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Why ‘Sharonism’ Will Hold the Center in Israel

In the year leading up to this past August’s disengagement from Gaza, Prime Minister Sharon had great difficulty in marshaling parliamentary support for his plan even though 65-70% of Israelis consistently supported it. His own party voted against it in an intra-party referendum, many of his fellow Likud ministers were either opposed to it or gave it lukewarm support, and two small right-wing parties left his coalition. Several times it looked as if Sharon would lose his tenuous parliamentary majority.

There was, clearly, a disconnect between public opinion in the country and its political representation in the Knesset. Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud and found the centrist Kadima party overcame this disconnect, but in the wake of the prime minister’s incapacitation many have been questioning whether it is more than just a passing political fad.

It should be clear by now that Kadima is not just an ephemeral phenomenon or a one-man show. That even under the decidedly non-charismatic Ehud Olmert the party is being predicted to win more than a third of the Knesset seats in March shows that Israeli politics has experienced a tectonic shift.

Sharon’s unilateral disengagement up-ended the conventional dichotomies of post-1967 Israeli politics. The left, which opposed settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, had been looking for a partner for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. The right, which supported massive Jewish settlements in the territories, had been looking for continued control over the historical Land of Israel. Both policies failed: The left got its comeuppance in 2000 at Camp David when the Palestinians rejected Prime Minister Barak’s and President Clinton’s offers and reverted to suicide bombings, while the right learned soon thereafter that force alone will not crush the Palestinians and break their resistance to Israeli occupation.

It was this overall failure of the Israeli political system that brought Sharon to the realization that absent an agreement and a viable Palestinian partner, the status quo was untenable. Israel, he concluded, must start defining its borders unilaterally. While never explicitly defining them, it was clear that Sharon viewed the dismantlement of the Gaza settlements as only the first step in an open-ended process, whose parameters would ultimately depend on Israel’s own decisions.

This paradigm shift from conflict resolution to conflict management brought the vast majority of Israelis to Sharon’s side. The 70% that supported the Gaza disengagement were a motley crowd: right-wingers who nonetheless feared that by keeping the territories Israel would over time lose its Jewish majority; left-wingers who despaired of waiting for the Palestinians to accept Israel and who welcomed any step that would minimize Israeli occupation; and many who were tired of the failure of both the traditional right and left to solve the conflict and put an end to the violence.

The success of the Gaza disengagement, and the almost universal acclaim it received internationally, gave many Israelis the feeling that Sharon’s policies were more than just wishful thinking. He had the capacity, as well as the ruthlessness, to carry them out. What is more, he signaled that for the first time since 1967, an Israeli government had the will and the courage to decide both Israel’s borders and what kind of country it was going to be.

It is this bold policymaking that distinguishes Kadima from earlier attempts to create a new centrist party in Israel. There was Yigael Yadin’s Democratic Movement for Change, or Dash, in the late 1970s, the Center Party of Yitzhak Mordechai, Dan Meridor and Amnon Lipkin-Shahak in the late l990s, and Tommy Lapid’s reborn Shinui in the past couple of years. But it is no coincidence that all these attempts have fizzled out.

Dash was more a protest movement than a coherent political party with clear policies and goals: Its appealing rhetorical calls for “new politics” and the like rang hollow after it joined the government without changing anything fundamental in the country’s policies or politics.

The same can be said for the rapidly disintegrating Shinui, which gathered an astounding 15 seats in the Knesset in 2002 mainly due to the rabid anti-religious invectives of Lapid. On becoming justice minister, he failed to make the transition from a loud-mouthed talk-show personality to a serious statesman. Its current disarray — it is far from certain that Shinui will pull in enough votes in March to pass the threshold for participation in the Knesset — shows it to be expressing a transient mood rather than a political program.

Kadima, on the other hand, has from its inception been in a different league. It is not a protest movement, but rather a policy movement. It hails from the center of power, not from its margins. And it also has a proven record to run on, not just rhetoric.

While Sharon was sparing with policy statements, some of his lieutenants have been more explicit: Olmert has maintained that holding on to the territories endangers Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and even Justice Minister Tzipi Livni has admitted that her dream of an un-divided Land of Israel is unrealistic and hence, with a heavy heart, she has accepted a two-state solution. That Shimon Peres joined Kadima is not just an expression of personal ambitions: The veteran politician knows that sometimes, the politics of the left can be carried out only from the right.

Israeli politics have seen too many upheavals in the last months, but it appears that Kadima, even without Sharon, will come out on top in the next elections. Labor’s Amir Peretz may be a charismatic trade unionist, and his Moroccan background gives him immunity from a lot of criticism, but with his total lack of government experience and unfamiliarity with matters of foreign policy and security, few would trust him to lead the country. Benjamin Netanyahu does have leadership experience, but that is the albatross around his neck, and the rump Likud he now leads has shrunk to the historical proportions of the old, Revisionist nationalist right.

Between what is left of the left and right, Israeli politics how has a solid center. Sharon gave it leadership and articulated its identity, much as Charles de Gaulle did in a critical hour of his country’s history. And like Gaullism in France, it appears that “Sharonism” is here to stay.

Shlomo Avineri is a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

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