November’s extraordinary political developments in Israel could have dramatic consequences for the Middle East as a whole.
After shaking up the peace process with his unprecedented unilateral Disengagement from Gaza and part of the West Bank in September, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has now dramatically re-aligned Israeli internal politics by quitting the Likud, the party that he helped to form. He has established a new centrist party, called Kadima (“forwards”) – together with several other prominent Likud and some Labor Members of Knesset – which he will head in the upcoming March elections.
Sharon’s dramatic move came after repeated attempts by the Likud apparatus, still bitter over the Gaza Disengagement, to restrain his actions. Sharon made a realistic assessment that, at the very least, Likud conservatives would block future policy initiatives toward the Palestinians. Moreover, a Likud Central Committee composed of mostly rightist activists will be determining the next Likud electoral list, and many of them have vowed to take revenge for Sharon’s uprooting of the Gaza Strip settlements. Speaking at a press conference where he announced his dramatic decision, Sharon described life in the Likud as having become “unbearable”.
Together with the surprise win of union leader Amir Peretz over veteran Shimon Peres as head of the Labor Party, Sharon’s move has the potential to dramatically reshape Israeli politics.
Preliminary polls following the Likud split show that a new alignment of Israeli political parties is being created. According to these polls, Sharon’s new party could win at least 30 Knesset seats, with Labor in second. This could leave the Likud with about 15 seats, less than half its current size.
The new party could reinvigorate the political centre in Israel. Polls show that, after four years of terror and violence initially moved the Israeli public to the right, that trend has now largely reversed itself. Now Israelis have swung back to the centre, as was demonstrated by their support for the Disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
The majority of Israelis have, over the past decade, become disenchanted with the dominant political ideas of both the Israeli right and the Israeli left. The left had argued that a sincere good-faith effort to negotiate a two-state deal with the Palestinians would lead to genuine peace. Oslo, and the five year terror war initiated and supported by Yasser Arafat immediately after he was offered at Camp David in 2000 the vast bulk of what he said he wanted, convinced most Israelis that the criteria for real peace are much more complex than simple Israeli willingness to offer territorial compromises.
The right argued that, for security or ideological reasons, Israel should indefinitely maintain its rule over the West Bank and Gaza. But the Palestinian suicide bombers moving freely from the West Bank into Israeli markets, discos, restaurants, and public squares, the suffering on both sides, as well as growing evidence of a Palestinian demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character, have convinced most Israelis that separation from the Palestinians is essential.
Israel’s new pragmatic centre goes beyond the majority opinion that has existed for many years in Israel in favour of agreeing to a Palestinian state in exchange for genuine peace. Recognising that the Palestinians are so far unable to create a leadership both able and willing to make a peace deal stick, this segment of the population is also prepared to push on unilaterally toward a separation, in effect giving Palestinians a state whether they want it or not. Sharon’s new party is intended to represent this new pragmatic Israeli centre.
Sharon’s party, together with Israel’s two traditional main parties, Labor and Likud, will offer Israelis a genuine spectrum of very distinct options with respect to moving forward in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
Under Peretz, Labor will be more left-leaning on both the security issues and its social-economic agenda. If Benjamin Netanyahu leads Likud, it would take a more right-leaning approach on both security and economics. While Netanyahu has a good chance of winning, at least six other candidates are expected to run for Likud chairman.
While both Sharon and Peretz are indicating that they will adopt an active approach towards the conflict with the Palestinians, there are differences between the two. Sharon clearly intends to carry out far reaching moves on the Palestinian front if he wins another term in office, or he would not have taken the dramatic move of leaving the Likud. But he will attempt to do so based on the “Roadmap”, with unilateralism as a fall back. Peretz on the other hand prefers to follow the example of the 1993 Oslo Accords and move rapidly toward a negotiated final status agreement. Sharon prefers unilateral moves, and interim arrangements, such as the Palestinian state “with provisional borders” envisioned in the Roadmap. Peretz believes that Israel needs to concentrate on negotiating directly with the Palestinians, the goal being rapid movement toward conflict resolution.
The re-alignment in Israel is also likely to bring political clarity on economic policy — with Netanyahu strongly free market, Peretz standing for European welfare statism, and Sharon standing somewhere in between. This is also a debate Israel badly needs to have.
Finally, the rearrangement of the political chairs in Israel opens up a new opportunity for much-needed parliamentary reform. Virtually everyone who looks seriously at Israeli politics agrees that the current system, even though it has worked remarkably well considering its institutional fragility, needs to be changed to create greater accountability among parliamentarians and greater stability in the cabinet and government. Vested political interests in the current system make it hard to initiate the necessary changes. A political re-alignment may open up new possibilities.
Sharon’s bold and costly move to disengage from Gaza unilaterally is clearly creating new opportunities for positive change, as he intended it should. The new political earthquake in Israel should be well received in the region. Among other things, it will show that the Israeli public has rejected polarised approaches to both regional security and economics, allowing themselves also a renewed focus on social issues. The Palestinians now urgently need to follow suit and marginalise their extremists if the cause of real peace is to be advanced.
The terror arrests in Melbourne and Sydney have changed the debate about the proposed anti-terror legislation less than they should have. Opponents previously argued there was no need for the laws because a terror attack here was so unlikely. Now many argue that the successful police actions prove there is no need for stronger legislation.
However, the current legislation won’t always be adequate for the task at hand. This time the police were able to monitor the suspects for 16 months before acting. But what if ASIO only discovered a terrorist cell shortly before an attack, with no time to build a case that could be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law? Then the new stronger provisions might save hundreds of lives.
Others complain that the laws will demonise Muslims and some even make repulsive and spurious analogies to Nazism. Yet, the anti-terror provisions are aimed only at anyone carrying out specific actions, regardless of ethnicity or religion. To the extent that Muslims feel targeted, it is inescapable that those largely responsible for the current world wide wave of terrorism are not only Muslims (albeit a tiny, perverted minority), but claim to be acting in the name of Islam.
Naturally, people question why events like this occur. Some blame our government and society for being anti-Islamic, causing Muslims to feel alienated. Yet the terrorists hate us because of who we are, and aim to cause uncertainty and division. To blame anyone but the terrorists themselves only serves to encourage them and may even help them to convince themselves that their actions are justified. The worst thing we could do would be to change our behaviour or foreign policy in accordance with their demands.
Others blame multiculturalism and the Islamic community as a whole. While we need to deal with incitement from small sections of the Islamic community, attacks on Muslims are unequivocally reprehensible. Those attacking multiculturalism only prove that they, like extremist Islamists here, do not understand the concept. Multiculturalism allows all Australians to maintain all that is enriching about their culture, while demanding adherence to the core values of Australian society, including respect for the law, for our democratic system of government and mutual respect and tolerance. While these concepts are anathema for the terrorists, they are accepted by the vast majority of multicultural Australia. Indeed, the initial tip-off and crucial subsequent information facilitating the arrests came from members of our Islamic community.
We are confronted by new circumstances and threats, and must adjust our legislation appropriately to deal with these circumstances At the same time, we can’t allow ourselves to be dictated to by terrorists, or indulge in mutual recrimination because of them.