A short-term disengagement coalition

Ariel Sharon’s success in bringing Labor into his new disengagement coalition reflects the prime minister’s iron determination: he has overcome repeated obstacles from the political right, including from within his own party, and has triumphed. This victory for disengagement is also a major setback for the settlement movement.

But the new coalition is not likely to hold together for more than a year. It will, if all goes well, oversee disengagement from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria, then almost certainly collapse, precipitating elections a little less than a year before the statutory deadline of November 2006.

Likud is bringing the Labor party into the coalition because Sharon needs a Knesset majority in order for his government to remain in office and carry out disengagement–and a Likud/Labor/Torah Judaism coalition is the only one his reluctant party will acquiesce in. For its part, Labor is joining the coalition for a wider variety of reasons. Under the leadership of Shimon Peres, it is not built for the political wilderness of opposition. It believes it will have more influence inside the government than out. But primarily, Labor believes in disengagement and hopes to benefit politically from its implementation.

This means that next fall, assuming disengagement has been carried out successfully, the two main parties will again part company. The Likud rank and file, ever suspicious of Sharon’s motives, will insist that no further disengagement be carried out and no significant peace process be launched by his government. Labor under Peres will insist on a renewed peace process. If, in next June’s Labor leadership primaries, Ehud Barak takes over, he will demand additional, comprehensive disengagements. Any new leader of Labor is likely to pull the party out of the coalition following the completion of disengagement in September if only to gear up for elections. In short, there will be little to hold the coalition together for another year.

And if disengagement does not go well? If Jews spill the blood of fellow Jews, anger and dissention spread across the land, and some settlements in Gaza are not removed? If chaos reigns in post-withdrawal Gaza, and Egypt and the international community blame Israel? Under those unfortunate scenarios Sharon and his government will be discredited, with Likud reacting by pulling to the right and Labor to the left. Once again, elections will be the logical outcome.

If this assessment regarding the relatively short life-span of the new government proves accurate, it has important consequences not only for Israel. An election campaign in Israel in late 2005-early 2006 means a break in the momentum generated by disengagement. It means the next Palestinian government, assuming it is relatively moderate and opposes violence, will have to suffice with a coordinated disengagement from Gaza and the northern West Bank for the coming 18 months until a newly elected Israeli government is on its feet and functioning. And the Bush administration, if indeed it is prepared to devote its energies to the creation of a viable Palestinian state following disengagement, will have to wait even longer, since Bush is unlikely to get involved in a situation that may require him to pressure Israel during the months running up to midterm elections in the US in November 2006. Indeed, Sharon himself could conceivably precipitate early elections if he assesses tha! t administration pressures are in the offing.

While a successful disengagement process next summer is likely to ensure that Sharon remains leader of the Likud in the coming elections, it is far less certain that either he or his party’s platform will endorse additional disengagements or a serious peace process as the next stage. Nor is it clear whether the next Knesset will be any more disposed to a comprehensive peace or disengagement process than is the current one.

This means that what you see in this new Israeli government is what you get: a vehicle for carrying out disengagement from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank. That is now likely to be the principal–perhaps the only–significant peace process-related event of the coming 18-24 months. Anyone laying plans to exploit the "momentum" and the "dynamic" of the disengagement in order to press for more, must bear this in mind.