Left, Right or Centrist - Israeli Coalition Pendulum Still Swinging

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNS) - It's been described as a long, drawn-out rollercoaster ride, and with just days remaining until he has to present his government, Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak looks once again to be heading for a narrow, center-left coalition.

Barak is currently heading for a coalition of eight parties comprising 66 members in the 120-seat parliament, unless he can reach agreements with the second and third largest political forces - the nationalist Likud, and the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Indications late last week that Likud may be brought into a broad coalition have given way, due largely to unhappiness among left-leaning Labor Party lawmakers about how Likud participation would affect future government policy.

Labor is the largest grouping within Barak's One Israel faction, and includes among its senior members such "doves" as Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, two of the driving forces behind the Oslo Accords.

The Likud, on the other hand, has as its interim head Ariel Sharon, considered a "hawk," and the party still exhibits the "hard-line" label it won under outgoing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Barak meets Sharon later Monday for a final, "decisive" meeting, after which an announcement is expected.

Labor legislators are not alone in opposing Likud's participation. Senior Likud figures called Monday for Sharon to keep the party out of government, to lead a vigorous opposition instead.

Speaking on Israeli radio, outgoing Tourism Minister Moshe Katzav said Likud and Labor appeared to differ on a number of key issues, on which Barak had yet to make clear his stance.

"For example, we do not want to come down from the Golan Heights [as part of a peace deal with Syria]. We want to know what the policy of the newly elected government will be.

"Another question is: What will the government's reaction be if two months or half a year from now, [Palestinian Authority Chairman]Yasser Arafat does not carry out his commitments?"

As a "realist," said Katzav, he did not think it was the right time to join a Barak coalition.

Outgoing Finance Minister Meir Sheetrit concurred, telling the radio: "I think it would be best for Likud to say, thanks, but no thanks. We will be in the opposition and fight in the opposition."

There remains a chance that Shas may be co-opted. That option would be preferable to some Labor parliamentarians, because while Shas has stringent demands relating to religious and social policy - as well as cabinet posts - it is relatively liberal on questions of peacemaking.

After his May 17 election victory, officials close to Barak were confident he could pull together a coalition of 90 of more members, which would bolster his efforts to make peace with the Palestinians and Syrians.

Netanyahu's government ultimately collapsed early because he lacked a workable majority to support his policies.

But political analysts generally agree Barak took too long to snap up then-willing partners. As weeks dragged by and the deadline approached, potential members became more insistent on securing policy concessions or cabinet posts in return for signing up.

In the unlikely event that Barak fails to make next Thursday's deadline, new elections for prime minister - although not for the legislature - will be called.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow