Middle course for Israel will be Sharon’s legacy


The Weekend Australian Financial Review, WEEKEND ESSAY – 25-26 March 2006

Even by the tempestuous standards of Middle East politics, it’s been one helluva year. Last August, Ariel Sharon upended decades of Israeli defence policy by implementing a withdrawal of forces and settlements from Gaza.

But the Gaza disengagement aroused fierce opposition from the conservative wing of the Likud Party. Exasperated by such internal criticism, Sharon bolted from his traditional political home, founding the new centrist Kadima (Forward) Party that completely reordered Israel’s political landscape.

But just when Kadima seemed to be on cruise control towards a resounding victory in the upcoming Israeli parliamentary ballot, Sharon was struck down by a devastating illness.

And if that weren’t enough, the Palestinians then proceeded to elect a new government composed of Islamic radicals with a bloody record of suicide terrorism towards the Jewish state.

It all sounds very combustible indeed. Yet for all the sturm und drang that accompanied Sharon’s incapacitation and the new Hamas administration, the political situation within Israel has proved to be quite stable.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert engineered a transition of government that was remarkably seemly and seamless. The competence and humility with which Olmert took the reins of power endeared him to many Israelis who had previously looked at him askance.

When Sharon decamped from Likud ranks last November to form Kadima, he took with him some of his more moderate colleagues. He also managed to woo the venerable Shimon Peres from the ranks of the Israeli Labour Party.

Of course, this courtship process was greatly facilitated by the fact that Labour had just turfed Peres out of the party leadership.

Many analysts saw Kadima as a vehicle for Sharon’s personal agenda. Yet its creation was also a reflection of the changing mood of Israel’s body politic.        

Five years of a suicide terrorism campaign destroyed the credibility of the dovish mantra that peace with the Palestinians is imminent.

The blood that washed through the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem caused the peace camp to haemorrhage public support.

And while the Israeli left has not totally bled out politically, in electoral terms it is but a simulacrum of what it once was.

But a half-decade’s worth of conflict has also caused the Israeli mainstream to sour on the conservative vision of retaining Gaza and the West Bank in their entirety. The hard-right program of settlement proliferation throughout the occupied territories is regarded by most Israelis as a recipe for continued trouble.

Thus disabused of both right­wing and left-wing notions by bitter reality, a solid majority of Israelis have flocked to a more moderate world view.

Having lost any faith that there is a genuine Palestinian willingness to make a rational peace, the centre of Israeli political gravity adopted a policy of security through separation. Hence the construction of the security barrier that has contributed to the decline in successful Palestinian suicide bombings by an order of 90 per cent.

Despite this evolving political landscape, most of Israel’s existing parties have remained mired in their tried and true ideological ruts. And this hidebound stance created an opening for a new movement that would mirror Israel’s new political reality.

There are those who say that politics is like physics, in that a vacuum will always seek to be filled. And by establishing a new party that enunciated the yearning of many Israelis for security through separation, Sharon filled that cavity in the political spectrum.

But 19th century prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz also famously observed the similarity between politics and war. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, General Sharon detected a gap in the enemy lines between two Egyptian army groups. He immediately exploited the breach, sending his entire division across the Suez Canal to cut off 50,000 Egyptian troops and win the war on the Sinai front.

But as we enter the home stretch of the 2006 Knesset election campaign, Sharon is a figure of Israel’s political past, not its present or future. So where do the parties stand, and what, if anything, can reasonably be foreseen of the result?

For Australians to understand Israeli politics they should imagine what Canberra would be like if the House of Representatives was abolished and we were to be governed solely by the Senate. The Knesset is elected on the basis of proportional representation, which promotes smaller fringe parties at the expense of the political mainstream.

As a result, every government in Israel’s history has been composed of multiparty coalitions that by definition are prone to instability.

And the same outcome appears certain in this year’s Knesset elections. Israel’s political system is, indeed, a vindication of the famous Churchill quip: democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Even without Sharon at the helm, the Kadima Party appears to be on the road to win a plurality of Israel’s 120 seat Knesset, with 35 or so seats in the offing. But an exercise in simple parliamentary mathematics reveals that an election result in the mid-30s is far from what is needed to form a functional government.

So Kadima will be in the market for coalition partners. And given Olmert’s strong hints to the effect that further Israeli unilateral withdrawals are in the offing, he is likely to seek allies from the centre left and ultra-orthodox parties.

The Labour Party, which is slated by pollsters to score an election result in the high teens, is supportive of the concept of a pull-out from the West Bank. And the ultra-orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties are less interested in defence issues and more concerned about the special subsidies that they can exact from government.

Thus Kadima’s Olmert will easily be able to put together a viable coalition government that will permit him to fulfill his pledge to delineate Israel’s final borders by 2010.

The construction of the border barrier will continue. Smaller, isolated settlements in the West Bank will be dismantled, while topographical terrain features that are vital to Israel’s defence will be retained.

And what of the Palestinians? Well, they and their Hamas government will be left to their own devices until at some future date they might abandon their self-destructive dream of eliminating the Jewish state.

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.

The real spoiler is found, not in the West Bank, but 1500 kilometres eastwards in Tehran. The Iranian regime has a penchant for uttering genocidal threats towards Israel and seems insistent on developing the nuclear weapons required to bring those threats to fruition.

The Middle East has no shortage of strife and conflict. But the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian mullah-cracy dwarfs all other regional trials and tribulations. For all our sakes, Tehran’s drive to acquire nuclear weapons must be stopped: by diplomacy if possible, but by force if necessary.  

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