The main focus of the country for the next three months was
determined, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon dissolved the
Knesset and set early elections. Scheduled to be held anyway
next November, they are now scheduled for the early part of
February, 2003 or late in January. By then, Sharon will have
served as prime minister for almost two years, and it will be
close to four years since the last elections in May, 1999.
The current government now becomes a caretaker government
that has special privileges and limitations. New initiatives
are banned by law and custom, but challenges by the
opposition are also stopped. The day-to-day details of
government must continue, even if the political leadership is
busy with the election campaign.
Sharon said that his reluctant conclusion was that early
elections were inevitable, adding that dissolving the 15th
Knesset is the least damaging of available options.
"Elections are the last thing this country needs right now,"
said the Prime Minister.
Sharon accused the Labor Party, which resigned en masse from
the national unity government last week, of "political
whimsy," but vowed that he would not allow the new situation
to destabilize the country.
"I will manage to get the budget through; I will not do
anything to change our special relationship with the U.S.;
and I will not change the basic guidelines of the
government," the prime minister said.
Sharon also had harsh words for the National Union-Israel
Beitenu, which rebuffed his invitation to join the coalition.
The prime minister said the faction had come with a long list
of demands, including that he change the basic government
guidelines and that he reject a new U.S.-backed peace
Sharon said that from his first day in office, two years ago,
he decided not to succumb to political blackmail and that he
would not do so now.
Early Tuesday, Sharon told Israel President Moshe Katsav that
early elections are inevitable because he is unable to form a
stable government. As part of political protocol, Sharon has
to inform the president of intentions to call early elections
before making the announcement.
Ex-IDF chief Shaul Mofaz was sworn in as defense minister on
Monday evening after the Knesset approved Prime Minister
Sharon's choice for defense minister. Sixty-nine MKs
supported the appointment, 39 opposed it, and three
Mofaz hurried from the plenum immediately after the swearing
in ceremony, so that he could receive an update on the
suicide bomb attack in a mall in Kfar Sava in which two
Argentinean immigrants were killed and about 40 people were
injured. One of those murdered was the security guard who
prevented an even greater tragedy.
Sharon has offered the Foreign Ministry to former prime
minister Binyamin Netanyahu, saying that his talents can be
used particularly well in that position, to benefit the
entire country. After several meetings, Netanyahu said that
he would take the position only if elections are moved up. On
Tuesday afternoon, Netanyahu announced that he would accept
Two years ago Netanyahu also declined to run for prime
minister because he felt that the makeup of the Knesset made
it unworkable. That decision left the stage open for Sharon
who, contrary to many expectations, held a government
together for 21 months and has real achievement to his
credit, especially in controlling terror.
The economy remains a problem. It is not clear how much of
the problem is due to government mishandling or non-handling
of the economic difficulties. Certainly much of the problem
is due to the worldwide economic slowdown and the
Netanyahu and Sharon will compete in Likud primaries to
select the party leader who will be its candidate for prime
minister. The traditional election system, in which voters
select only a party and not a separate prime minister, will
once again be in force. The Labor party will also hold
primaries to select a leader. There the contest is a three
one between current Labor leader Binyamin Ben-Eliezer and
Chaim Ramon and Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna, who has never held
national elective office.
There will be a big question mark over the performance of
many parties since the new law makes the situation very
different from that in the last elections.