Sharon’s Earthquake

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.
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Fresh from his taboo-shattering withdrawal from Gaza last summer, Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon touched off yet another earthquake this week. The first earthquake, disengagement, began a redrawing of Israel’s geopolitical borders by removing troops and settlers unilaterally from territory first captured in 1967. The second earthquake will redraw the contours of Israeli politics, allowing him to continue the first.

To shake up the political system, Sharon announced that he was leaving the Likud, the party he was instrumental in creating 30 years ago, and forming a new political vehicle, tentatively named National Responsibility. The new party’s aim, Sharon told a press conference, will be “to lay the groundwork for a peace agreement where we will set the country’s permanent borders.” That means giving up most of the West Bank to create a Palestinian state, ending the Likud’s 80-year ideological quest for a Greater Israel. In order to shake off the Likud’s ideological baggage and free himself to pursue his pragmatic vision, Sharon had to split his party, take the pragmatists out and leave the ideologues behind.

Polls suggest that Sharon’s new grouping will capture about one-fourth of the electorate, or some 30 Knesset seats, in upcoming parliamentary elections, now scheduled for March 28. The rump Likud, while retaining most of the party’s leaders and activists, will be reduced to 25 Knesset seats or fewer after the voting. Sharon is expected to join forces with the Labor Party, which seems set to vault ahead of the Likud and nearly match Sharon’s showing. Together they will form a new center-left coalition that will continue Sharon’s drive toward secure borders, disengagement from the Palestinians and — just perhaps — peace.

The magnitude of Sharon’s step cannot be understated. Israel was governed for its first 28 years by various incarnations of the Labor Party. In 1977, Labor was unseated by the Likud, the right-wing bloc engineered by Sharon himself and led by Menachem Begin. The Likud has largely dominated Israeli life ever since, with brief exceptions. Now it is 28 years later, and the pendulum is about to swing back again — thanks, once more, to Sharon.

It’s important to note that Sharon’s latest earthquake would not have been possible if not for the important change that the Labor Party underwent two weeks earlier. By choosing Moroccan-born trade unionist Amir Peretz as its new standard bearer, Labor dramatically changed its public profile and upended some of Israel’s traditionally tribal political loyalties. Most important, Peretz managed by acting quickly and decisively to put Sharon on notice that the time for change was now.

Sharon had hoped for more time to plan his next moves. Leaving the Likud was an emotionally wrenching step. He had been hoping, say those close to him, to stay in his party and drag it toward some new diplomatic initiative. Peretz, by announcing the end of Labor’s partnership with the Likud, forced Sharon to make a choice. If he’d stayed in the Likud, he would have faced a new term at the helm of a party still seething over last summer’s disengagement and unlikely to tolerate a new one. Moreover, his potential coalition partners would have been limited; parties to the left are unwilling to work with the Likud as long as it rejects further compromise, and parties to the right would block any compromise Sharon might propose.

In the end, though, it was a tectonic shift in Sharon’s thinking that started the process. Curiously, it’s still unclear just what prompted him, in his 70s, to re-examine his decades-old assumptions and turn his political world upside down. To be sure, speculation is rife. Some say it was his realization, after becoming prime minister and having free rein to govern as he chose, that the hardline formulas he had espoused for decades could not offer lasting security. Some say it was the mounting sympathy around the world for the Palestinian cause, threatening Israel with dangerously growing isolation if it did not take steps to end the deadlock. Sharon has hinted at both explanations, but left much unsaid.

In a sense, though, it’s misleading to look too deeply for some mystical transformation. Sharon has always been “a man of parts,” as we wrote in an editorial when he was first elected in February 2001. And while he was best known for the parts that pulled triggers and built settlements, his other parts, we wrote, “tilt toward moderation and pragmatism.” Back then, we urged the public to give Sharon time to see which side of his nature would win out. Now we know.

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