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November 02, 2002

Change in Government

M.J. Rosenberg in the Israel Policy Forum argues that the new Israeli government is a good thing rather than the chaotic mess that many believe a reconstituted government would bring about
The conventional wisdom has it that the collapse of Israel's national unity government is a setback to the peace process. The thinking goes that if negotiations were going nowhere with a government that included the moderate Labor party, they can only be utterly stymied when a right-wing government without Labor takes over.

Although this analysis sounds about right, one can make another case - that national unity governments smother opposing voices.

That is because the most powerful dissenters are in the government. Parties normally in opposition end up defending policies they do not really agree with, which has been the case with Labor since it joined Likud following Prime Minister Sharon's election in 2001. Labor ministers and backbenchers alike were constrained from action on issues like settlements and the lack of movement on the diplomatic track, leaving a large part of the populace without a voice in government. Anyone watching Foreign Minister Peres defend the government's handling of relations with the Palestinians understands this dynamic - even if Peres' presence in government may have had a moderating effect.

Then there were the deliberations over the budget. Prime Minister Sharon wanted to include $700 million in additional funding for the settlements. Labor opposed the measure, arguing that diverting funds to the settlers, when pensioners, students and others were hurting, was bad policy and nothing more than an attempt to buy off the settler vote in the next election. Sharon wouldn't back down, and the government fell.

This was the first time that the Israeli majority's view on settlements made a difference within the unity cabinet - and it was despite the fact that most Israelis are not fans of settlers or settlements. According to last week's Dahaf poll (and the other recent surveys), not only do most Israelis not want to spend more on settlements, most (78%) also are ready to "dismantle" them in the context of peace negotiations. But this majority was rarely heard within Israel or outside.