Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Fighting to Retain Power (Stratfor)
Prime Minister Ehud Barak intensified efforts Oct.22 to form an emergency government of national unity. By forming a unity government with the far right Likud party, Barak forestalls the possibility of immediate elections and retains Israeli leadership. But to do so, Barak must abandon his platform of peace and take a hardline stance against the Palestinians, undercutting the future of the peace process and his political survival.
With violence in Israel escalating and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat refusing to rein in violent factions of his ruling Fatah party, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has now taken the hardline and intensified efforts to form a national emergency unity government.The move would allow Barak to deal with the Palestinians and hawkish members of government without risking his position as Israel’s leader. But because of the violence and Barak’s inability to curb it, the Prime Minister faces the possibility the Israeli parliament will call for early elections.A unified government would forestall elections for the short term and give the Prime Minister time to quell the violence and regain support among Israelis. But bringing in the opposition Likud party will alienate Barak’s ruling coalition from some of the more moderate parties in parliament. Also, a new hardline stance will pressure Arafat to become more hardline in return, thus damaging chances of reaching an effective ceasefire.A call for early elections by the Knesset, which returns for its winter session on Oct. 30, would likely end Barak’s tenure as prime minister. After three weeks of violence, the prime minister’s popularity has taken a nosedive.

Current polls indicate early elections would favor the return of former Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu. A Gallup poll published by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv indicated that if elections were now, Barak would lose. Netanuyahu, who hasn’t even announced an intention to run, is the favorite to win with a margin of 48 percent compared to Barak’s 27 percent. Even Ariel Sharon, a hawkish leader of the opposition Likud party with 41 percent, beats Barak with only 31 percent.To prevent a loss at the polls, Barak hopes to co-opt the Likud and form an emergency government. On Oct. 22, the Prime Minister ordered negotiators from One Israel to intensify efforts to reach agreement with other parties in parliament, reported Haaretz, an Israeli daily.But to form a unity government, Barak will have to concede substantial power to Likud. Indeed, according to reports, Sharon has asked for an appointment as either deputy prime minister or foreign minister with full access to all security and diplomatic materials. He has also asked for the right to veto any diplomatic or security related government decisions and equal membership in the cabinet of right and left wing members with certain ministries assigned specifically to Likud members.

An emergency unity government would severely damage future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Sharon is firmly against the concessions Barak offered the Palestinians during last year’s Camp David accords and has called for withdrawing these concessions from negotiations. It was Sharon’s visit to Temple Mount or el-Aqsa site in Jerusalem that sparked violence on Sept. 28. Palestinians also revile him. An Israeli inquiry forced him to resign from his position as defense minister for his role in the 1982 massacres of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The hawkish leader also espouses a more stringent security posture. According to a statement by Sharon on the Likud party’s platform published in the Jerusalem Post in 1996, the party would ban Palestinian security forces and political offices from East Jerusalem and confiscate all weapons from Palestinian controlled territories.

Sharon has a strong incentive to form a unity government with Barak. Although Sharon leads the Likud party, he doesn't enjoy nearly the support of Netanyahu. By forming an alliance with Barak, Sharon boosts his own position within the government without competing in elections. Barak and Sharon are ideologically opposed and would find it difficult to achieve consensus on a response to the continued Palestinian uprising, or intifiada. But both also have a compelling interest in retaining the reigns of power. A call for early elections at this point would likely boost the chances for a return by Netanyahu, something neither Sharon nor Barak want to see.Despite the damage an emergency unity government would do to the peace process -  the centerpiece of Barak’s political platform -  the alternative is even worse for the embattled Prime Minister.