A Winter Session of Discontent With the Opposition

When the Knesset summer session opens on May 16, it is doubtful anyone will remember the failure Sharon endured last week, when he was forced to table (for now, anyway) the cabinet decision to add three new ministers to its roster, in addition to the seven deputy ministers who were added.

One does not have to be a prophet to predict that all summer session deliberations will take place under the shadow of the implementation of the disengagement plan (slated to begin on July 20). The expected evacuation of 8,000 settlers from Gush Katif and the northern West Bank will undoubtedly raise tension and vociferous clashes to unprecedented levels. This despite the fact that the real arena of struggle will be in the streets of major cities and the settlements scheduled for evacuation.

The winter session, which closed last week, was characterized by Sharon's impressive ability to achieve all of the goals he set for himself: approval of the budget, approval of the disengagement plan, rejection of an initiative to launch a disengagement referendum and the final approval of the Evacuation Compensation Law. At the beginning of the session, in October, last year, there was almost no one who believed the Sharon government had a chance of success.

All ministers and MKs across the political spectrum were convinced the government had reached the end of the road, and that elections for the 17th Knesset would take place some time in 2005. Only MK Zahava Gal-On (Yahad) said, "It is still too early to eulogize the government. Sharon is a veteran political fox, and I do not believe he will work toward early elections. I also do not see anyone among the members of the Likud Party who has an interest in early elections."

Lapid in the crosshairs

Despite threats by the 13 Likud "rebels" to thwart the disengagement plan, despite the abandonment of the coalition by Shinui and the National Religious Party (NRP), and the fact that Sharon was left with a minority of 40 MKs for quite a while, he did not succumb. Assisted by his staff of creative advisers and aides, his son MK Omri Sharon and Cabinet Secretary Yisrael Maimon, Sharon successfully rebuilt the ruins and added United Torah Judaism and Labor to the coalition.

Despite the fact that it included 65 MKs during the winter session, the opposition failed to function. Since Labor joined the government in January, the opposition became divided and segmented to an extent that rendered it nearly incapable of uniting to support any no-confidence motion. (An isolated exception was witnessed when the opposition successfully blocked the approval of a motion to add three new ministers to the government.)

The opposition owes much of its failure to the controversial personality of opposition leader Yosef Lapid (Shinui). He is criticized not only by Shas - "He is the opposition non-leader to us," commented Shas MK Eli Yishai - but also by Yahad - "Lapid, in no way, represents me," Gal-On said, many weeks before Lapid attacked her personally, using veiled language referring to her employment in the oldest profession known to man, and then apologizing - and the NRP - "He has not bothered to contact me to coordinate a platform since he entered the position," said MK Zevulun Orlev. Efforts by opposition members to dismiss Lapid are expected to take place during the recess.

Such weakness by an opposition is critical in a democratic state, because it means the opposition lacks any real ability to counteract legislative initiatives by the government, and any means to hinder government attempts to implement its political, financial and social policies. Perhaps most importantly, a weak opposition is unable to fulfill its watchdog role and to provide checks and balances to the government.

The Shinui Party did publish its list of ministers who are part of the "shadow government" soon after it left the coalition, but this had no impact beyond that of a media gimmick. The NIS 700 million budget allocation that Shinui wrangled in exchange for support of the budget, despite former promises to the contrary, did little to encourage public faith in the party.

Parties fall apart

The winter session was also marked by fragmentation within parties. MKs Effi Eitam and Yitzhak Levi left the NRP to establish the Religious Zionist Party in a protest over NRP leader Zevulun Orlev's refusal to take a more hawkish stand; Shinui expelled MK Yosef Paritzky from its ranks at the end of a drawn-out battle; United Torah Judaism was divided into two parties - Agudat Yisrael (three MKs) and Degel Hatorah (two MKs), the National Union shed Michael Nudelman, who decided to support the government in opposition of the party platform, and MK David Tal left One Nation because he opposed the party joining Labor.

It is still too early to predict whether divisions in the Likud ranks will cause a split in the party, and the creation of an independent party of Likud rebels led by Uzi Landau. According to law, a third of a party's members is required to split the party. In other words, the 13 "rebels" need only one more MK, such as Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who also staunchly opposes the government's policy, in order to establish a new party. But MK Sa'ar predicts, "If there has been no split thus far, it is not going to happen. No one is anxious to leave the Likud, because the Likud has become a `brand label.' Anyone who leaves the Likud disappears from the political arena [like Geula Cohen, Yitzhak Mordechai, Dan Meridor, Roni Milo, etc.]."

Despite efforts initiated by Rivlin to create an ethical code for MKs, which would improve their behavior in the realm of public expression, in the course of the winter session, the hurling of slurs and insults contributed to the Knesset's deteriorating public image. Words like "brothel," "fascist," "Nazi" and "idiot" have become a matter of course. MKs Roni Bar-On (Likud) and Reshef Chayne (Shinui) damaged the Knesset's image when they called each other "worm" and "amoeba" in a live television broadcast of the Knesset in session, but MK Yehiel Hazan (Likud) took the cake when he called Arabs "worms, crawling under ground, which have been harming the Jewish people for a hundred years."

Any law it saw fit

In the now-closed winter session, the Knesset lifted the immunity of MK Yair Peretz (Shas), who has been accused of wrongfully attaining an academic degree, and renewed deliberation, based on a request by the attorney general, on lifting the immunity of MK Michael Gorlovsky (Likud) in the "double-voting" affair.

There is no question that the government had the upper hand in the battle between the executive branch (the cabinet) and the legislative branch (the Knesset). Sharon and the senior ministers were shamelessly dismissive of the Knesset. Sharon only infrequently appeared on the Knesset floor to report on his plans. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz rarely spoke in the Knesset. The government took full advantage of fragmentation in the opposition to pass any law it saw fit - take the striking example of the "Job Law" that MKs Gideon Sa'ar and Gilad Erden are promoting, despite the stinging public criticism that it has provoked.