Analysis: The coalition calculus of saying 'no' to America

Backed by a wide coalition, a prime minister can stand all kinds of pressure from abroad.

Ariel Sharon. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ariel Sharon.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It was the spring of 2002, Palestinian terrorism was at its peak, and Israel was on the verge of embarking on Operation Defensive Shield. As Ra'anan Gissin, prime minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman at the time, remembers the story, Sharon came under all kinds of pressure from Washington to hold back on the military operation and give Yasser Arafat another chance to curb the terrorism. The pressure, Gissin said, was coming from then-secretary of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, President George W. Bush's national security adviser. But despite the pressure, Sharon said "no" to America, and that Israel would not tolerate any further delay. "On this issue, Mr. President, I'm with my back to the wall with my people," Sharon told Bush. He brought the issue down from the strategic heights to the political trenches - a place which Bush, who fought often in similar trenches, could understand. Sharon then gave the go-ahead for the operation. Gissin said one of the reasons Sharon was able to say no to the US at that point was because he had a wide and strong government behind him. Indeed, Sharon, who clobbered Ehud Barak in the 2001 prime ministerial elections, put together a coalition that included Labor-Meimad, the Likud, Shas, the Center Party, United Torah Judaism, the National Religious Party, Yisrael B'aliya and the National Union-Israel Beiteinu - all told, a coalition of 95 MKs. With that wide support the government was able to carry out two key actions that were extremely controversial abroad: the military operation - Defensive Shield - that emerged as the turning point in the fight against the suicide bombers of the second intifada, and the beginning of the construction of the West Bank security barrier. Both moves evoked significant opposition abroad, but in both cases one of the arguments Israel used was that the moves reflected the will of the people - and with Sharon's grand coalition, that was indeed the case. Gissin's anecdote should be on the minds of both Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu and Kadima chairman Tzipi Livni as they make their decisions on what kind of coalition to build, and whether they should instead form a unity government. With a new administration in the US already pursuing a new Middle East agenda, there is bound to be a degree of friction between the US and Israel. The two countries do not see eye to eye on all issues, and it is likely - even natural - that Israel will not feel able to do everything that the Obama Administration may ask of it. These disagreements could emerge on everything from a complete freeze on settlement construction to making compromises on Jerusalem. Israel under either Livni or, what looks much more likely, under Netanyahu, may - like Sharon - feel the need to say no to the US. But, going on the assumption that Netanyahu will form the next government, it will be easier to politely turn down the Americans if the coalition is not a narrow, right-wing one with a shaky five-seat majority, but rather a wide government of 93 MKs (Likud, Kadima, Israel Beiteinu, Shas, United Torah Judaism, the National Union and Habayit Hayehudi). For instance, a message coming from Israel that it will not be willing to cede any part of Jerusalem to a foreign government would pack a more convincing punch were it to come from the head of a government of 93, than were it to come from the head of a wobbly government of 65. A smaller, weaker government, obviously, would also be more susceptible to pressure. There are enough people in Washington who know the Israeli political situation inside-out, and who could use the weakness of an Israeli government, and the knowledge that it could easily fall, as leverage in promoting US policies; policies that might not be identical with how Israel views its own interests. There is a paradox in this as well. For just as a wider government would put Israel in a stronger position vis-à-vis the US, it would also obviously - at least at this time - be America's preference. While the Obama Administration was careful to stay completely out of the recent Israeli election campaign, thereby not repeating Bill Clinton's mistake in 1996 of not too subtly and unsuccessfully working for a Shimon Peres victory over Netanyahu, The Washington Post reported Wednesday that "It is no secret that US officials would prefer to deal with Livni." Considering the coalition math, the only way it seems the US will be able to deal with Livni in any capacity is if she joins a Netanyahu government. And by joining Netanyahu, she could be helping put together a government that could be less susceptible to US pressure, less pliable, than if she were to opt for the opposition.