The NUG Collapses
The national unity government (NuG) of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon established after the 2001 election collapsed when, on October 30, 2002, Minister of Defense Benjamin Ben-Eliezer resigned along with other labor Party ministers in the coalition. The precipitating issue was Ben-Eliezer’s demand to cut $145 million in funds for Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the $57 billion 2003 state budget and reallocate the funds to finance social programs for weaker sectors of society including students and pensioners. Sharon rejected that demand, and compromise proposals failed.
The withdrawal ended the 20-month NuG formed by Sharon as a common front against the Palestinian intifada and the violence that marked it. Sharon characterized the labor Party’s decision to leave the government “over a political whim” as irresponsible behavior that led to the collapse of a government that reflected the people’s will for unity.
Sharon faced two alternatives: He could replace the NuG with a narrow coalition of right, extreme right, and ultra-Orthodox parties, or he could advance the date of the Knesset elections. Initially, Sharon sought alternative parliamentary support for the government from religious and nationalist parties but was faced with “unacceptable” demands and conditions to which he could not concede and which he characterized as “political blackmail.” In particular, Sharon blamed Avigdor Lieberman and his National Union Party for the failure to retain his government coalition in power and avoid elections.
Sharon chose not to give in to the demands of the Right on such issues as further support for settlements and the altering of the government’s guidelines so as to rule out any possibility of a Palestinian state, among other points. Sharon believed that such actions might undermine Israel’s strategic understandings with the United States, break the budgetary framework, and cater to narrow political interests. Sharon instead reluctantly made the decision to call for early elections. He believed they were the last thing the country needed at the time but felt he had no choice.
In a speech on November 5, Sharon announced that President Moshe Katsav had agreed to dissolve parliament and call for early elections in three months. Sharon retained the leadership of the caretaker government and added new members to it. Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to serve as foreign minister and Shaul Mofaz became a defense minister. Mofaz was former army chief of staff and was widely seen as shifting the government more to the right on issues relating to terrorism and security. Mofaz, for example, had advocated sending Arafat into exile.
The Kenya Attack
On November 28, 2002, two coordinated assaults on Israelis took place in Mombasa, Kenya. Terrorists fired two shoulder-launched SA-7 Strella missiles at an Israeli passenger jet but missed their target, and three suicide bombers drove to the doors of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel and crashed a vehicle packed with explosives into the building. The hotel burned down, at least 16 were killed, and scores injured.
The Israeli government saw this as a dangerous escalation of terror. It was the first time that a terrorist organization had launched shoulder-fired missiles in an attempt to down a civilian aircraft. The attack showed that terror organizations and the regimes behind them were able to arm themselves with weapons that could cause mass casualties and be deployed anywhere.
In a statement on December 2 on an Islamic Web site, a group calling itself the Political Office of al-Qaeda Jihad Organization took credit for the attack and reiterated its responsibility six days later.On December 13, the uN Security Council, in Resolution 1450, formally condemned the attacks in Mombasa. This was the first time that the Security Council explicitly repudiated terrorism against Israeli victims in the action clauses of a resolution. The vote was 14 in favor; Syria voted against the resolution.