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.