Israel's Broad Coalition Gov't. May Pull In Two Directions on Security

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

( - Ariel Sharon, Israel's fifth prime minister in six years, announced his new "national unity" government Wednesday, a disparate coalition ranging from center-left to far-right parties whose members strongly disagree over how best to end the continuing cycle of violence and terrorism.

In a special session likely to go late into the night, Sharon began by introducing to lawmakers his new 26-member cabinet - the largest in Israel's history, its size the result of the need to offer portfolios to seven coalition parties, comprising 73 members of the 120-seat legislature.

Sharon was then to give a state of the nation address, followed by a speech by outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Representatives of each of the myriad of parties will take the podium one by one to comment on the makeup of the government and Sharon's policies.

Only then will the Knesset vote on the new government, before Sharon and ministers are sworn in.

The need for a unified stance in tackling the security situation prompted Sharon to invite Barak's Labor Party to become Likud's major partner in the coalition. The third key member is the influential ultra-Orthodox party, Shas.

The remaining four are former Soviet prisoner of conscience Natan Sharansky's Yisrael b'Aliya, the hawkish National Union, a small center-left workers' party, and a one-person faction led by Dalia Rabin-Pelosoff, the daughter of the assassinated Prime Minister, Yitzhak Rabin - who has been given the deputy defense portfolio.

The new government is being sworn in at a critical time for Israel. The U.S. and United Nations have warned that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse because of sanctions imposed by Israel in response to the PA's involvement in the uprising launched last September.

Meanwhile the militant Islamic organization Hamas has warned that it has ten suicide bombing volunteers ready to carry out terror attacks immediately Sharon takes office. Hamas has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing Sunday which killed three Israelis.

Sharon was elected Feb. 6 promising to restore Israelis' security, but his "national unity" cabinet will pull in two directions over how to handle the crisis.

Incoming Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a Nobel peace prize laureate, has already indicated he will push for Israel to make gestures to the PA, such as a lifting of security blockades imposed on the self-rule areas, in order to bring about a resumption of talks.

On the right, some Likud and National Union ministers will be pushing for a far firmer approach to quell the uprising.

Much may depend on whether Sharon - a former army general with a reputation as a "hardliner" - places the Defense ministry or the Internal Security ministry at the forefront of the campaign against Palestinian terrorism.

Defense is headed by a Laborite, Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, with the left-of-center Rabin-Pelosoff as his deputy. Internal Security, by contrast, has two Likud hawks at the helm - Uzi Landau as minister and Gideon Ezra, a former head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence agency, as his deputy.

Sharon expressed optimism earlier that the government would handle the situation, telling Israel Radio: "I am sure that together with my colleagues in the government we will know how to make the best response to the present dangers facing Israel."

The differing views on how to grapple with the crisis reflects the split in the nation as a whole. According to the Tel Aviv University's latest "peace index" survey, 41 per cent of Jewish Israelis feel that letting the armed forces "win" - untying their hands - in their campaign against Palestinian violence would resolve the problem. Fifty per cent do not consider it an effective solution.

Hours before Wednesday's Knesset session began, Israeli forces dug a trench in a main road cutting off the PA-ruled city of Ramallah and a university which has become a center of militancy. Earlier troops dug an eight-foot deep anti-tank trench around the PA-controlled town of Jericho, aimed at preventing any vehicle from leaving the area without going through security checkpoints.

Undercover units overnight raided a West Bank village and arrested two leading local militants in PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah/Tanzim organization.

Activists in the organization have spearheaded violent protests during the five-month-long Palestinians uprising.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow