The Fall of the 15th Knesset

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Ben-Eliezer's position was less rosy than Sharon's. His participation in the government as defense minister had the immediate positive effect, from his point of view, of public exposure in a pivotal defense position at a time when security eclipsed all other items in the Israeli news cycle. At the same time, it left him open to criticism from the left that he was playing number-two in a Likud-led government whose policies sometimes ran contrary to those of the Labor Party.

By the summer of 2002, press leaks revealed that Ben-Eliezer's advisors were telling him to distance himself from Sharon if he was to mount a serious run for prime minister by the time general elections were to be held as scheduled, in late 2003. The Labor Party could not afford to appear to be subordinate to the Likud. A challenger must always present himself or herself as a sharp critic of the incumbent with an alternative message, which is impossible if the challenger has been a partner to the incumbent's policies. The common wisdom was that sooner or later Ben-Eliezer would need to confront Sharon openly in order to establish himself as a potential prime minister, with the only question being what issue would serve as Ben-Eliezer's excuse for his challenge.

Buoyed by left-leaning approval of his tough tactics against West Bank settlers, Ben-Eliezer continued to play on the same theme when he decided the time had come for an open challenge to Sharon. With the 2003 fiscal year government budget under discussion in the Knesset in late October 2002, Ben-Eliezer demanded that Sharon reduce the allocations of some $150 million in state funding for West Bank settlement expansion and divert some of the money to social spending. Sharon, concerned this would cost him too dearly in support within the Likud, refused to give in. The crisis having been set in place, Ben-Eliezer led the Labor Party out of the coalition, leaving it with only 55 remaining members, less than the Knesset majority it would need to survive.

Following Ben-Eliezer's departure, Sharon made attempts to forge a new coalition consisting solely of right-wing parties in the Knesset. After this met little success in the face of high demands on the part of potential coalition partners, Sharon went to President Moshe Katsav on November 5, 2002, with a request that the Knesset be dissolved and new elections be called within 90 days. The 15th Knesset had come to an end.


Once again, after another government had been dissolved, Israel began to prepare for elections. Sharon, having beaten back a challenge by a revitalized Netanyahu, leaned on his grandfatherly guardian image in his campaign spin, while battling off accusations of corruption.

His main challenger was not Ben-Eliezer, but a fourth retired general in this story, Amram Mitzna, who wrested the top Labor Party position from Ben-Eliezer in the party's primaries. Ben-Eliezer's machinations in bringing down the Sharon government were intended to give him the opportunity to run for prime minister at the head of a major ticket, but he ended up demoted to number-two in his own party. Even the best-laid plans in politics can go awry.

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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.