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Kessel: Elections likely in spring

CNN's Jerrold Kessel
CNN's Jerrold Kessel

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Can Ariel Sharon hang onto power?


JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is fighting to hold on to power after the Labor Party walked out of the national unity government over a budget dispute.

Failure to forge an alliance with far right-wing and religious parties would lead to early elections. Sharon's first move was to ask tough-talking former Israeli Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz to become his new defense minister.

CNN's Jerrold Kessel describes the effect of the crisis on Israeli politics.

Kessel: The collapse of the Israeli national unity government after a tempestuous, topsy-turvy day in the Knesset has been described by the country's transport minister, Ephraim Sneh, as the end of a bad marriage.

Like so many divorces, it is partly over money. Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and his Labor Party said it could not stomach any more money going to Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and that it should go to the needy.

The Likud/Labor marriage was not a marriage of true minds. From the start it has been a marriage of convenience to help deal with the Palestinian intifida.

The prime minister has emphatically said he is going to try to form a new coalition government with the far-right rather than go to early elections. If he fails, elections would be held next spring.

Even before the divorce, the two parties were dealing with jealous rivalries from within their own camps. These challenges are part of the reason for this final spat.

The appointment of Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz as defense minister is very interesting indeed. Lots of questions are being asked along the lines of just how much is this going to change the government's and Sharon's policy and the attitude he strikes vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Mofaz was the army chief of staff until July. It is thought he believes Israel needs to adopt a tough line to curb the Palestinian intifada and to handle Palestinian terrorism.

He has even advocated publically exiling Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and bringing down the Palestinian Authority.

Sharon is likely to survive a vote of no confidence next Monday, but whether he will be able to cobble together a coalition before then is not clear.

The feeling is that he will be able to get a narrow minority government, but that it will not last with elections probably being held next spring instead of the mandated date of next autumn.

But most people think that putting the former general in the government is a significant development.

What does a far-right entry into the government mean for Israel's strategic interest with regards the Palestinians and Iraq? You could say possibly that on the surface, and maybe beyond, there will be some change in the tough policy, for example Ben-Eliezer was trying to remove the illegal settlements. That is not likely to happen at all now.

By and large, I think the people who are saying that there are not likely to be many changes are more likely to be proven true.

Critics say Labor's influence has been no more than a fig leaf for Sharon's policies during the past 18 months. Now Sharon will have no cover from Labor. There will not even be any semblance of an offer of an alternative policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians and Iraq.

Sharon will be unfettered now, and his policies will be out in front for everybody to see. There will not be much change, only that Sharon will be able to fulfil his policies the way he wishes.

With regards to the U.S. and the possible shadow of military action in Iraq, Israel is very much united, whoever is in power -- whether Labor is in office, or not.

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