Barak Finally Pieces Together a Broad Coalition

Ehud Barak
Ehud Barak

Following his impressive victory, it looked as though Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak could form any government he chose. But when he made clear at the start of the process his preference for a broad coalition government, it was an invitation for competing Knesset factions to raise the asking price for their participation. Barak finally pieced together a coalition of at least 75 Knesset seats, but only after a host of delays and edge-of-your-seat dramas.

After the divisive elections, Barak surprised the partisan throng gathered at Tel Aviv's Kikar Rabin with a strong call for unity: "I respect the hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who chose not to vote for me," said Barak. "But from now on, we are all together, and we are all one nation. I intend to be the Prime Minister of everyone."

Barak appeared committed to repairing the religious/secular rift so magnified by the recent balloting. His successful campaign strategy paraded his status as Israel's most decorated soldier to deflect charges he would be too "dovish" in final-status talks with the Palestinians. Rather, he wanted the decision for voters reduced to a choice of who could better unite the nation and heal the growing societal divisions.

In the end, a clear majority of the Israeli electorate, including half the Jewish voters, opted to put their future in the hands of a military hero with solid security credentials, but with relatively little experience in politics.

A Big Tent: With 45 days to form a coalition, Barak immediately declared his intent to form as broad a government as possible - for two basic reasons. First, even though he has little room to criticize his mentor Yitzhak Rabin, he apparently accepts the premise the Rabin/Peres government made contentious concessions in the Oslo process with only a narrow coalition, ignoring half the country. Labor MK Shlomo Ben-Ami confirmed Barak's thinking: "We learned our lesson from the Rabin government." With a final settlement on the near horizon, he genuinely wants as wide support as practical.

Secondly, he is concerned that leaving out the right and ultra-Orthodox parties will further alienate religious and Sephardic elements beyond tolerable limits. The tensions between secular and religious Jews have grown steadily for years, driven by such issues as draft exemptions for yeshiva students and the Orthodox grip on marriage and conversion law. Shinui's combative, anti-haredi campaign, the judiciary's prosecution of Aryeh Deri, and Shas control over immigration all combined this past election to drive the opposing camps dangerously apart.

Barak first courted parties that backed -- or at least did not oppose -- him in the elections. With the support of 10 Arab MK's from outside the coalition, Barak also wanted at least one of the two other large parties, Likud and Shas, to fill his big tent.

Barak also vowed to include only those parties who accepted his core guidelines for future peace talks, and progress was sluggish. Two main problem areas arose: (1) Disagreements over peace and security issues, especially the future of the settlements; and (2) religious/secular bickering over draft exemptions and a constitution.

The Knesset results leave Barak confronting about 70 MK's who oppose a construction freeze in the settlements and insist they continue to receive "national priority" status. Language on the coalition's settlement policy underwent numerous revisions in an attempt to reconcile the views of doves in Meretz and One Israel with potential partners on the right. The settler community won an unexpectedly strong ally in Natan Sharansky of Yisrael B'Aliyah.

Barak himself suggested "[I am] a man of the center who is very connected with the Land of Israel… [However,] there are places in Judea and Samaria--not Efrat or Beit El--about which I know we will have to make hard decisions." Ultimately, he believes the public will more easily accept these hard decisions if there is a broad government.

As for the haredim, Meretz and Shinui delivered ultimatums they would not sit in a government with Shas, especially if Deri was still in command. The religious parties presented a united front against plans to draft yeshiva students. And Shas and United Torah Judaism also balked at Shinui demands for a coalition guarantee of religious freedoms in a prospective constitution.

Barak decided to explore the possibility of a national unity government with the Likud, under the interim leadership of Ariel Sharon. Sharon and Barak reportedly found common ground on key security issues, but opposition from within Likud and Barak's left flank blocked a deal. Likud then appeared content to rebuild while leading the opposition, and Barak hinted he was ready to form a narrow center/left government if necessary.

The big breakthrough for Barak came when Deri finally resigned as head of Shas. Barak immediately renewed talks with Shas and Likud, indicating he would expand his cabinet to 24 seats if more ministerial posts were needed. But negotiations again dragged out, as both Likud and Shas were beset by internal strife and leading figures in Labor rebelled over Likud's presence and the lack of portfolios for them. Labor MK Haim Ramon warned that too inclusive a government could tie Barak's hands, while colleague Yossi Beilin added that including both Shas and Likud would put the "peace camp" in the minority in Barak's cabinet.

Under anti-Likud pressure from his own party and a July 2 deadline, Barak settled on a deal with Shas. Barak retained the Defense post to keep close tabs on his "peace team" (consisting of trusted former army colleagues), and doled out ministries among his disappointed partners.

It was not easy making the puzzle pieces fit, and no one can claim Barak's coalition is the product of some grand design. The lingering question, however, is just how deep is the commitment of the coalition partners to the self-proclaimed "Prime Minister of all the people"?

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