Falling Apart

As in a Greek drama, the main protagonists of this week's political crisis remained behind the scenes: Benjamin Netanyahu refused to say a word; Amram Mitzna was mute; and Haim Ramon sat there silently at the Labor Party faction meeting.

1. Sharon

As in a Greek drama, the main protagonists of this week's political crisis remained behind the scenes: Benjamin Netanyahu refused to say a word; Amram Mitzna was mute; and Haim Ramon sat there silently at the Labor Party faction meeting two nights ago in the Knesset as the final decision on leaving the government was being made, unable to wipe a sly grin off his face as he watched others do his work for him.

The characters at center stage, Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, pinned the explanation for their behavior, which led to the collapse of the government, on a dispute over one word, but the phoniness of this was blatantly apparent. The declared cause of the disagreement - the priorities in the state budget, or more accurately, the extent of government assistance for the settlements - was not sufficient to explain the breakdown of the negotiations. The real factors were the presence of Netanyahu breathing down Sharon's neck, and Mitzna and Ramon doing the same to Ben-Eliezer.

Everyone knew this, but they still went through the motions dictated by political tradition, which requires exhausting deliberations aimed at finding a way out of the impasse, though these discussions have to hinge on the putative source of the dispute without touching on the real reasons.

Yaakov Ne'eman and Ram Caspi, the eminent attorneys who were pressed into service, could not bridge the gaps because they could not touch on the areas where the roots of the crisis lay: They have no influence on the internal competition for the leadership of Likud and Labor.

Of course, this is the wisdom of hindsight. When the crisis was at its height, it did appear that a solution could be near. At the cabinet meeting two mornings ago, Ben-Eliezer looked pale and haggard. He and Sharon were both handed notes informing them about the progress of the negotiation efforts. The defense minister seemed to be the one who was ready to blink first; Sharon appeared more resolute. And so it continued throughout the day: Ben-Eliezer appeared to be showing a willingness to compromise; Sharon conveyed the impression that he was preparing to trumpet his success.

That evening, at 5:50 P.M. (Yaakov Ne'eman noted the exact time), Ben-Eliezer submitted his letter of resignation. He couldn't give in to Sharon's stubbornness. For his part, the prime minister could not accept Ben-Eliezer's demands, which would have entailed a lessening of the settlements' status. Officials from each side hurried to give the media their competing versions of the reasons for the crisis: Ben-Eliezer's irresponsibility given the state of the economy and the security situation (Sharon's version); the prime minister's indifference to the plight of the weaker sectors (Ben-Eliezer's version). The other line being touted in the media by the prime minister's camp was praise for Shimon Peres's efforts to bridge the differences between Sharon and Ben-Eliezer. The idea here was apparently "divide and rule."

In the end, both Sharon and Ben-Eliezer came off badly. The Labor Party chairman was unpersuasive in making his case, proceeded clumsily through the whole process and did not evince much capability for levelheaded leadership. His frequent zigzags exposed his insecurity and he clearly was not sophisticated enough to be able to hide his true motives behind a facade of having national interests at heart. He seemed desperate and looked ready to take his party down with him.

Sharon proved once again that he does not know how to be magnanimous in victory. Just as he couldn't refrain from hemming in Arafat in the Muqata, he did not hesitate to humiliate Ben-Eliezer as soon as he smelled his weakness. Though the prime minister tried hard to project a positive mood and to demonstrate how patient he could be, he found the pretense difficult to maintain: His fury erupted during his speech to the Knesset. Sharon's arrogance pushed Ben-Eliezer into a corner, and so, with his own hands, he hastened the end of his government.

2. Silvan Shalom

A week ago, when Finance Minister Silvan Shalom urged the British company Fitch not to lower Israel's credit rating, he was asked how far he would go in acceding to the demands of the Histadrut. That gives you an idea of how well versed they are abroad about the details of Israel's economic situation. The negotiations between Sharon and Ben-Eliezer revolved around the troubles in the economy and the potential for further deterioration.

The business people who spoke to both men emphasized to them that their every statement has an immediate impact on the stock market. The business leaders were arguing for the sake of the country's best interests, but some in the Labor Party made cynical comments about these financial titans getting involved in fateful political decisions and questioned the innocence of their motives. Citing international imperatives Sharon set himself the goal of getting the budget passed on the first reading this week. He wanted to convey the impression of having the situation under control. As it turned out, his adherence to this objective, noble as it may have been, had a boomerang effect: It led to a serious undermining of political stability and placed in doubt his ability to see the budget all the way through the legislation process.

Even though the debate over the budget was just an excuse for a dispute between Likud and Labor, the outcome it produced still has symbolic value: The status and future of the settlements is a worthy issue over which to topple a government and around which to sharpen the conceptual distinctions between right and left.

For the past year and a half, the difference in philosophy between the two parties was erased by the decision of the Labor Party leaders to join the Sharon government and by their readiness to acquiesce in the prime minister's approach to dealing with the Palestinians. Israel will not be able to evade the existential dangers caused by the occupation and the continuing conflict with the Palestinians without making a decision on the future of the settlements. Such a decision will naturally tear the nation apart, but discussion of this issue has to begin. The Labor Party's role is to stand at the head of the camp that detests the occupation and seeks to fulfill the Zionist vision within the Green Line, because the alternatives are apartheid, transfer or a loss of the state's Jewish identity. Hence, the debate over the budget for the settlements could open the way to a crucial process of clarification regarding their future.

3. Ben-Eliezer

Two days ago, when Labor's departure from the government appeared imminent, one senior official said he was disturbed by the thought that no ministers from this party would be sitting at the cabinet table should the government have to decide on a response to an Iraqi use of unconventional weapons against Israel. What he meant was, the Labor ministers served as a restraining force on Sharon and the more hotheaded right-wing ministers. But this analysis is somewhat imprecise: On more than one occasion, Ben-Eliezer was the one who needed restraining when he was so exasperated by terror attacks that he was ready to order the IDF to carry out extreme reprisal actions. Still, the path pursued by the Sharon government, and Labor's input in it, is worth examining.

In recent weeks, having just about resolved to lead Labor out of the coalition, Ben-Eliezer proudly gave his party credit for the construction of the separation fence and the dismantling of some illegal outposts. The latter accomplishment is rather pathetic: Labor did not prevent the expansion of the settlements and, for now, the removal of the outposts appears to be mostly a false illusion. The construction of the fence is indeed the result of pressure from Labor and the contention that the fence is essentially demarcating the permanent border between Israel and the future Palestinian state should not be made light of.

But Labor can hardly lay claim to any other accomplishments: It went along with Sharon's insistence on not launching any diplomatic process whatsoever with the Palestinians as long as terror continues. In doing so, Labor relegated the Palestinian issue solely to the prime minister, who focused on giving a forceful response to terror attacks without combining this with any diplomatic initiatives that could create an incentive to divert the conflict from its bloody course onto the path of dialogue.

At the same time, Labor (and Shimon Peres's international standing in particular) provided a layer of protection for the prime minister on his visits to world capitals.

When Yasser Arafat agreed to incarcerate Minister Rehavam Ze'evi's killers in a Jericho prison and to expel other suspects who were holed up in the Muqata and in the Church of the Nativity from the Palestinian Authority, someone proposed that Sharon allow the Palestinian leader to move freely about the West Bank and Gaza Strip and also allow him to go abroad (at the time, Arafat was eager to take part in the summit of Arab leaders in Beirut), provided that the first stop in his travels was Sharon's Sycamore Farm.

The person who came up with this proposal believed that an invitation from Sharon to have Arafat visit him at his home would be such a stunning gesture that it would open the door to a positive dialogue between the two leaders and possibly lead them to an agreement. The idea may have had its merits, or it may have relied too much on wishful thinking. Either way, the prime minister rejected it. He also wasn't swayed by the argument that he was already holding contacts with Arafat anyway via his son, Omri.

Sharon never saw Arafat as a partner for dialogue. Even when he declared a unilateral cease-fire (and got the terrible attack at the Dophinarium as an answer), Sharon couldn't suppress a sarcastic smile as he enumerated the conditions Arafat would have to meet if he wished to start a dialogue. Later, when the number of terror attacks multiplied and Sharon's assertion that Arafat was behind them grew stronger, he imposed a ban on him (which earned considerable international acclaim) and revealed an obsessive compulsion to persecute the PA leader. Arafat's ostracism from the ranks of legitimate leaders was Sharon's main diplomatic objective; he succeeded in this to a great degree, but did not marry this effort to any political plan that could encourage the development of an alternative Palestinian leadership.

The result was similar to the result that he achieved with his military policy against terror: It appears successful in the short run, but in actuality, it only intensifies the fundamental elements of the conflict and does not advance things toward a solution. Or, as Benjamin Ben-Eliezer put it: "As much as we do to prevent terror attacks, we keep creating new terrorists. I don't see the Palestinians surrendering or agreeing to a state on 42 percent of the territory. If we do not take a political initiative, the inertia will continue."

4. Arafat

The assessment delivered to the cabinet by army intelligence this week appears to justify Sharon's attitude toward Arafat; the report says that the Palestinian leader is interested in a continuation of the terror and, to the extent that he speaks out against it, only does so for reasons of image. The analysis is that Arafat has not backtracked at all from his three demands: an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines, a declaration of East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state and implementation of the right of return.

The army intelligence report also contained another section concerning international developments in the relations between Islam and Western nations. The forecast was unpleasant, if familiar: an increasingly acute confrontation between Islam, and Christianity and Judaism, which may be characterized as a struggle between poorer societies and wealthier ones; the ability of small organizations to cause widespread havoc, including the use of unconventional weapons; a deliberate effort by terror organizations to keep striking at the home front as a way of neutralizing the conventional military strength of developed countries; the potential for the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations that are part of the "axis of evil" (such as Iran and Libya).

The forecast also predicted rising hatred for the United States, and nations considered its friends, because of its spearheading of the war on world terror; and worrisome demographic trends in the Arab world that could intensify its struggle against the effects of globalization.

Sharon's conduct on the diplomatic front reflects a disregard for the import of these intelligence assessments. While the report did not depict Arafat as someone with whom an accord can be reached, it also underscores that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be left in its present state for much longer: The inherent volatility of the situation could bring even greater catastrophe upon Israel.

The Labor Party did not muster the guts to oppose Sharon's policies and offer an alternative. Even its resignation from the government this week seems to derive not from a principled challenge to Sharon but from the personal whims of Ben-Eliezer.