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Sharon: after the ice age?

About the author
Paul Hilder is co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of the Labour party.

‘Après moi, le déluge.’ These words were first spoken in decadent hubris by the mistress of Louis XV, Madame de Pompadour. But they could also apply to the reign of Ariel Sharon now drawing to its close.

Sharon, unlike Louis, may rule again. But the underpinnings of his hegemony have crumbled. His national unity government with the formerly dovish Labor party has fallen. New elections will be held on 4 February 2003. The shadow play of almost two years is over, and politics has returned to Israel.

When I think of Sharon’s rule, I think of a glacier. These months, grindingly slow, have frozen the peace process in its tracks and shattered thousands of lives, innocent and combatant, Israeli and Palestinian. Sharon has had help from the Palestinians, from the suicide bombers, from an equivocating Arafat. But piece-by-piece, his nation has been tumbling into an icy, hopeless sea.

When he was elected last year, only 38% of Israelis expected this extremist’s unity government to last until elections scheduled for November 2003. But keeping his enemies closer than his friends, Sharon removed any serious opposition from the floor of the Knesset. Forming a wide government with his flailing Labor opponents, he internalised arguments around the cabinet table. The deep freeze had begun. ‘National unity’ was its watchword.

The coalition falls

Now a thaw is coming, bearing turbulence and uncertainty. As October drew to a close, Labor leader Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, Sharon’s coalition defence minister, struck a pose over the ‘austerity budget’. Ben-Eliezer fought successfully for resources to be transferred to pensioners and students; but his real, negative, goal had been to cut support for the settlements. He failed and stormed out of government.

Ben-Eliezer’s eyes were fixed on the Labor primaries less than two weeks away, on 19 November. He had been lagging behind both of his left-wing challengers, Amram Mitzna and Haim Ramon, and needed to win peaceniks over. >

But his schismatic walkout is too little, too late. Most Israelis see it for what it is – a desperate manoeuvre to hang on to the leadership. He will lose. Israel may have a real opposition once again, with a credible vision of peace and a road map to achieve it.

>Still, only the government makes peace, and Likud may double its representation in the new elections. Sharon’s eyes are also fixed on a leadership contest. His challenger is Benjamin Netanyahu, who in a bizarre twist has become his new foreign minister.

Like the left-wingers, Netanyahu calls for a clear endgame. But he wants Arafat to be removed by force, and a Palestinian state to be ruled out for all time – against the policy of Israel’s US patrons.

Sharon has lived off his tactical brilliance, his short-term military successes, and the mists of ‘national unity’. These have allowed him to paint himself as a man of the centre, blaming the left for holding him back and the right for extremism. Can this survive a general election?

The new politics

Security is still the hottest button in Israel. The suicide bombers have kept Sharon in a position of strength. Now their onslaughts have been slowed by his military successes, attention turns to issues on which he looks weaker. Hence his need to highlight security questions where his main card is the impending conflict with Iraq. For as long as it casts its shadow of uncertainty, the freeze will persist in the hearts of many Israelis. They prefer Sharon the conservative while Iraq is round the corner. Now, to keep up the tension, he has put Iran in the firing line.

But for many on the right, Netanyahu’s more brutal security platform looks stronger. According to a poll on October 25th, he is ahead of Sharon 46% to 42% among Likud voters, and he recently strengthened his position in Likud Central Committee elections. As a whole, Israelis much prefer Sharon to Netanyahu; but he must beat his foreign minister in the Likud party primaries first.

Meanwhile, economic collapse is gathering. The coalition crisis has led to a downgrade in Israel’s international and domestic credit ratings. Unemployment is 10.3% and rising. Inflation is already running at 8.6% over only nine months. Real wages fell 5.8% in the second quarter of 2002 alone, and the powerful Histadrut trade union has staged general strikes demanding real wage stability for its low-paid members. One in five Israelis now lives beneath the poverty line.

Israel’s economy reaped the twin harvests of globalisation and peace in the 1990s, while the Palestinians stayed mired in poverty. Now, the global recession and the conflict’s costs have combined to send its economy spiralling downward. Israelis, like Americans, are a people of maxed-out credit cards. Recession hits them hard and fast, and Sharon’s budget for the coming year has cut many welfare programmes to the bone.

In August, Ron Pundak, one of the architects of the Oslo peace accords told me that economic disaster sets the stage for Sharon’s collapse; ‘the decision to make a change toward a more right-wing or more centre-left government will depend on what happens on the Palestinian side.’

This is a terrible onus to place on a shattered society under curfew and occupation. Most Palestinians argue that only the Israelis have the power to make the first move. But both sides may have to shuffle together before either can make a grand leap.

Certainly, many Palestinians have decided it is time for a new strategy. Arafat’s Fatah faction has dictated ceasefires that seem to be holding for heartland Israel. But there are also signs of radicalisation and splintering, with militant factions becoming autonomous and Hamas gathering strength in Gaza. Moves for reform and new leadership are frozen after the latest Muqa’ata siege drew thousands to the street to demonstrate for Arafat – and neutered a ‘palace revolution’ set in train by legislators in September. In their leaning toward ‘glacial politics’, Sharon and Arafat are kindred spirits.

Thus, there are three contests under way, and their outcomes will decide the February election: the contests between Sharon and Netanyahu for the leadership of Likud, between Ben-Eliezer and his rivals for Labor, and amongst Palestinians over the role of Arafat.

As Palestinian analyst and former negotiator, Salim Tamari, said to me earlier this year, ‘Both the Israeli street and the Palestinian public are very mercurial. Once you have a return to…some kind of normality, then it’s quite likely that extreme positions will shift and realign themselves. It happened before, with the fall of Shamir.’ Then, in 1991, Rabin was running 20 points behind in the polls, the year before his surprise victory began the road to Oslo. Israelis were tired of intifada; they wanted something different.

Now, they are disgusted with Arafat. But they are also realising that they can’t follow the Sharon route forever. In the coming political turbulence, the endgame will re-emerge. But which?

Will Netanyahu unseat Sharon in next month’s primaries? He is stronger on economic issues. If he wins, Likud will also forgo much of the centre constituency Sharon has won for it. The question then is whether the left can revive.

Can the left awake?

Ben-Eliezer is now a broken, blustering man. Though he is a consummate machine politician, his rivals look certain to defeat him. If they do not, Labor will split in two.

The first of the contenders, Haim Ramon, was endorsed a decade ago by US writer, Thomas Friedman, as the coming man. He removed party control over the Histadrut union, and has a reputation for being untrustworthy; but he was one of the first to advocate unilateral withdrawal, and has been a committed critic of Sharon. His platform appears to be withdrawal followed by immediate, intensive peace talks.

Amram Mitzna, by contrast, is the businessmen’s candidate. His late entry galvanized the formerly slumbering Israeli left; previously, Ramon was lagging behind Ben-Eliezer. Mitzna is rumoured to have been persuaded to stand by industrialists desperate about economic collapse. Mayor of Haifa and a former Israeli army general in the territories, he entered Israeli legend when he rebelled against Sharon over the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. He is for peace talks with anyone, even Arafat, followed by unilateral withdrawal if they fail.

It looks likely that Mitzna will win the leadership, and be joined by Ramon. Labor will be saved as a political party, for now. If it can build a serious opposition and a clear agenda leading to peace talks, security, withdrawal and a final resolution, it may gather support fast. For if Mitzna and Ramon face Netanyahu, Labor could just be the party of government after the next elections. Beilin is now talking about forming a united peace bloc with Meretz.

Sharon is manoeuvring hard and fast to head this off. He has appointed hawkish former chief of staff, Shaul Mofaz, defence minister, in the most meteoric rise yet from military to high political office. This is a blocking tactic that may yet backfire. Meanwhile, he has invited Netanyahu to become foreign minister, and Netanyahu has accepted, on condition of swift elections. He has also demanded that the government follow his own agenda, to expel Arafat and rule out a Palestinian state – a demand Sharon, who continues to keep his enemies closer than his friends, has not accepted. But having Netanyahu and Mofaz in his cabinet may backfire if they fail to toe the line during these three months.

Sharon sees himself fighting a conflict without end, in which the best outcome is domination of the enemy neighbour. But the international community keeps pushing him to make peace. In this context, glacial politics – in which diplomacy goes nowhere – is the best policy. He is creating his own foe, as the ‘Lebanonising’ territories descend into a splintered, violent morass.

But Israelis can no longer ignore economic and demographic meltdown. The thaw has come; but the currents are turbulent. Both Netanyahu and the new peace camp have better economic credentials than Sharon. Who will put the most believable peace and security plan on the table?

An era is coming to a close. Either the path to the two-state solution will be set, or that solution will begin to vanish. ‘Après moi, le déluge,’ Sharon may muse from his Sycamore Ranch farm near Gaza. But whether the flood will bring rebirth, new savagery, or another ice age, is up to Israel, the Palestinians, and the world.


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