The dramatic events that have shaken the Israeli political establishment in the run-up to national elections next March have been called an earthquake by many. First Amir Peretz staged an upset victory over Shimon Peres to take control of the Labor Party. Then Ariel Sharon parted ways with the far-right politicians in Likud to form the new centrist Kadima party. And now there’s talk of a consolidation process taking place among the Arab factions, while the smaller right-wing parties have lost their clout.
These developments certainly herald significant short-term changes in the Israeli political scene, and also could mark the beginning of a long-term realignment of the political map. Only time will tell, however, if Israel is indeed living through a political earthquake or just a mild tremor.
At first glance, all the hype about this election cycle appears to be justified.
Peretz’s triumph in the Labor primaries has re-energized a party that had fallen on hard times in recent elections and seen itself as no more than a desirable partner in someone else’s coalition government. Peretz was elected to turn Labor into a fighting opposition and to set a new agenda for Israel, one focused more on the needs of the poor, elderly and unemployed and not exclusively on the peace process. He’s brought extensive organizational experience to Labor, and many new people are being attracted to the party because of his message, his dynamic personality and his Sephardic background.
Sharon bolted the Likud, in part, because he was wary of being constrained once again by hardliners from that party, particularly if he decides to embark on another initiative in the West Bank, as he did with disengagement from Gaza. Kadima’s platform calls for a Palestinian state to be established alongside Israel, something that never would come out of the Likud.
By positioning Kadima as a centrist party on diplomatic issues, Sharon has helped give voice to the Israeli majority that has tired of the occupation and simply wants peace. As a result, the next Knesset may finally reflect the views of most Israelis. It is this potential long-overdue translation of popular political support for peace into a firm legislative majority for a two-state solution that could be the most important result of the March elections, despite the significant differences between the parties about how a lasting peace should be pursued.
Several of the Arab parties may merge in order to cross the new higher threshold for representation in the next Knesset. While this is not a major development in and of itself, both Kadima and Labor are making public overtures to Arab leaders about including them in any government they put together. Such a move would bestow tremendous legitimacy to Israeli Arab interests that traditionally have been ignored.
Meanwhile, the right and far-right parties are fighting over the anti-peace constituency. But for the first time, these factions, including Likud, are unlikely to wield any kind of veto power over peace process issues, as they have in the past.
And yet, there are reasons to question how permanent these changes will be.
First, Sharon is basically running Kadima as a one-man show. He got out of Likud precisely because he was tired of the trappings of broad-based decision-making within that party — the Central Committee votes on policy, the primaries for Knesset seats and the constant undermining of his decisions. In Kadima, he calls the shots. It’s a convenient setup for him.
But it’s a failure in terms of institutionalizing Kadima. Sharon is not providing people with a long-term stake in his party, nor is he building a serious infrastructure to maintain interest in it after he’s gone. Unless Sharon figures out a way to delegate responsibility, Kadima could disappear after he leaves politics — and its supporters could drift back to the older parties from which they came.
Second, Peretz took over Labor on the promise of creating a real opposition to Sharon. But judging by opinion polls taken so far, Sharon seems to be the one who will form the next government, and Labor is a likely candidate to be his junior coalition partner yet again. As a result, the incoming government could bear more than a passing resemblance to the outgoing one.
It will be hard for Peretz to continue to distinguish his platform and his party if Labor is part of a government whose prime minister is more focused on security matters and can easily address Peretz’s issues. It’s unclear how long Peretz would last as Labor leader under these circumstances.
Israel could be in the process of a major political consolidation and realignment, or just a fleeting phase driven by leaders who may not be in power for very long. The ground is still shaking from recent political developments, but it’s too early to say what political structures will be left standing when it stops.
However, regardless of what the party landscape looks like in the post-election period, the possibility of having, for the first time, a Knesset with a pro-peace majority is reason enough to be excited about the upcoming vote.
Debra DeLee is president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.