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The New Israeli Political Map

01/12/2004

The demonstration of the Israeli right, on Sunday evening, should tell us quite a bit about current Israeli political reality. Rabin square, where hundreds of thousands used to flock to peace rallies, was filled with over 100,000 demonstrators of the Israeli right. The target of the demonstrators, however, was not Yasser Arafat, nor the 'Oslo Traitors' or Shimon Peres. The villain of the piece was that well known pinko-leftist self-hating Jew Arab-lover, Ariel Sharon.

Remember when Palestinians were convinced that Ariel Sharon was going to expel them, and the Israeli right was convinced that Sharon would bear the standard of Greater Israel forever? That was only three years ago. Three years is an eternity in politics. Ariel Sharon can no longer be considered a right wing extremist.

Who changed? Did Ariel Sharon sell out to the left and become a flower child, or did the Israeli public change or what?

The answer is a bit of both and a lot of something else, coupled with the admonition that labels such as "left" and "right" are often quite meaningless, and the further admonition that Sharon was never quite the right wing fanatic he was pictured to be. Sharon was always pragmatic. Pragmatists are more dangerous than fanatics. Their program is realistic, so they have a better chance of implementing it. Unlike "real" Greater Israel fanatics, who insist on keeping every millimeter of the Palestinian territories conquered in 1967, Sharon simply wants to maximize the amount of territory that Israel keeps in any future settlement, taking into account mundane considerations such as demography and pressures of the USA and European Union.

Yes, Sharon did change a bit, since he is now willing to say in the open what he would not have dared to say a few years ago, that Israel cannot possibly annex Gaza and populous parts of the West Bank, and that continued defense of settlements in these areas is impractical. In effect, Sharon has adopted and adapted the old program of the Israel Labor party, "Us here and them there." The Israeli public changed too. After more than three years of Intifada, and of aborted peace initiatives, Israelis are skeptical peace plans, pessimistic about prospects for peace, and uninterested in the fate of the Palestinians, the settlers and most of the settlements. About 60% back Sharon's disengagement plan, because it seems to them to be the only thing that it is possible to do. Most realize it is not possible to annex all of the West Bank and Gaza without creating a state with an Arab majority, and most believe it is equally impossible to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that will be kept.

So who was at the demonstration? It was a mixed bag of racist Kahaneh supporters, settlers who are afraid of losing their homes, and people who will not let go of an idea whose time has passed.

Construction and Housing Minister Effie Eitam said at the rally " We will not stand by you if you expel Jews, children from their homes." But Eitam, and Reuven Rivlin, and all the other politicians there are members of a government that is officially committed to the road map. If they are against evacuating any settlements in principle, why did they approve of the road map, which calls for Israeli withdrawal and setting up a Palestinian state? Either they didn't understand what they were approving, or they thought it would never happen, or they have suddenly changed their minds, carried along by pressure from extremist followers.

Things in the Middle East are almost never what they seem to be. At first sight the demonstration might appear to be a great protest movement signaling a shift to the right in Israeli society. However, it is really a last ditch effort of a relatively small minority against what is perceived to be a pragmatic and inevitable policy by the majority of Israelis. "Left" and "Right" labels have become, at least temporarily, less relevant in the face of dictates of reality, which has its own ideas of what is possible and what is needed. It remains to be seen if the Likud party itself, the largest party in the Israeli Knesset right now, will be sundered by the confrontation between its Greater Israel ideology and reality.

However, what the majority of Israelis want is not necessarily what will happen. Sharon could be ousted from the Likud, or hounded out of office by looming corruption charges. While many in the Likud might agree with the disengagement plan, only Sharon may have the forceful personality and political clout needed to bring about a change in Likud philosophy, to make the settlers stop worrying and learn to live with a Palestinian state.

Ami Isseroff


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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000158.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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