By Jean Shaoul
9 July 1999
Ehud Barak, Israel's new Prime Minister, has formed an unrepresentative
coalition government that will concentrate power in his hands and
continue the policies of the outgoing right-wing Likud administration.
Only seven weeks ago, the Israeli electorate rejected Likud Prime
Minister Benyamin Netanyahu's economic, social and political program
with what was, for Israel, a landslide vote for Barak. In direct elections
for the office of Prime Minister, Barak received 56.5 percent of the vote
compared to 43.5 percent for Netanyahu.
Such is the fractured nature of Israeli political and social life that
largest parties, including Barak's party, One Israel, together hold less
than half the seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset.
One Israel was formerly the Labour Party. Its name change was in order
to distance the party from its previous advocacy of social reformist
policies. A former military general with little political experience, Barak's
meteoric rise to leadership after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin itself
speaks volumes for the political degeneration of the Labour Party.
After lengthy negotiations, he has formed a 75-member coalition with
seven other parties. The coalition significantly does not include the Am
Ehad (One People) party of Amir Peretz, the leader of Histadrut, the
trade union organisation to which most workers, particularly in the public
sector, belong. Peretz split from Labour to form a separate party as
public sector workers and students mounted a series of strikes over the
Neither does Barak's coalition include any Arab politicians, although
Israeli Arab voters, a crucial bloc, supported him nearly unanimously.
The coalition does on the other hand involves all the religious parties,
including the ultra-orthodox parties that want to establish a Jewish
fundamentalist state. This is the first time since 1952 that they will all
serve in a Labour-led government. Hitherto, Labour has always been a
strongly secular party, opposed to the domination of the religious leaders
over political and social life. The change has caused huge resentment
among One Israel's secular allies.
Barak has included the religious party Shas, whose disgraced leader will
serve a four-year jail sentence for corruption while holding office in
previous governments, including Labour. He has included the Centre
party, led by Yitzhak Mordechai, a former Likud member, the secular
liberal Meretz party and the Russian immigrant party, Yisrael BeAliya.
He attempted to bring Likud into the coalition, but could not reach
agreement with acting leader Ariel Sharon, another former military
By including such a large number of small parties, Barak is not beholden
to any one member of the coalition. It also leaves the opposition,
dominated by the right-wing Likud, Arab parties and ultra-nationalists, in
The price of establishing such a large coalition has been to offer seats
round the cabinet table. Shas has four posts. Sharansky of the Russian
immigrant party has the coveted interior ministry. The National Religious
Party has the powerful housing ministry, although Barak will personally
take the decisions on any further building projects in the West Bank
This leaves only six seats for his own party and one for a woman, giving
rise to considerable grumbling among his supporters.
The Prime Minister has taken steps to strengthen his own office and will
hold the key defence post.
The finance post has gone to Avraham Shohat, who held the same post
in the 1992-96 Labour coalition. When the news leaked out, the Israeli
Stock Exchange immediately registered its disapproval and demands
were raised that any plans for stimulating the economy with government
spending and expanding the deficit must be dropped: Barak had to
continue the Likud government's “successful fight against inflation”.
Shohat quickly announced: "I'd like to reassure the business community
that we are going to pursue a very responsible policy that will be good
for the economy, a policy of growth." In effect he was signalling that One
Israel has abandoned any pretence of pursuing economic policies that
would ensure national cohesion. Instead it will continue the Likud policies
that have led to unemployment of more than 300,000 in a country of 6
million people. Business leaders are demanding more of the same, with
calls for the “reform of the capital markets”, the breakup of monopolies
like the Port Authority and the Electric Corporation, the privatisation of
the airline El Al, the Railways Authority, and other state-owned
enterprises, as well as cuts in taxes.
Barak has still to work out a role for the 75-year-old Shimon Peres, the
former Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party. Parliament
immediately rejected his nomination for Knesset Speaker in favour
Avraham Burg, Barak's political rival. By assigning other ministries to
people with little expertise, experience or interest in their portfolios, he
has tried to ensure not only that his policies dominate but also that his
political rivals will be unable to build an effective power base against him.
Like the military man that he is, his overall conception in government
building is one of divide and rule.
One of the key features of the coalition agreement is the introduction
the so-called "Norwegian Law". This will enable Barak to expand the
cabinet from 18 to 24, while asking ministers to give up their Knesset
seats to allow those lower down the party lists to enter in their place. This
will lead to an increasingly authoritarian form of government, whose
ministers are not answerable to parliament.
Barak is riding a tiger. The 18-member coalition cabinet is fraught with
tensions and contradictions. Despite the Israeli system of proportional
representation for electing members of parliament, the cabinet does not
contain representatives from some of its key or even traditional voters.
Despite having aroused expectations among the working class, One
Israel will do its utmost to provide the low wage platform desired by the
pharmaceutical, electronic and high tech corporations.