The Fall of the 15th Knesset

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The Sharon Government

After Ehud Barak's decisive 1999 election as prime minister, Ariel Sharon--leader of the opposition Likud--worked on the reconstruction of his party. With a determined campaign, he gained a large lead in opinion polls as the February 2001 elections approached. Sharon's campaign spin, which played to the Israelis' anxieties about the violence of the Palestinians, presented Sharon as a gentle grandfather figure who would combine his strong military background with the maturity of years and his learning from past mistakes to guide Israelis to safer times. 

Now the tables were turned. As the Likud celebrated victory, a glum Labor party watched its leader, Barak, leave politics behind and resign from public life. Once again, it was a retired general--Benjamin Ben-Eliezer--who stepped into the breach. Ben-Eliezer did not have as storied a military career as Barak or Sharon, but he did retire as a well-known brigadier general after serving as military commander of the West Bank.                      

The 2001 elections were conducted for the post of prime minister only, since at the time Israelis voted in separate elections for prime minister and for Knesset. This situation left Sharon to work with the same fractured Knesset with which Barak had had such difficulty.

ariel sharonRather than building another government on a narrow basis, Sharon proposed that the two large parties, Likud and Labor, together form a "unity government," a coalition that would include the two rivals. He found a willing partner in Ben-Eliezer, who was eager to burnish his public image with a senior ministry position. The two retired generals also shared rather similar views with respect to the tough military actions they believed would be necessary to combat terrorism. Ben-Eliezer and the Labor Party signed on to the coalition, and the resulting Sharon government was the largest in Israel's history, comprised of 26 ministers from eight separate parties.

Despite early skepticism regarding the staying-power of such an seemingly unwieldy coalition, Sharon--in contrast to Barak--managed to exhibit impressive skill in avoiding internal government turmoil. Even as the Israeli economy slipped into its worst depression in 40 years and hundreds of Israelis continued to be killed in terrorist attacks, Sharon managed to maintain his grandfatherly image and benefited from extraordinarily high public approval ratings in opinion polls.

The End of the 15th Knesset

The appointment as defense minister of Ben-Eliezer, with his background and hawkish views, enabled Sharon to claim that his tough military moves and refusal to negotiate with the Palestinians without a total cease-fire were fully supported and implemented by the Labor Party leadership. With Shimon Peres of the Labor Party as foreign minister--a man with impeccable credentials as a peace negotiator--Sharon was often able to effectively deflect foreign criticism of his actions by sending Peres on explanatory tours of European capitals. With his Likud rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, safely out of both government and Knesset positions, Sharon consolidated his hold on power.

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Ziv Hellman is a Jerusalem-based writer and mathematician. A former editor at the Jerusalem Post, Ziv was a founding member of Peace Watch--the watchdog group reporting on the implementation of the Oslo Agreements. He also led the Israeli elections observer team evaluating the Palestinian Authority elections.