Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon celebrated his 75th birthday Wednesday by putting the final touches on the nation's new ruling coalition, and, according to Ha'aretz, even after a month of bargaining, he managed to pull "political surprises from an apparently bottomless hat."
By adding centrist-secular Shinui, which holds 15 seats, the six-seat right-wing National Religious Party, and the far-right seven-seat National Union to Likud's 40 mandates, the coalition now controls 68 seats, a comfortable majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Assembling the coalition was just the beginning, though; Sharon's toughest challenge was distributing ministries among the competing parties and personalities. The biggest surprise was removing his archrival Benjamin Netanyahu from the foreign ministry and offering him the finance ministry instead. Netanyahu had repeatedly told Sharon and the media that foreign affairs was the only Cabinet post he would consider, but "sources close to him" told the Jerusalem Post that "he changed his mind [Wednesday night] after it was made clear to him that he would in effect become 'prime minister of the economy,' with the authority to completely change economic policies." The Post said Sharon's offer to Netanyahu was a " 'win-win-win-win situation.' Had Netanyahu rejected it, he would have become an ordinary MK and looked bad for turning town the second-best portfolio in the government. With Netanyahu as finance minister, Sharon can claim credit if he brings an economic upswing and blame him if the economy continues to deteriorate."
Sharon's toughest task in divvying up the top ministries was deciding who to offend—Benjamin Netanyahu is a bitter rival but also enjoys a global profile and has many supporters within Likud, Silvan Shalom had served as finance minister without distinction but is "an ally with a strong backing in the Likud central committee," and Ehud Olmert ran Sharon's successful election campaign, did yeoman's work putting together the ruling coalition, and recently left his job as mayor of Jerusalem after Sharon promised him "a major portfolio." In the end, Shalom was rewarded with the foreign ministry, Netanyahu took the finance portfolio, and Olmert had to settle for the ministry of trade and industry. Ha'aretz concluded, "All three men … have been bloodied by Sharon over the last few days. And every one of them will be there waiting to pay him back when Sharon is on his way down."
The Netanyahu-loving Jerusalem Post said that although Sharon's last-minute ministerial shuffling "is being celebrated by pundits as a brilliant maneuver by a master tactician against a political arch-opponent," strategically it is "long on spite, short on wisdom, and scandalous in terms of its message to the entire political system." The Post said Silvan Shalom had none of the traits necessary for a foreign minister and that by naming him to such an exalted position, Sharon had essentially said "to hell with merit." Ha'aretz also dismissed Sharon's maneuvering as less brilliant and calculating than it first appeared: "Sharon has given the two top portfolios in his cabinet to people he does not really trust. He values Shalom's loyalty, but thinks he was a terrible finance minister; he respects Netanyahu as a rival, but loathes him as a person."
Several commentators looked askance at the secular Shinui Party's willingness to form a coalition with two religious parties, even though their presence displaced the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Ha'aretz noted, "In exchange for the moderate image Shinui gives his government, Sharon paid a heavy price—a rift with the ultra-Orthodox parties. And in addition to keeping the Haredis out of the government, Sharon showered Shinui with spoils—five ministries, including important portfolios like Justice and Interior." The paper reported that "Likud ministers fumed over this largess and wondered whether a lower price could have been paid to secure Shinui's participation in the new government." The Labor Party, self-exiled to opposition after party leader Amram Mitzna refused to join a Likud-led coalition, complained that immediately after joining the government Shinui voted against a bill to institute civil marriage and divorce proceedings that it had previously championed, because the bill was opposed by one of the religious parties in the ruling coalition. A Labor spokeswoman toldHa'aretz, "It is now clear that Shinui led astray thousands of citizens who voted for the party because it promised to only sit in a secular government. But Lapid and his comrades, in their eagerness to join the government, sold their souls … for cabinet seats." An op-ed in Yediot Ahronot agreed: "The agreement reached between [Shinui and the National Religious Party] exposes the shallowness of Shinui's struggle against ultra-Orthodox influence."
A Ma'ariv commentary bemoaned the fickleness of politicians: "Mitzna stayed out because that is what he promised the voters. He is the only one of the leaders of the three biggest parties to have kept his election promises. Sharon promised a national unity government and failed, and Lapid promised not to join a government in which he would be the left marker, and he also failed."