Shock of Sharon

Colin Rubenstein

6 January 2006 – Herald Sun

IT is still unclear whether Ariel Sharon will survive the serious stroke he suffered, but his life as Israel’s Prime Minister would seem to be over.

What is clear is that the Israeli political system has suffered its second dramatic shake-up in two months.

This makes the approach to the watershed general election scheduled for March 28 a very unpredictable, confusing period.

Sharon has been a larger-than-life figure in Israeli politics and on the world stage.

There is no one who can take his place as a statesman trusted to formulate strategy for Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians and other dangerous neighbours.

This is why his decision to leave his own Likud Party in November opened up the possibility of a major re-alignment of Israeli politics.

His new Kadima, or “Forward” Party, attracted support from members of both the Centre-Right Likud and Centre-Left Labor parties.

It looked likely to create a new pragmatic political centre in Israel, opening up great potential for Sharon to advance his unique approach to the peace process. Without Sharon, that potential will be harder to realise.

Even if he survives, he will never be able to lead his new party and its own electoral prospects must be severely damaged.

The Kadima Party was centred on Sharon. He was widely trusted to make the tough strategic decisions to enhance Israel’s security: from the West Bank anti-terror fence, to other effective counter-terror moves, and the Gaza disengagement.

Without him at the helm, it is unclear if the party can even remain together, much less gain an electoral victory in March.

Nonetheless, it still seems likely that the broad approach to peace represented by Sharon and Kadima will continue to be a major factor in Israeli politics for the foreseeable future.

Kadima’s surging popularity reflects the fact that most Israelis have, over the past decade, become sceptical regarding established political ideas.

The Left had argued that a sincere good-faith effort to negotiate a two-state deal with the Palestinians would lead to genuine peace.

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 and the suffering on both sides, as well as growing evidence of a Palestinian demographic threat to Israel’s Jewish character, convinced most Israelis that separation from the Palestinians was essential.

However, 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 able and willing to make a peace deal stick, disarm terror groups and reduce incitement, this segment of the population is prepared to push on unilaterally towards a separation, in effect giving Palestinians a state whether they want it or not.

The formation of Kadima, wedged between Labor on the Left and Likud on the Right, was intended to continue this new pragmatic Israeli approach after Sharon decided he could not implement the strategy he felt necessary in the face of obstruction from hardline elements of the Likud.

The disengagement from Gaza this year was the model for this new unilateralist approach and was typical Sharon, the unconventional strategic thinker always trying to seize the initiative and prepared to “crash or crash through” in the attempt.

His unique combination of energy, insight and attitude enabled him to pull it off, just as it made him a war hero and an unconventional and controversial politician prone to occasional serious errors, such as during the Lebanon War in 1982.

Yet the reality remains of an Israeli security need to separate from the Palestinians as quickly as practicable, despite the lack of a credible partner who can deliver a secure peace as a result.

It is a strategic reality that will have to be faced by whoever wins the March election.

This problem has become more acute since disengagement, with the corrupt and ineffective Palestinian Authority slipping further and further into anarchy.

The PA appears unable to control even its own policemen, who have been involved in repeated violent protests, much less the suicide bombers coming mainly from the radical Islamic Jihad and the continuous barrages of homemade rockets from Gaza into Israel, often launched by members of the ruling Fatah Party.

Moreover, the fundamentalist and rejectionist party Hamas looks likely to either win or gain a blocking plurality in Palestinian parliamentary elections, should they take place as scheduled at the end of this month.

Further, Hezbollah on Israel’s north with 10,000 rockets pointed at Israel, and their masters in Teheran chasing nuclear bombs, are also very significant strategic threats.

Sharon was struggling to establish a viable Israeli deterrence, both towards the Palestinian rockets and the wider strategic threat, and this will continue to be a central challenge for any Israeli leader.

Israel is a mature and resilient political democracy and no one man is indispensable to the country, even such a towering figure as Ariel Sharon.

THE new centrism, with the understood need for separation but also an option of unilateralism and deterrence, will probably continue to be a major political force in Israeli politics, whether or not Sharon is there to lead it.

Sharon has in recent years transformed himself from a controversial figure in Israel into a genuine pragmatic statesman, widely respected at home and abroad and clearly motivated, primarily, by a commitment to gaining Israel the secure peace it needs.

His loss is indeed a grievous one, but there is little doubt he will leave a significant legacy that may yet see his vision realised.

Dr COLIN RUBENSTEIN is executive director of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council