Israel’s 30th Government
As with all previous instances the new government would be formed by a coalition. Sharon’s preference was a national unity government which he believed would better represent the strength and coherence of Israel in light of the existing situation—the continuing intifada, terrorist attacks against the civilian population, economic distress (partly resulting from the violence), and the prospects of conflict in Iraq that might involve Israel, directly or indirectly.
He believed that the security, economic, and political problems facing the state required cooperation and unity among all factions, foremost labor because of labor’s still significant size and influence in Israel. However, Mitzna, the leader of labor, rejected that idea during the election campaign and maintained his opposition to it even after the significant election loss.
Sharon presented his government to the Knesset on February 27, 2003, his 75th birthday. He noted that the past two years had not been easy because of brutal waves of terrorism, but terrorism could never defeat the people of Israel, since the Jewish people had always withstood adversity and confronted, overcome, and survived it. Sharon’s coalition was composed of the centrist but stridently secular Shinui Party, the Orthodox, right-leaning NRP, and likud and yisrael B’Aliya, which had merged and together held 40 seats in parliament.
This gave Sharon a narrow but valid parliamentary majority. Subsequently, an agreement with the far-right National union Party, with seven seats, gave him a comfortable majority. The great surprise was the nonincorporation of two longtime likud political allies, Shas and united Torah Judaism. Sharon had to choose between them and Shinui, which, under lapid, had made it clear that the party would never serve with the ultrareligious in government.
The four principal cabinet posts were occupied by senior Likud figures: Sharon as prime minister, Mofaz as minister of defense, Netanyahu as minister of finance, and Silvan Shalom as deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. The former mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert became minister of industry and commerce and acting prime minister during Sharon’s travels out of the country.
The other coalition parties received posts they had sought as important to their agenda. Lapid was appointed deputy prime minister and minister of justice. Avraham Poraz, a longtime member of Shinui, became minister of the interior, suggesting that a major effort would be made to achieve the Shinui agenda through this important position. Sharansky became minister without portfolio with responsibility for Jerusalem Affairs, Society, and the Diaspora.
The 2003 election suggested several new directions toward dealing with the major issues facing the Israeli polity at the time, notably peace and security, prosperity, and what constitutes Jewishness. In presenting his government, Sharon noted that its primary mission would be to lead Israel back to the path of economic growth and prosperity. And, of course, he noted the importance of resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, Sharon also noted, “we will work to complete a constitution which can be agreed upon by enacting the missing basic laws: the basic law to anchor the identity of Israel as a Jewish state and its national symbols and basic laws to complete the rights of the individual such as freedom of expression and the freedom to assemble, legal and social rights, etc.”
The question of Who is a Jew? has appeared in Israel’s political and religious-secular dialogue since before independence. In presenting his government, Sharon noted that one of his responsibilities was “to find fair and reasonable solutions to the problem of numerous citizens who cannot marry and divorce according to the Halacha.” Sharon’s government was to focus on mass Jewish immigration to Israel and noted that “aliya [immigration to Israel] is the lifeblood of Zionism,” but there remained controversy about whether those immigrants would meet the extant criteria for being Jewish and be accepted as such.
Sharon’s approach to the central issue of peace and security built on his previous views and was modified during and after the election campaign. He emphasized again that before one could return to the political track to negotiate, “the Palestinian Authority must stop terror and incitement, implement far-reaching reforms, and replace its current leadership.” He suggested that after the violence stopped, and these related conditions were met, a political process could be initiated that would lead to genuine peace.
The political process would be based on lessons learned from past failed attempts. For peace, which Israelis wanted, Sharon expressed his conviction that there was a willingness to make painful concessions. But, he also acknowledged, “creating a Palestinian State under limited conditions in the framework of a political process is controversial among members of the coalition.”
Sharon articulated a vision of a political settlement that “must ensure the historic, security and strategic interests of Israel” and should include such matters as “Palestinian renunciation of the groundless demand for ‘The Right of Return’ the sole purpose of which is to allow the entrance of masses of Palestinians into Israel.” Sharon also noted that any settlement would also have to preserve the unity of the capital of Israel, Jerusalem, which he described as “the united and undivided capital of Israel.”
The New Government in Action
The government took office in early March 2003. Sharon began his term with a very sure view of the ability of his government to achieve its primary objectives: ensure the security of the people of Israel, achieve economic stability and growth, initiate an accelerated political process, and increase the number of immigrants to Israel. He continued to stress the fact that the various components of his government would work together to achieve those objectives.
Shinui’s primary agenda was the secular-religious divide within the state, and to achieve its goals Shinui decided to join the government. Part of that agenda was reflected in the government policy statement upon its confirmation and became more public soon thereafter. Newly appointed justice minister lapid noted that he planned to propose legislation to shut down pirate radio stations serving the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing public.
The ultra-Orthodox do not have television, theater, or similar entertainment and cannot bring secular newspapers into their homes because of the unacceptable pictures therein, which they believe, violate religious prohibitions. They thus stressed the importance of pirate radio stations to give access to their audience to readings from the Torah, Sephardic music, and related items.
The ultra-Orthodox argued that the secular Israelis had a monopoly of personnel in official radio stations and catered to other audiences. In previous governments little had been done about eliminating these pirate stations, to a great extent because Shas supported the need for these stations and had substantial political clout. The new government excluded Shas and included Shinui; the Shinui faction thus seemed poised to move ahead on this issue.
The appointment of Shinui’s Poraz as interior minister foretold change when he spoke of a more humane and liberal approach to immigration than under his predecessor. The ministry’s powers are broad as it decides on citizenship for immigrants and visas for foreigners. For years, the ministry was run by members from religious parties, who openly declared that their primary interest was to control the composition of the immigration population in order to preserve the Orthodox dominance of daily activities in Israel. Poraz promised to reexamine this.