Fall of the Government of Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shami
The government of Likud prime minister Yitzhak Shamir fell on March 15, 1990, on a no-confidence vote because of his refusal to accept the United States proposal for discussions between Israelis and Palestinians to initiate steps toward an Israeli-Arab peace plan. (Minister of Commerce and Industry Ariel Sharon had resigned from the coalition government on February 18 after the Likud central committee moved toward approving such a dialogue). The fall of the government, which was the first time that the Knesset had dissolved a government, was preceded by Shamir's firing of Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres on March 13, leading to the resignation of all other Labor Party ministers in the National Unity Government. The no-confidence vote resulted from a last-minute decision by Shas, a small ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party, to abstain from voting, giving Labor and its allies a sixty to fifty-five majority in the Knesset. On March 20, President Chaim Herzog asked Peres to form a government; despite five-week efforts to achieve a coalition, Peres notified Herzog on April 26 that he was unable to do so. This process again was a first--the first time in forty-two years that a prime minister candidate designated by a president had failed to put together a government. On April 27 the mandate for forming a government was given to Shamir, who as of early May was still negotiating. Should this attempt fail, new elections will be required, but the composition of the Knesset will probably not change significantly in such an election.
Meanwhile, the negotiations conducted by both major parties involved bargaining and significant material and policy commitments to tiny fringe parties, particularly the religious parties, that were out of proportion to their strength. As a result, Israelis have become increasingly disenchanted with their electoral system. On April 7 a demonstration for electoral reform drew approximately 100,000 Israelis, the largest number since the 1982 demonstration protesting Israel's invasion of Lebanon. More than 70,000 people signed a petition, endorsed by President Herzog, calling for the direct election of the prime minister and members of the Knesset so as to eliminate the disproportionate influence of small parties. Moreover, on April 9 an Israeli public opinion poll revealed that 80 percent of Israelis favored changing the electoral system.
The situation was further complicated by the Israeli response to Secretary of State Baker's statement on March 1 that the United States would back Israel's request for a US$400 million loan to construct housing for Soviet Jewish immigrants only if Israel stopped establishing settlements in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government stated that this condition was the first time that the United States government had linked American aid to the way that Israel spent its own money. In a March 3 news conference, President Bush included East Jerusalem in the category of territory occupied by Israel, saying that the United States government opposed new Jewish immigrants being settled there (an estimated 115,000 Jews and 140,000 Palestinian Arabs lived in East Jerusalem as of March). Prime Minister Shamir announced on March 5 that new Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would be expanded as rapidly as possible to settle Soviet Jews--7,300 Soviet Jews arrived in March and 10,500 in April.
On April 18, Shamir appointed Michael Dekel, a Likud advocate of settlements, to oversee the groundbreaking for four new settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and to try to buy residential property in the Armenian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem for Jewish occupancy. This action was made possible by the absence from the government of Labor Party ministers, who had been opposing various settlement activities. Government sponsorship of Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, although initially denied, included a grant of US$1.8 million to a group of 150 persons, consisting of Jewish religious students and their families, to rent through a third party St. John's Hospice in the Christian Quarter of the Old City, which they occupied on April 12, the eve of Good Friday. This incident caused among uproar by Christian Palestinians and led to the protest closing of Christian churches in Jerusalem for one day on April 27- -the first time in 800 years that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher had been closed. Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek testified in court opposing the settlement on the grounds that it would damage Israel's international reputation, harm public order in the Christian Quarter, and disrupt the delicate and established ethnic balance of Jerusalem. The Supreme Court announced on April 26 that it upheld the eviction of the settlers by May 1.
In other developments, the European Community threatened sanctions against Israel unless the government allowed the reopening of Palestinian institutions of higher education in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, which had been closed since October 1987. In reply, Israel stated on February 26 that it would allow sixteen community colleges and vocational institutions, serving approximately 18,000 Palestinian students, to reopen in stages on unspecified dates.
Iraq's president Saddam Husayn, who was extremely fearful of an Israeli strike against Iraq, on April 2 threatened that Iraq would use chemical weapons against Israel if it attacked. This threat outraged the world community and was followed on April 3 by Israel's launch of a new three-stage rocket earth satellite into a surveillance orbit.
Meanwhile, the intifadah continued. The Palestine Center for Human Rights reported on March 19 that 878 Palestinian fatalities had occurred up to that date. The Israeli human rights body stated on April 3 that thirty Palestinians had been killed by Israeli army gunfire in the first quarter of 1990, whereas Palestinians had killed thirty-five of their number as suspected Israeli collaborators over the same period. Israel announced on February 18 a 15 percent reduction in the defense budget for 1990- 91, together with a reduced number of service days for reservists, caused by the financial costs of the uprising. No end to the intifadah appeared in sight, with well-informed Israeli sources suggesting that the uprising had strengthened the convictions of Israelis on both sides: those favoring territorial maximalism and those advocating compromise. The difference was thought to be a greater realism, with maximalists feeling that the territories could be retained only by removing a number of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and compromisers recognizing that negotiations with the PLO would require significant concessions.
SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress