The 2001 Israeli Elections: What Next?

The Election Outcome

In special elections held on February 6, Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon was elected Prime Minister of the State of Israel by a massive spread. Prime Minister-elect Sharon received 62.5% of the vote, with the incumbent, Prime Minister Ehud Barak garnering 37.4%.

While it was the third time Israelis voted directly for Prime Minister, it was the first time that elections for the Knesset were not held at the same time. The Knesset elected into office in May 1999 remains in place. The term for the Knesset and the newly elected Prime Minister officially ends in November 2003.

This election had the lowest turnout in Israeli history – only 59% of eligible voters went to the polls, compared with the usual 80%. Israeli-Arabs, apparently angered by the Barak government clampdown of Israeli-Arab demonstrations in October, had an extremely low voter rate, well under their usual 75%.

As in the previous two elections, the Russian vote was extremely important to Sharon’s victory. In 1996, this immigrant community voted overwhelmingly for Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1999, they rejected Netanyahu and voted overwhelmingly for Ehud Barak. In 2001, they turned their backs on Barak and voted overwhelmingly for Ariel Sharon.

About Prime Minister Sharon

Ariel Sharon has been a high-profile figure in Israel for decades. Described alternatively as a pragmatist, an ideologue, and a realist, Sharon is a complex personality. He is often labeled a "hawk," and is known as a great promoter and builder of settlements. At the same time, Sharon was a participant in negotiations with the Palestinians during the Netanyahu Administration and is bitterly remembered by some on the right for his oversight of the dismantling of the Israeli town of Yamit in the Sinai following the peace agreement with Egypt. In his campaign, Sharon stressed that Arab leaders trust his word and that he has cultivated good relations with many Arab leaders, including the late King Hussein of Jordan.

Sharon shares with Ehud Barak a distinguished and courageous military record, having fought in each of Israel’s wars. While his military successes are widely known in Israel, internationally he is remembered most for his role as Minister of Defense during 1981-1983, directing Israel’s war in Lebanon. In 1983, the Kahan Commission, appointed by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to investigate Israel’s connection to the Phalangist massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, concluded that while Israel was not responsible for the atrocity, Sharon should have considered the possibility of revenge killing by the Phalangists in the camps and should have done more to prevent or limit their access.

Sharon has been active in Israeli politics since his election to the Knesset in 1973. He has held a series of advisory and cabinet positions under successive governments, beginning with the first Rabin Administration in 1975, through Begin, the national unity governments of the late 1980’s, Shamir, and Netanyahu. His cabinet positions have included the Agriculture, Defense, Industry and Trade, Housing and Construction, Infrastructure and Foreign Affairs portfolios. He has served as Chairman of the Likud Party since the summer of 1999.

Sharon on the Peace Process

In the campaign, Sharon pledged to continue to negotiate with the Palestinians. He declared that "Oslo is dead" because the Palestinians have not complied with the signed agreements and he argues that a new approach to negotiations must be considered. Unlike Barak, Sharon does not consider a final status agreement with the Palestinians realistic, and says he will pursue a "multi-staged" process with agreements similar to "non-belligerency" treaties. In the campaign Sharon declared that he would not dismantle settlements. He also stated that he would not make public his "red lines" on settlements or borders, but that peace with require "painful concessions."

Sharon insists that he will never "divide" Jerusalem, and says that Jerusalem will remain a united city under Israeli sovereignty. He has declared that he will never give up Israeli sovereignty of the Temple Mount.

For some time now, Sharon has stated that he would agree to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in part of the West Bank and Gaza. Sharon points to the territory from which Israel has already withdrawn in the West Bank (42%) and Gaza Strip but questions any more withdrawals. While the areas under Palestinian control are not contiguous, Sharon envisions a system of bypass roads and tunnels that would enable Palestinians to travel between these areas without encountering Israeli checkpoints. Sharon insists that Israel continue to hold the Jordan Valley as a vital security zone.

Like Barak, Sharon is insistent that there can be no right of return for Palestinian refugees. Sharon argues that refugees should be resettled in the countries in which they currently reside, with issues of family reunification will continue to be considered on a case-by-case informal basis.

The Need to Build a Governing Coalition

Sharon’s first major challenge is to cobble together a governing coalition in the Knesset. Currently, Likud holds only 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. By law, Sharon has 45 days from the time the results are official (March 30) to form a coalition. An equally pressing deadline is March 31, the date under Israeli law that the Government must pass its budget. If the Knesset fails to pass three readings of the budget by that date, the Knesset must dissolve, triggering new elections for both Prime Minister and Knesset.

Prime Minister-elect Sharon’s options for a coalition are as follows:

National Unity Government: Throughout his campaign, Sharon pledged that upon victory he would immediately invite the Labor Party to join Likud in a National Unity Government. Public opinions polls show that the majority of Israelis would welcome such a government. Labor, however, may decide to forgo a National Unity Government because of fundamental disagreements over peace process policy, or, more cynically, because of the expectation that Sharon’s government will be short-lived, and instead work on rebuilding their party in opposition until the next election.

Under a National Unity scenario, Likud’s 19 seats would be joined by Labor’s 26 seats (under the "One Israel" banner which includes the Gesher and Meimad parties). Natan Scharansky’s Yisrael B’Aliyah Party (4 seats), along with the National Religious Party (5 seats) would be expected to join the coalition. Other possibilities are Tommy Lapid’s ultra-secular Shinui Party (6 seats) and all or some of the Center Party (6 Knesset seats) would join in a coalition with the Likud.

Right-wing/Orthodox Coalition: Sharon could bring together a right-wing coalition which includes Orthodox and politically right-wing parties. This so-called "narrow coalition" would most likely be comprised of Likud (15 seats), National Religious Party (5 seats, Yisrael Ba’aliya (4 seats), the Sephardic Orthodox Shas Party (17 seats), the far right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu (7 seats), the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (5) and Herut (1). In addition, the Gesher Party, which has 2 seats in the "One Israel" faction, is certain to join the Likud coalition, as would as many as 3 seats from the Center Party.

What Next for The Labor Party?

Following the resignation of Ehud Barak, the Labor Party will choose a new leader. Barak will officially remain in office until Prime Minister-elect Sharon establishes a Government. It is expected that the lead contenders for the party’s leadership will be Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, Knesset Speaker Avrum Burg, and cabinet member Haim Ramon. Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami might also throw his hat in the ring.

© 2001 Anti-Defamation League