Israel's political map is redrawn

About the author
Eric Silver reported from Israel for three decades for (among other publications) the Guardian, the Observer, the Independent and the Jewish Chronicle.

In the five years since the Palestinians launched their second, more deadly, intifada, the pragmatic Israeli right has grudgingly acknowledged that the dream of a Greater Israel stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan is no longer attainable. The demographic and security price, it admits, is too high. At the same time, the pragmatic left has grudgingly acknowledged that the right was not always wrong in its pessimistic assessment of Palestinian intentions. The 1993 Oslo agreement, the left still contends, was an important breakthrough, but twelve years later it has yet to deliver a comprehensive peace.

The polar icecaps are melting. It has become possible to redraw Israel’s political map. In August 2005, Ariel Sharon created a precedent by evacuating twenty-one settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank. Three months later, on 21 November, he announced that he was breaking from the right-wing Likud (Hebrew for “Unity”) and launching a new centre-right party, Kadima (“Forward”).

On the left, Amir Peretz had already breathed new life into Labour (which has so often been dismissed as “Likud Lite”) by unseating the 82-year-old Shimon Peres to become leader on 9 November. When Israelis cast their ballots in early elections on 28 March 2006, they will have a clearer choice than for many years: between the nationalist right, the managerial centre and the social-democratic left.

But eulogies for the old, discredited order are premature. The dustbin of Israeli politics is overflowing with reformist centre parties that flourished in one election and then vanished in the next. Polls suggest that Shinui, the most recent example – which won fifteen seats in January 2003 on an anti-clerical platform – may join them. Will Sharon’s party survive the 77-year-old Sharon? Will it not just challenge, but supplant, the Likud? Labour has had more than one failed saviour (Yitzhak Rabin in his first term in the mid-1970s, Ehud Barak in the late 1990s). Will Amir Peretz prove another?

The Sharon factor

In any case, Sharon has still to show in practice how far he has strayed from his hawkish past. He commits himself at every opportunity to implement the 2003 roadmap for peace, drafted by the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia and endorsed by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But is he simply playing for time, warding off international pressure while expanding West Bank settlements? Is he gambling on the Palestinians failing to keep their side of the bargain? He says he wants to set Israel’s permanent border and is ready for more evacuations. But will he cede enough territory to make a Palestinian state viable?

Briefing foreign correspondents on 22 November, Eyal Arad, Sharon’s strategic adviser, wrote off “land for peace”, the core of all middle-east peacemaking since 1967, as “false philosophically and naïve politically”. The roadmap, he argued, offered the alternative, “more realistic” formula of a Palestinian homeland in return for Israeli security. The Palestinians were not alone in reading that as a diktat.

Amir Peretz, for his part, has to convince Israelis that he is more than a populist trade-union boss. He has started well, asserting his authority and wooing the political centre. But he, too, will be judged by performance. As the son of Moroccan immigrants, the child of a transit camp, the standard-bearer of the underdeveloped “development towns”, he believes he can wean the predominantly oriental Jewish working-class away from the Likud. That is crucial if Labour – Israel’s party of government for the first twenty-nine years of the state, but more out than in since 1977 – is ever to win another election.

The climate is promising. The “benefits” of Binyamin Netanyahu’s Thatcherite economic revolution have not filtered down. The gap between the very rich and the very poor is wider than ever. The unemployed, the low earners, the pensioners, the single parents – many of whom voted Likud – feel betrayed. But will they swallow their visceral hatred of a Labour party they believe short-changed and humiliated them when they descended from the immigrant boat? Will they drop their inherited suspicion of the Arabs and vote for a member of Peace Now, even if he is “one of their own”? Will the local vote contractors still deliver them to the Likud?

The opinion polls, published on 22 November suggest that Israelis are ready for change. Two of them, in the daily papers Ha’aretz and Ma’ariv, gave Sharon thirty seats in the 120-member Knesset, Labour twenty-six and Likud fifteen. A third poll, in Yediot Aharonot, increased Sharon’s haul to thirty-three seats, reduced Likud to twelve and left Labour on twenty-six. In the 2003 general election, Likud won thirty-eight seats and Labour nineteen. If the polls hold up, the next prime minister should have no trouble forming a coalition that could carry a compromise peace, but a peace that is more self-policing than Oslo. The left burned its fingers at Camp David in July 2000, when Yasser Arafat snubbed not just Ehud Barak but Bill Clinton too. Whoever tries next will be more wary.

Unless voting intentions change drastically, as they still could, during the four-month campaign, the Likud is down, but not yet out. The three frontrunners in the leadership race – Netanyahu, Silvan Shalom and Shaul Mofaz – vow to reform the party. Shalom and Mofaz, foreign and defence ministers in the outgoing government, immigrated as children from Tunisia and Iran respectively. They plan to fight Peretz on the ethnic-social front. It will be difficult to rebrand the Likud, but not impossible.

Also in openDemocracy, the architect Eyal Weizman writes on Israel’s plans for the Palestinians:

“The politics of verticality” – in eleven parts (April-May 2002)

“Ariel Sharon and the geometry of occupation” – in three parts (September 2003)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

The Likud factor

Ariel Sharon, fresh from the army, welded Likud from four right and centre parties in 1973. It has remained a hybrid. Menachem Begin’s Herut, heir to the underground Irgun Zvai Leumi fighting force, supplied the ideological engine. In the spirit of Begin’s guru, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Herut campaigned for a Jewish state in the whole of the biblical homeland. Partition was tantamount to treason. Sharon was a member of the middle-class Liberal Party, by then past its sell-by date but with a more moderate tradition. He and his smaller partners envisaged the Likud as a party of the centre-right, like the British Conservatives or European Christian Democrats, which could appeal to a broader constituency.

The union held up, but it was never a marriage of minds. Some of the ideologues defected when Begin made peace with Egypt in 1979. Others rebelled when Netanyahu, a later prime minister, handed 80% of the holy city of Hebron to Palestinian rule in 1997. Sharon’s Gaza disengagement provoked a divorce. The true believers, led by Uzi Landau, the son of Begin’s right-hand man, sought first to sabotage the plan, then to make it impossible for him to govern. “Life in the Likud in its present form has become unbearable”, Sharon said in his resignation speech on 21 November.

If the rump Likud, under whoever wins the 19 December primary, is held captive by the ideologues, it will find itself stranded on the margin, more of a pressure group than a party. The voters showed this summer that they will not let the settler minority set their agenda. Many sympathised with the settlers over the Gaza pullout, but few resisted. All three of the Likud frontrunners voted for disengagement in cabinet, though Netanyahu resigned at the last minute. Their first task will be to isolate the true believers. Their second, no less difficult, will be to end the Likud culture of corruption that has disgusted the nation.

There, at least, they will have the advantage over Sharon. With his son, Omri, awaiting sentence for illegal fundraising, perjury and falsifying corporate documents, and the fraud squad still investigating suspicions against the prime minister and his other son, Gilad, he can hardly campaign as Mr Clean.