Left, Right And Center

By Leonard Fein

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
  • Print
  • Share Share

For about a millisecond, it seemed as if politics in Israel was experiencing a clarity bounce. The Labor Party, once the unchallenged engine of the system but lately suffering from mortis (yet without rigor), a flopping corpse suffering from terminal nostalgia, suddenly had chosen to face forward rather than back.

Amir Peretz, its new leader, was a man with a history and a platform and a passion for the future, a very different future from that proposed by Israel’s other parties. It had become routine in Israel to pay flip service to all domestic issues: a crumbling education system, a crumbling health care system, a huge increase in poverty, especially among children, and — gulp — the largest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized society, to assert the near-absolute priority of security issues, to imply and sometimes even to say explicitly that the accumulated aches and pains on the domestic side would have to await attention until the security issues were resolved. (By which time the aches and pains would have metastasized, reached and ruined the nation’s internal organs.)

Peretz quite boldly — and, because of his own history, with great credibility — proposed to reverse all that. He’d run on a domestic agenda, and he’d be clear that the domestic agenda and the security agenda were linked.

Those familiar with the Israeli political system, even though aware of that system’s propensity for muddle and chaos, were intrigued: Perhaps the working class Mizrachim who’d abandoned Labor for Likud in 1977 might now, out of their own economic and social distress, endorse Peretz, one of their own. Perhaps those who’d voted for Shas out of respect for traditional Judaism and out of gratitude for the social services that Shas provided them would see in Peretz a more plausible alternative, a man prepared to respect the tradition but not be enslaved by it.

Perhaps. And Labor’s own old-timers, a substantial number of whom had migrated to Meretz and even Shinui, now might conclude that it had come time to let Labor be Labor, to help bring it out of its virtual coma and become again a forceful social democratic party.

No such luck. The embattled bulldozer, the current giant of Israeli politics, now has ripped himself free of the ties with which Likud’s Lilliputians had endlessly annoyed him. (Recall Jonathan Swift’s “Lilliput,” marked by the pettiness of small minds who imagine themselves to be grand, filled with petty backbiting, the grandiosity of the truly mediocre.) So, finally, the lumbering giant decides to stand on his own: Ariel Sharon decides to let Sharon be Sharon. He will make a new party and take his case and his name to the polls, thereby ending Amir Peretz’s moment in the sun.

Whether Sharon’s move makes immediate political sense we will know only in the weeks ahead. On the surface, it makes great organizational sense. For some time now, Likud had been an uneasy amalgam of what is called in Israel “the national camp,” meaning those committed to Likud’s historic position opposing any territorial compromise with the Palestinians, and the pragmatic camp led by Sharon, widely if incorrectly perceived as Israel’s Mr. Security. The two sides coexisted with some discomfort until Sharon forced the Gaza disengagement, a pill the adherents of the national camp, led by Likud’s most prominent Lilliputian, Benjamin Netanyahu, refused to swallow.

So, even greater clarity? Labor as Labor, Likud as historic Likud, and Sharon as Sharon? Clear choices all the way around?

Don’t count on it. No one knows exactly — or, for that matter, even approximately — what it means to let Sharon be Sharon. A very strong argument can be made that Sharon wants, in what would plainly be his last round as prime minister, to re-enter Israel’s history as the great peacemaker, legitimate winner of a Nobel Peace Prize that would cleanse his long-since bloodied clothes, earning his rightful place in the pantheon of Israel’s founding fathers.

Sharon was a fighting general for much longer than he has been a fighting politician, and his modus operandi as a soldier, the pattern that marked his military craft and accounts for both his successes and his failures, was always opportunism. He saw openings where others did not, and took risks others would not. He was not hampered by doctrine nor inhibited by ideology. It requires no suspension of disbelief to imagine Sharon the war-maker transformed into Sharon the peacemaker, concluding his career by presiding over the end, at last, of Israel’s bitter conflict with its neighbors.

But at least as strong a case can be made for the view that Sharon’s “peace plan” is a mirage, a program to cantonize Palestine, to strengthen Israel’s “enclaves” in the West Bank and render irreversible a new and expanded map of Israel. Witness the early statements of Sharon’s aides: Sharon’s decision to go it alone, they reportedly say, signifies “his intention to carry out far-reaching diplomatic moves… testifies to a significant about-face in his ideology, which is likely to include favoring the evacuation of most or all isolated settlements in the West Bank.”

So, four more years, and all you get is evacuation of most or all the isolated settlements of the West Bank? That is a recipe for making a molehill out of a mountain.

But whatever Sharon’s plans, his unencumbered candidacy changes the character of the election campaign. If Peretz stays true to his focus on domestic issues, the “debate” will be a series of nonsequiturs, poverty vs. security, education vs. security, health care vs. security. And then? Election campaigns are only the prelude in Israel. The day after elections, when coalition negotiations begin, is what matters most. We can be confident that when that time comes, clarity will be granted early retirement.






Find us on Facebook!
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.