Background / Labor's No-win Choice: War or Leave the Gov't

As its chairman waged an undeclared, as-yet unnamed war, Labor sidestepped a showdown over bolting a government that to many in the center-left party appears more and more to be a battle wagon careening toward an abyss.

As its chairman waged an undeclared, as-yet unnamed war, Labor sidestepped bolting a government that - to many in the center-left party - appears more and more to be a battle wagon careening toward an abyss.

In recent weeks, Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer has been tireless in backroom efforts to convince Labor ministers to stay the course, even as he publicly voiced doubts that the coalition should be left intact.

Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, though widely seen as attached to his cabinet seat as firmly as is Ben-Eliezer, has been much more strident in voicing doubts over the military onslaughts unleashed by Israeli forces in response to recent tidal waves of Palestinian terrorism. After Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared this week that Palestinians must, in effect, be bombed back to the peace table, Peres said: "If I had known that the reality would get this bad, I wouldn't have joined the government in the first place."

Ben-Eliezer, who, along with Sharon, is one of the more consistently underestimated manipulators on the Israeli political horizon, first got Labor lawmakers - many if not most of whom are eager to vote with their feet - to agree to forego a show of hands over bolting the government in a scheduled Thursday meeting. Then, on Wednesday, as he sent air, land, and sea forces into action in a broad operation covering the length of the Gaza Strip, the defense minister won a postponement of the meeting until next Monday.

If recent indications hold, the reality next week may well provide new justifications for the center-left Labor to remain in a coalition with the most militantly far-right politicians that Israeli law allows to compete in elections.

Ben-Eliezer has often vowed to recommend quitting the coalition the moment that rightist ministers effectively quashed Labor-supported peace initiatives. But, as Sharon's backhanded dismissal of the Saudi peace overture underscored in recent weeks, a number of initiatives have come and gone, and Labor has stayed right where it has been for the government's tempest-tossed first year.

Still, according to Ha'aretz political correspondent Yossi Verter, there is a clear majority among Labor Party members who wish to leave the coalition.

Former general-turned-political backbencher Ben-Eliezer, who clearly prizes his ministerial role of unparalleled power, is viewed as reluctant to cede his position. Even a frustrating, blood-soaked military confrontation with the Palestinians coupled with the general elections scheduled for late next year may make jumping the coalition ship unavoidable in the relatively near future.

"After consulting aides and party colleagues, Ben-Eliezer has said he knows the party will eventually have to quit the government, but thinks its departure at this point would be premature," Verter says.

With Labor ministers cautioning that the public would not countenance abandoning the ship of state in the depths of a punishing war, Labor legislators like Knesset whip Effi Oshaya kept up the pressure for breaking up the government. Speaking before the sudden postponement of the Labor meeting for unspecified "technical reasons," Oshaya predicted that the aborted Thursday event would "start the process leading to a withdrawal [from the coalition] in the months ahead."

But cabinet ministers indicated that Labor had no present choice but to retain its bizarre Siamese twinning with its age-old political foe, the Likud. "At this hour, which is so very difficult, our people expect that we remain on the command bridge and not run away from it just because it's so tough," said Transportation Minister Ephraim Sneh.

Himself a former general, Sneh said Labor still held "marked influence on directing military policy. Whoever wants to leave this to [far-right cabinet minister Avigdor] Lieberman, who recommends bombing open markets at 10 A.M. and banks at noon and gas stations at 2 P.M., should say so."

Former Labor minister Uzi Bar-Am warned that if Labor did not bolt soon, it could expect to lose significant strength in the next general elections. He said Labor would get fewer than 20 seats if saddled with the failures of the present government while, if it distanced itself and became an opposition force, it could expect 25 or more.

The leftist opposition, meanwhile, said it expected that the leave-the-government talk from Peres and other Labor leaders would continue to be that and nothing more. "You didn't have to be Shimon Peres, the distinguished statesman, the Nobel Peace laureate, to foresee that we would be now be heading toward Lebanonization," said Meretz lawmaker Zehava Gal-On.

"So Peres will continue to gripe, and he'll continue to sit there and continue to give support to Sharon. In my view, they won't quit, despite all the voices in favor of quitting, because of the two people that have no personal interest in getting out - the defense minister and the foreign minister - both of whom are enjoying their continued sitting in the government. It's just the rest of us that are only suffering."