this point in time. I think his main priority at this point is the country's economy. And I think Labor didn't want to go in either. Labor needs to re-establish its identity. It doesn't have a pragmatic platform since the collapse of Oslo. And Labor almost lost its identity when it was in Sharon's government for the past years. So I think neither party actually wanted to go into a coalition at this time.

EDWARDS: And Labor got trounced in last month's election.

Mr. GOODMAN: Yeah. It has to reboot itself, re-identify itself. It's even got to define its leadership amidst--there's a very solid fellow that seems to be a bit uncharismatic at one side and not very politically savvy on the other, going to have to fight hard to keep the leadership of the party. But I think that Sharon actually sees a two-phase government in his head. He's main priority now is the economy. It's the worst it's been since 1953. We got negative growth. It's really awful. And all of his coalition partners will support him. He has to slash the budget here by about $5 billion, or actually about $4 billion. And he desperately needs loan guarantees of another $12 billion. So his first priority I think is to stabilize the economy and then when he gets ready, God willing, I hope this is a correct scenario, to move forward on the Bush proposals, vis-a-vis the Palestinians. By that time, he could reorganize a coalition and then Labor would come in.

EDWARDS: But what does this rightist coalition mean for the future of the peace process?

Mr. GOODMAN: There will be no future of the peace process as long as he's got this coalition, that is for sure. Because even within the Likud itself, Sharon's got a real problem in that of the, say, first 16 people who won in the primaries, all of them support Netanyahu on a much harder line policy than his own. So it's not only the right-wing elements of this government that are problematic, but also many within Likud itself. So I think that the peace process can go nowhere under these circumstances, but that's OK. And I don't mean this cynically because the Palestinians are busy trying to redefine themselves politically as well at this point. Are they going to have a prime minister? Does Hamas want to give up on terror? So both parties are defining themselves politically and I think they're both taking pause. And when we get ready to move along the road of the peace process, I think we'll have to reform a coalition either through elections or through a realignment of the parties.

EDWARDS: Thank you very much. Hirsh Goodman in Jerusalem. He's a senior fellow at the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies.

The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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