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Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 08:24 GMT
Analysis: Sharon government's collapse
Peres and Sharon in the Knesset
Sharon's "moderation" disappeared with Peres' departure
Martin Asser byline picture

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has bowed to pressure to call early elections in February 2003, eight months ahead of schedule.

Whether he liked it or not, the collapse of Mr Sharon's right-left national unity coalition last week marked the beginning of a new election campaign.

Mr Sharon had been determined to stay in power at the head of a narrow rightwing government, but he would have been left at the head of an inherently unstable ruling coalition whose small Knesset majority could easily have been erased if Mr Sharon fell foul of the hardline religious right.

Meanwhile, the departure of the Labor ministers robbed him of the veneer of inclusivity and moderation which he enjoyed with figures such as peace process architect Shimon Peres in his team.

New challenges

Israeli electors could be forgiven for approaching a new period of political instability with a sense of ennui.

Israeli soldier and arrested Palestinian in West Bank town of Hebron
Can elections solve the situation in the West Bank and Gaza?
The political turmoil threatens to complicate moves to deal with the country's worst-ever economic crisis, as well as efforts to end the violence associated with the two-year Palestinian intifada.

And the politicians' squabbles might be played out against the backdrop of a US war with Iraq that could bring even more instability to the region.

But if elections do not necessarily promise any unblocking of Israel's problems, the next few months could see different personalities coming to the fore who may offer new solutions.

Ariel Sharon looks likely to face a challenge from rival Binyamin Netanyahu, whose solution would be even more hardline tactics against the Palestinians.

The main reason for Mr Sharon to hold a quick election might have been to thwart the challenge from Mr Netanyahu.

Labor

Labor is also facing possible leadership changes, with primaries on 19 November pitting current leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer against dovish rivals Haim Ramon and Amran Mitzna.

Ben-Eliezer and Sharon in the Knesset
Ben-Eliezer's pulled out with an eye on the Labor primaries
Either of these - if elected - could offer a genuine alternative to the present cycles of bloodshed between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Ben-Eliezer may have chosen to distance himself from Mr Sharon now over the issue of funding for Jewish settlements - an issue at the heart of Labor-Likud differences - with an eye to getting the support of the left in his own party during the primaries.

A change of leadership, or a new mandate for Mr Ben-Eliezer, may or may not significantly improve Labor chances of wresting power from the right.

But many in the Labor Party will be glad that one of the least distinguished periods in its history - half-in, half-out of one of Israel's most hardline governments - has come to an end.

At least the party will now be able to devote itself to the business of opposition - whose absence in recent months has rendered Israel's politics, in the words of one commentator recently, "populist, parochial and one-dimensional".


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28 Oct 02 | Middle East
22 May 02 | Middle East
30 Oct 02 | Middle East
04 Dec 01 | profiles
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