Another exercise in
coalition-making that should not be allowed to go without comment has
taken place in Israel, where earlier this month prime minister Ehud
Olmert secured parliamentary approval for his new government.

Unwieldy
coalition governments are nothing new in Israel, whose electoral system
gives representation to a large range of parties, and where the
overriding issues of war and peace have distorted the normal
development of a party system. But it had been hoped that Ariel
Sharon’s new Kadima party, now led by Olmert, would score well enough
to minimise its reliance on other parties.

Not so. March’s
elections returned Kadima as the largest party, but a long way short of
a majority. His three coalition partners are Labour (which was always
going to be needed), Shas (the largest of the religious parties) and
the Pensioner party, a new single-issue party that polled surprisingly
well. If it comes down to a vote against the right-wing Likud
opposition, Olmert can also expect to be supported by the Israeli Arab
parties, but no Israeli government can be seen to rely on them.

Olmert’s
base is broad enough to be going on with – previous Israeli governments
have had a more ramshackle appearance – but if he is to pursue his
controversial policy of settling Israel’s final boundaries then things
could get difficult. The minor parties are probably less of a worry
than Labour: Labour leader Amir Peretz, now defence minister, is
committed in principle to negotiations with the Palestinians.

For
now, Labour is following Olmert’s line of ignoring Hamas’s democratic
mandate in the hope that it will somehow go away – an understandable if
short-sighted policy. But if Hamas makes serious overtures towards
peace, as the west is trying to pressure it into doing, then the
difference in approach between Peretz and Olmert could come to the
surface. And since neither of them can reasonably expect to co-operate
with the Likud opposition, it’s impossible to say who might come out on
top.

One day, Israeli politics may settle down to a position
where Kadima and Labour are the undisputed rival major parties, on
right and left respectively. But that still looks a long way off: for
the moment, they need each other.

Peter Fray

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