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Home > OP-ED > The House Divided

Title: The House Divided
by Jonathan Friendly
Date: December 22, 2000

The 120 members of Israel's parliament acted in narrow and cowardly self-interest last week when they voted not to dissolve the Knesset and create a meaningful national election.

Their decision affirmed a fact that has been plain for months --they aren't able to make laws for themselves, much less for the country as a whole. By effectively barring former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from the election, the parliament also underlined the lamentable willingness of current Prime Minister Ehud Barak to strike political deals that may further his immmediate hold on power but at immense future social cost.

Netanyahu had said, correctly, that the Knesset was so riven by factionalism -- a dozen parties continuously clamor for their special interests -- that it would be unable to function effectively with whatever prime minister the nation chooses Feb 6. He said he wouldn't seek the Likud nomination if the Knesset didn't agree to dissolve. It didn't, so he won't run this time, even though polls show him a substantial national favorite.

The crucial votes against dissolution came from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party supported mainly by Sephardic Jews that won an unexpected 17 seats in Knesset a year and a half ago and that has continued to wield exceptional power. With Barak's One Israel party commanding only a few more seats than either Likud or Shas, the prime minister has repeatedly conceded favors to Shas, including more state subsidies to their school system and, most importantly, an effective veto over his on-again, off-again plans to strengthen the secular rights of citizens.

Wrong Priority

By getting in the political bed with Shas, Barak seems to be saying that his political survival is the paramount question -- not determining the will of the people.

The effect of this inside dealmaking is to saddle himself or Likud party leader Ariel Sharon with the same parliament that has undermined virtually every important initiative of its tenure.

Barak keeps saying that he think he can strike a peace deal with the Palestinians in the coming weeks. That optimism rests on the premise that because Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat will find Barak's terms more generous than anything he could win from Sharon. And Barak, a lame-duck leader without a mandate, keeps proposing more concessions.

If a deal is struck by Barak, it will likely involve some exceptionally painful choices for Israel, including moving settlers from the West Bank and Judea, at least a nominal sharing of control of East Jerusalem and acceptance of the possibility of a substantial return of Arab refugees.

Only a very self-assured Knesset, one that knows it has broad public support, could debate and resolve the specifics of any such agreement much less take up the concurrent needs for addressing the internal divisions from secular-religious disputes. The current members of the Knesset are not up to the task, as they have shown in their chicken-hearted refusal to do the right thing by submitting themselves to the public will.


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