Sharon’s Legacy: Israel, Party Surviving Well Without Him

JERUSALEM — For a moment last week, Ehud Olmert seemed like a guy who’d agreed to take a small-plane trip of uncertain destination with his friend, the pilot — and then watched the pilot collapse over the controls.

In the hours after Prime Minister Sharon’s January 4 stroke, Israeli commentators stressed that Sharon’s new Kadima party was a one-man show — a “movement” whose only program was the candidate. With the prime minister disabled, politicians who’d left other parties expecting to ride his popularity to power seemed headed toward a crash. Chief among them was Olmert, acting prime minister and pale fill-in for a candidate, a tragicomic figure staring terrified out of the cockpit.

Yet the first polls defied those expectations. With Olmert at its head, Kadima would receive 39 of 120 Knesset seats, a Dahaf-Yediot Aharonot survey found a day after Sharon’s stroke — virtually the same as the week before, under Sharon. On the left, Labor would get just 20; on the right, the Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu would win a mere 16. Another national poll shortly afterward confirmed the picture: The new centrist party could stay aloft and soar without Sharon.

Those numbers may reflect the electorate’s slow reaction time, or sympathy for the prime minister who lay in Hadassah Hospital. Israeli campaigns are volatile. The local equivalent of Swift Boat ads has not yet begun. A victory for Hamas in the Palestinian legislative elections, scheduled for January 25, could help the right, in the usual unintended alliance of hardliners. Likewise, if Israeli cafés begin exploding, Netanyahu is likely to appear on the bloody sidewalk, touting his terror-fighting credentials and gaining votes.

Still, the picture of Kadima as a one-man party is partly media illusion. The press prefers biography to sociology. TV cameras need a face, and so they automatically stress the great-man theory of history.

Kadima cracks that theory. Sharon formed the party with the encouragement of Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. Together, they were responding to significant changes in the Israeli political mood, and exploiting some curious, contradictory thinking on the part of their potential voters.

Olmert and Livni are among the elite group known as the “princes” of the Likud: children of the tight circle of rightists who followed the Zionist Revisionist movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky, fought in the pre-state Irgun underground and entered politics after statehood. From the outset, their party stressed the Jewish claim to the entire Land of Israel, and after the conquests of the Six-Day War it opposed any territorial concessions. When the Likud took power in 1977, it orchestrated the rapid growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. The princes were regarded as the next generation of leaders in waiting. Sharon was always slightly an outsider — an ex-general who joined the movement as an adult, and who stressed strategy over ideology.

Olmert and Livni are also the latest of the princes to break with their parents’ creed of the Whole Land. Before them came ex-justice minister Dan Meridor, former Tel Aviv mayor Ronni Milo and Arye Naor, one-time Cabinet secretary to Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Naor is now a professor at Ben-Gurion University. The Revisionist creed, Naor explained, called not only for a Whole Land but also for “a Jewish state with a Jewish majority and a democratic regime.” Naor, who wrote the authoritative study of Whole Land ideology, counts himself as the first to conclude that the package could not hold, that “we have to give up part of the land so that there will be a Jewish, democratic state here.”

Olmert announced his own epiphany late in 2003, when official population figures published by Israel and the Palestinian Authority showed that Arabs were approaching parity with Jews in the territory under Israeli rule. In a newspaper interview that December, he warned that soon Palestinians will declare: “There’s no room for two states between the Jordan and the sea. All we want is the right to vote.” Once that happens, he warned, “liberal Jewish organizations that shouldered the burden of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa will lead the struggle against us.” Asserting that Palestinian conditions for a peace agreement were too high for negotiations to succeed, he proposed unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, much of the West Bank, even parts of Jerusalem. Soon after, Ariel Sharon announced his plan to “disengage” from Gaza.

Last September, in a post-disengagement speech that Olmert had drafted for delivery to the Likud Central Committee, Sharon reiterated that the dream of the Whole Land could not be achieved. The sound system failed mysteriously, and the speech was not delivered. It was not long until Sharon and friends left the Likud to create Kadima.

Let’s stress: Olmert and Sharon have followed public opinion more than they’ve formed it. “The public is afraid of a binational state,” said Ephraim Yaar, a professor at Tel Aviv University. Yaar’s Peace Index Project has tracked Israeli attitudes for more than a decade. The October 2003 Peace Index survey, for instance, found that 67% of Israelis “strongly” or “moderately” feared that without a two-state solution, a “de facto binational state” would emerge. Two-thirds of the public, that is, had accepted the Israeli left’s classic argument against keeping the West Bank and Gaza, and the left’s answer of a Palestinian state.

That was not a fluke. Peace Index results from December 2005, just a month ago, show that 73% of Israelis favor peace talks with the P.A., and nearly that number support Palestinian independence. The rub is that 63% think most Palestinians have not accepted Israel’s existence. Combined, the figures mean that a wide swath of the Israeli political center deeply distrusts the Palestinians — and is ready to give up land for peace. Arguably, that’s Kadima’s core constituency.

Pollster Yaar adds another dimension: Over the past decade, he says, the “range” of Israeli politics, meaning the actual positions of the voters, has shifted leftward. Electorally, though, voters have moved to the right. The breakdown of the Oslo process sliced support for Labor. Amir Peretz, Labor’s new leader, is “firmly deep in the left” in public perception. In effect, the electorate — or at least the swing vote that decides elections — wants the right to govern and carry out the left’s policies. Kadima fills that need, and Olmert, the Likud prince with heretical ideas, has at least the potential to take Sharon’s place as the rightist who can be trusted to cede land.

The paradox is reflected by how people plan to vote. Despite the presence of Shimon Peres, Kadima is made up mainly of ex-Likudniks. Count it with parties of the right, and those parties dominate the map. If you count Kadima with the parties that favor territorial concessions, though, you find that bloc has a powerful majority.

Yet analyzing the figures also reveals a trap waiting for Olmert and Kadima. Overwhelmingly, according to the latest Peace Index, Israelis oppose another unilateral pullback. The preferred option is a negotiated peace.

As military strength personified, Sharon could gather the public behind a unilateral pullout from Gaza. On his own, Olmert would have a much harder time mobilizing support for Disengagement II without peace. Livni, who is emerging as Kadima’s policy voice, has stated publicly that the security fence Israel is building “will have implications for the future border” and that Supreme Court decisions on the fence route are “drawing the country’s borders.” But viewing the fence as a border means annexing large pieces of the West Bank. Even under the most favorable conditions, there is no Palestinian partner for the fence as peace map. And to gain Israeli backing for withdrawal, Olmert needs negotiations.

Olmert is not powerless at the controls. He may be able to keep his craft aloft. But the destination indeed remains uncertain.

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Sharon’s Legacy: Israel, Party Surviving Well Without Him

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