Israel's political earthquake

Ariel Sharon's split with the Likud, and the rise of Labor leader Amir Peretz, have turned Israeli politics upside down. Will the new order help bring peace with the Palestinians?

Published November 22, 2005 12:30PM (EST)

Israel has entered one of the stormiest political seasons in its history, even by the standards of its fractured, tempestuous governing structure. On Monday, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon announced his departure from the ruling Likud Party, returned his membership card and called for an early general election, perhaps in March. Widely described by Jerusalem's political pundits as "an earthquake," Sharon's move is redrawing the country's political map.

In an unprecedented development, Israelis will have to pick their next leadership from among three contending parties: Sharon's new and yet nameless party; Labor, led by newcomer Amir Peretz, Israel's trade union boss; and the incumbent Likud, where no less than seven candidates aspire to head the party, with former premier Binyamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu leading the pack. Recent polls have given the edge to the popular Sharon, but the race has just begun, and Israeli election campaigns are notorious roller coasters, with the new, three-way race creating even more uncertainty.

For Sharon, launching the new party may be the biggest gamble in a lifetime filled with them. Known throughout his career for daring -- and sometimes reckless -- moves, he is facing a considerable challenge. Sharon, who turns 78 next February, has said his goal is to "serve until 2010, and then retire to my farm to ride the horses." Such pastoral retirement, however, so common to American political life, has proved impossible in Israel. None of Sharon's 10 predecessors has left his job peacefully. Two died while in office, and the other eight were forced out by an angry party or public. Moreover, all previous attempts to create a "third party" in Israel, despite high expectations at the start, ended up faring miserably at the polling booth. Even David Ben-Gurion, the Jewish state's legendary founding father and Sharon's old mentor, failed in his attempt to return to power by creating his own party in the mid-'60s.

Monday's announcement was an aftershock of Sharon's disengagement plan, Israel's unilateral pullout of its settlers and forces from the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank, carried out last summer. The unprecedented removal of 25 Jewish settlements from Palestinian-populated areas tore apart the Likud, which historically supported the "Greater Israel" concept and sponsored the settlement enterprise in the territories occupied after the 1967 war. Using his consummate political skill, Sharon managed to escort his plan through numerous political minefields, winning parliamentary approval last year and then implementing the withdrawal in a dignified, nonviolent way. Nevertheless, he faced a determined group of so-called rebels, 10 to 15 of the Likud's 40-member parliamentary faction, who were enraged at Sharon's betrayal of the party's ideology and vowed to fight him. Forming an opposition within the coalition, the "rebels" turned Sharon's political reality into a nightmare.

As the disengagement timetable reached its final stages, Sharon's political advisors concluded that his party had become an uncontrollable beast. And they predicted that the Likud parliamentary faction in the next elections would be even more right-wing and would reject any further withdrawal in the West Bank. Sharon hesitated. He was torn between his desire, backed by his public pledge, to push through another pullout and establish a Palestinian state, and his political dependence on the Likud's organizational power.

Although Sharon created the Likud Party by uniting a host of smaller right-wing factions following his retirement from the army in 1973, he has always been an outsider in the party. He is a pragmatist and a realist in a movement shaped by ideology. His public support for Palestinian statehood in September 2001, and his subsequent dismantling of the Gaza and a few West Bank settlements, was heresy for party loyalists. But they grudgingly accepted his leadership, given his track record of electoral landslides. Now he has destroyed his own political creation, just as he destroyed the settlements he built in the '70s and '80s.

Sharon's new route was suggested by two veteran politicians, Labor's Haim Ramon and Likud's Ehud Olmert, currently the finance minister. Both disliked in their respective parties, they argued for redrawing Israel's political map according to the new realities created during the five-year war with the Palestinians. Both asserted that Israel's imperative interest was to redraw its borders along demographic lines and to consolidate its shrinking Jewish majority on a smaller territory, even if no peace treaty was finalized with the Palestinians. Ramon coined the name "Big Bang" for a new party, composed of like-minded figures from the political center and united behind Sharon's popular leadership. Olmert and Ramon were among the first to join Sharon's new party on Monday, along with a group of Likud ministers and Knesset members, who were formerly the moderate group within the ruling party.

Throughout the summer, Sharon seriously considered the idea. Visiting New York for the U.N. General Assembly in September, he met potential donors and longtime backers from the American Jewish community. But when Netanyahu called a showdown at the Likud central committee, aiming to force Sharon into an early primary contest, the prime minister narrowly defeated him, and it appeared that Sharon would be able to stay in office until the originally scheduled Election Day in November 2006, and maintain his coalition with the Labor Party. Under Shimon Peres, the 82-year-old vice premier, Labor had turned into a Sharon cheerleading troupe. Once an architect of compromise with the Palestinians and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Peres came to believe that the public had rejected leftist ideas and that supporting Sharon's moves "from within" was the best way to influence policy. Acquaintances for over 50 years, alternately partners and rivals, Peres and Sharon are the elder statesmen of Israeli politics, who between them have seen and done everything.

Their idyllic partnership was shattered, however, on Nov. 9, when Peres -- who during his long career has lost almost every important political contest -- failed again in the Labor primary. The victory of Peretz, his challenger, marked a turning point in Israeli politics. His advent not only marked a generational change -- Peretz is 29 years younger than the ousted Peres -- but also a new agenda. The Labor Party, which had led and built Israel from its pre-state days until 1977, lost its prominence and in recent years appeared as a dying relic of a glorious past. Its failure to achieve peace with the Palestinians through the Oslo agreements and the ill-fated 2000 Camp David summit, which led to the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, was the final nail in its coffin. With Peretz's victory, the political corpse revived itself almost overnight.

Best known to Israelis for his trademark mustache, Amir Peretz has been a presence in political life for over two decades. In recent years, as the trade union leader, he fought against Netanyahu's Thatcherite policies at the treasury. Arriving from Morocco with his family as a child, Peretz grew up in Sderot, a small "developing town" (a euphemism for poverty and underdevelopment) in the Israeli south several miles from Gaza. But unlike most people with his background, he joined Labor rather than the Likud. And since he first appeared on the political landscape, as the mayor of Sderot in the '80s, Peretz argued that the Likud government's obsession with the settlers in the West Bank and Gaza came at the expense of the poor within Israel proper. Although most of his neighbors ignored his call and kept voting Likud, he rose to national prominence through the trade union federation, the Histadrut, once a pillar of Israel's economy and currently the representative of the unionized public sector.

Immediately after winning the primary, albeit by a small margin, Peretz set out to revolutionize the party and the political system. In less than two weeks, he pulled Labor out of Sharon's coalition -- arguing that such "national unity governments" are anathema for democracy -- and forced Sharon to make up his mind, split the Likud and call an early election. For the first time in five years, Labor appears to be a serious political contender, especially given the breakup of its decades-long rival. This is no small achievement for someone who has just risen from the second tier of the nation's political leadership.

Peretz's first remarks indicated he was moving to the left. He called to dismantle the settlement enterprise, to "return to Oslo" and reach a quick final-status deal with the Palestinian Authority. Focusing on social and economic issues, where he feels more at home, Peretz vowed to reject Israel's bipartisan adoption of free-market and privatization policies, which it has followed for 15 years. His goals are to reconstruct the welfare state, raise the minimum wage and support the poor. Speaking before his party's central committee, on Sunday, he softened his peace message, vowing to keep "united Jerusalem" and to resist the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel. But he continued to slam Sharon's economic policies. "We may forgive Sharon for the Lebanon war, but not for poverty," he read from his prepared remarks. At the same time, he also tried to calm the business community, which is worried about his "socialist" policies.

A centralist and dominant boss in the trade union movement, Peretz lacks any experience in matters of war and peace. This is a significant political weakness in a country where politics revolve over terror attacks and undefined borders, although it may bring some fresh thinking to a governing elite that was shaped on the front lines. Sharon's advantage, like Yitzhak Rabin's, lies in his unmatched record as a war hero. His attackers from the right have tried but failed to portray Sharon as a softie who rewarded Palestinian terrorists by removing settlements.

As prime minister, Sharon proved himself time and again to be a calm and brave leader in times of crisis, when the country faced daily suicide bombings, and through the painful process of disengagement. During the evacuation of the Gaza settlements, Sharon also displayed exemplary leadership. Thanks to meticulous preparation, the complicated operation was completed in six days, without a single gunshot. The scary scenarios of large-scale violence and a rift within the military never came to pass. Despite that, Sharon is not immune from weaknesses, most prominently corruption charges. His son Omri, a Knesset member who ran his father's campaigns, was convicted last week -- as part of a plea bargain -- for campaign finance violations during the 1999 Likud primary. Many Israelis view this as the son sacrificing himself for his dad, who walked away claiming "he didn't know."

Sharon's new leadership bid is focused on maintaining the momentum of disengagement, but from a "centrist" viewpoint: moving forward "responsibly," neither rushing to embrace the Palestinians, like the left, nor saying no to territorial compromise like the remaining, post-Sharon Likud. In specific terms, this means another West Bank withdrawal and removal of some settlements, by agreement with the Palestinians or (despite Sharon's denials) through another unilateral move. Israel's military planners, who assessed the options, have recommended another one-sided move, citing the weakness of the Palestinian Authority and Israel's ability to shape the future border according to its own interests. Sharon, however, is publicly committed to the unfulfilled "road map" plan for Palestinian statehood. He loves its demand for a Palestinian crackdown on terror before any Israeli move. But judging by his past actions, he may change his mind and act unilaterally, citing the "national interest."

How far would he go? Sharon is committed to keeping the main "settlement blocs," where most settlers live, as part of Israel, surrounded by the security barrier now under construction. He has pledged to remove other settlements, but has refrained from presenting a map. Many believe that the barrier route is his final, de facto eastern border of Israel. While the Palestinians reject this plan as an illegal confiscation of their land (about 10 percent of the West Bank land is on the "Israeli," western side of the fence), convincing the Israeli right to give up even this much of the West Bank will be extremely difficult. Withdrawing to the fence line will mandate the evacuation and resettlement of some 60,000 people, including the ideological core of the settler movement. Olmert, Sharon's sidekick, argues for it openly. This is no small endeavor, and Sharon's campaign will argue that he is the only leader capable of conducting it, given his proven record in the Gaza pullout, and his great relations with the Bush administration. American support is necessary for such a move, as Israel would need Washington's consent to keep the settlement blocs inside the fence.

Peretz is trying to outflank Sharon from the left, proposing to lease the settlement blocs from a future Palestinian state following a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank (with the exception of East Jerusalem and its holy sites). From the right, the leading figures in the Likud primary contest oppose such a withdrawal, conditioning every move with tough demands from the Palestinians.

The road map calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories if the Palestinians take steps to stop militants. It also calls for Israel not to take steps that would prejudge final-status issues, in particular concerning Jerusalem and the borders of a future Palestinian state. Sharon, with President Bush's tacit acceptance, has largely ignored these restrictions, continuing to build settlements in the West Bank and vowing that the six largest settlements, including key built-up areas around Jerusalem, will remain part of Israel "forever." (New construction has been restricted to these areas, while halted in the dozens of isolated settlements.) Bush signaled his acceptance of Sharon's policies in a letter on April 14, 2004, in which he said that "realities on the ground" meant that Israel should be able to keep some settlements. This speech represented a historic shift in U.S. policy toward the Israeli settlements, which are considered illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention (with Israeli legal dissent). Since then the Bush administration has expressed concern to Israel about construction that threatens to cut off Jerusalem from the West Bank, but has largely given Sharon a free hand in the "settlement blocs" he aims to "keep as part of Israel, connected territorially to Israel," according to his Monday press conference.

Israel is also enjoying an enviable strategic situation, with relative freedom of action, mainly as a result of Bush's aggressive policy in the Middle East. Its rivals, Iran and Syria, are facing international pressure to change their behavior (although the oil-abundant Iran is far less vulnerable to such pressure than Syria). Iraq is under American occupation, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been called to reform and liberalize their regimes. The Palestinians are still devastated by the death of their longtime leader Yasser Arafat last year. Their cause lost some of its global prominence and attention, as Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the new P.A. leader, lacks his former mentor's charisma. Sharon is treating him as a useless weakling, while Hamas, the Islamic militant group, is gaining strength. Israel's Gaza withdrawal has weakened Abbas even more, as he failed to show control in the "liberated" areas. Now he wants to postpone legislative elections, originally planned for late January, for fear of losing ground to Hamas.

Bush and Sharon see eye to eye on almost everything involving the Palestinians, but their interests are not identical. Unlike Sharon, Bush views Abbas as a genuine reformer, committed to peace and democracy, and has so far rejected Sharon's efforts to sideline him. Moreover, American Mideast policy is often judged in European and Arab capitals by its willingness to pressure Israel on the settlements, the barrier and other contentious behaviors in the West Bank. This is where possible tensions between Sharon and Bush could arise, which Peretz will try to exploit. Last week, following a last-minute intervention by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Palestinians gained a first-ever crack in the Israeli siege around Gaza. Scheduled to open on Friday, the Rafah border crossing to Egypt will give the P.A. some control over its external border, although under the third-party supervision of European border officers and Israeli remote-controlled video cameras. This may be far from the Palestinian hopes, but nevertheless it is another important move in ending Israel's occupation.

In these circumstances, the coming Israeli government will probably determine the direction of events in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. The new timetable means that a decision on the next step in the West Bank may be made during 2006, rather than deferred to 2007. Much depends on the composition of Israel's next coalition, especially given the new tripartite structure, which all but leaves out the possibility of a dominant party. Stable parliamentary support is a necessity for a follow-up to the Gaza pullout. International involvement is no less important, in order to keep the process going. Bush's domestic problems cast doubt on his ability to be involved, but Washington remains committed, as shown by Rice's recent visit. This is a good sign, but more will be needed in the coming months.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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