Israel’s democracy can pass this test

Ariel Sharon’s collapse comes at an uncertain time for the Jewish state

Ted Lapkin

6 January 2006 – The Australian

TOTAL confusion. Only such a phrase can aptly describe the political impact of Ariel Sharon’s health crisis. The Israeli Prime Minister’s collapse from a massive cerebral haemorrhage injects tremendous uncertainty into a political system that is approaching a general election. And that volatility within the Jewish state has larger ramifications for the region.

Exasperated by right-wing opposition to his Gaza withdrawal policy, last November the Israeli Prime Minister moved towards the centre. Sharon engineered a seismic shift in Israel’s parliamentary landscape by abandoning his traditional Likud base in favour of his fledgling creation, the Kadima party.

But the aftershock of Sharon’s illness will likely be far more profound than the tremor created by his recent political manoeuvre. The establishment of Kadima was very much a personal enterprise of Sharon and, as such, was a one-man show. The party has not even existed long enough to establish a formal membership structure or policy platform.

It is true that Sharon wooed a number of parliamentarians away from both Likud and the Israeli Labour Party to his new political home. But Kadima has rightly been seen by most analysts as a political vehicle crafted for one purpose only: to facilitate the policy decisions of Sharon.

But the creation of Kadima was also an act of deference by Sharon to the shifting mood of the Israeli body politic. In January 2001, Yasser Arafat rejected a joint US/Israeli proposal that would have created a Palestinian state on 97 per cent of the West Bank and the entirety of Gaza. This Palestinian rejectionism has ravaged the political credibility of Israel’s pro-peace Left. And five years of terrorist war has caused mainstream Israelis to sour on the right-wing desire to retain Gaza and the West Bank in their entirety.

The centre of political gravity in Israel has moved to the centre of the political spectrum. And the average Tel Aviv resident’s hopes for constructive coexistence with the Palestinians have long since been replaced by more modest ambitions. Israeli dreams of peace were ripped to shreds by the suicide bombs that reduced Jerusalem’s commuter buses to burning hulks.

After years of conflict, the only thing for which Israelis dare yearn is a secure environment. And if such stability can only be achieved by means of unilateral defence policies: withdrawal behind a high fence while wielding a big stick, then so be it.

Mainstream Israelis were also dismayed by the demographic ramifications of their continued control over a hostile Palestinian population. There was growing disquiet in suburban Tel Aviv at the prospect that perpetual occupation of the West Bank and Gaza might ultimately bring about the political unification of those regions with Israel. In short order, any such policy would create a unitary Israeli-Palestinian state dominated by a majority Arab population.

But when Israeli Jews look around them at the broader Islamic neighbourhood in which they live, they see a sad region plagued by political tyranny, gender repression and economic stagnation. As residents of a small democratic island in a regional sea of chronic social dysfunction, most Israelis are unwilling to see their country transformed into another failed Arab state.

This is the reasoning that motivated Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from the 1.3 million Palestinian residents of Gaza. And if the Prime Minister’s statements were to be believed, he meant to implement similar policies on the West Bank.

Sharon vowed to continue construction of the West Bank security barrier that has proved so effective in preventing Palestinian suicide bombers from infiltrating Israel’s urban centres. And he also promised to encompass three or four big Jewish West Bank settlement blocks within the protective ambit of that barrier.

But Sharon was conspicuously silent about the fate of the myriad smaller Jewish communities that had been built throughout the West Bank over the years. To the dismay of the right-wing “Whole Land of Israel” movement, this muteness was interpreted to mean that further withdrawals, this time from large swaths of the West Bank, were in the offing.

The Palestinians have proved unwilling to give up their pipe dream of Israel’s destruction. And in the absence of good-faith negotiations, Sharon was unilaterally going to impose a semi-permanent arrangement that would suit Israel’s security needs. They didn’t call him the bulldozer for nothing.

This was the platform that caused pollsters to predict a landslide victory for Kadima. But the architect and prime mover of these policies has now passed from the political scene less than three months before an election. And that departure casts a huge question mark over the workings of Israel’s political arena.

So who might step into the breach?

Without bylaws or a formalised structure, it is difficult to predict whether the Kadima movement will even survive, much less be able to select Sharon’s successor.

But at the newly vacated pinnacle of the party there are three possible contenders for leadership, two former Likudniks and one refugee from the Israeli Labour Party.

Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came over to Kadima from Likud, but he is tainted by enduring allegations of corruption that make him deeply disliked by many Israelis. A more likely post-Likud candidate is Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz, whose strong defence credentials as former army chief of staff might be enough to overcome his lack of charisma.

The third conceivable claimant is Shimon Peres, who transferred his allegiance to Kadima after being left at the altar during the Israeli Labour Party’s primaries late last year. Yet Peres is widely perceived to be more of an electoral liability than an asset, largely because of his record of leading Labour to six parliamentary election defeats.

But again, no one can know whether Kadima will even be around on election day. So it is wise to look at the other mainstream players in Israeli parliamentary politics: the Labour Party and the right-wing elements that remained loyal to Likud after Sharon’s departure.

Newly elected Labour Party chairman Amir Peretz has vowed to run an election campaign that will focus on socio-economic questions rather than defence. But with Palestinians firing Kassam rockets into Israel on a daily basis, it is difficult to envisage national security receding into the background as a political issue.

And a wave of Palestinian terrorist violence might provide political solace to Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader of the rump Likud party who opposed Sharon’s Gaza disengagement. Netanyahu is quite charismatic and his recent tenure as finance minister is widely regarded as a success. But he is also plagued by the legacy of his prime ministership during the 1990s, when a combination of arrogance and maladministration caused his downfall.

Thus with each of the probable contenders for Israel’s prime ministership suffering from serious political liabilities, it is difficult to predict who will fill the gap left by Sharon’s departure.

But Israel’s democratic institutions are nothing if not robust. Despite years of war and terrorist violence, political liberty in the Jewish state has not only survived but thrived.

So while we may not know now who will win at the ballot box on March 28, we can be sure of one thing: Israel is a nation of law whose next leader will be chosen in open elections by a free people.

Ted Lapkin is director of policy analysis at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.