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Israel political earthquakes: Sharon quits, Peretz resurrects Labor


Ariel Sharon today virtually destroyed the Likud party that he helped to create in 1977. He announced his resignation from the party and called for new elections. With this move, and the election of Amir Peretz as head of the the Israel Labor party, the Labor party, mourned only a few weeks ago as defunct, will probably become the leading political party in Israel once again, with the largest bloc of Knesset votes. If there are no further surprises in store, Amir Peretz would be the next Prime Minister of Israel, an inconceivable idea just two weeks ago. As usual, however, Sharon is planning surprises.

The first earthquake of the Israeli election season was the elevation of Amir Peretz to be head of the Labor party. Peretz was head of the Histadruth Labor union, an outsider who joined his tiny political party to Labor and took the party by storm, just as Sharon eventually did to the Likud, after joining his Shlomtzion party to it in 1977. Peretz, who came to Israel with his family from Morocco, is a dynamic and dovish labor leader with a fresh approach, who vows to bring Mizrachi ("Oriental") Jews as well as Arabs back to the Labor party by emphasizing domestic economics, which have traditionally been subordinated in favor of the "security situation." Experts predicted he couldn't win the primaries. When it became apparent that he would win the Labor party primaries, experts predicted that voters would leave the Labor party in droves. Polls showed a gain of 6 to 8 mandates for Labor. Peretz has a few surprises of his own. (See interview with Peretz and commentary about the Red revolution in Israel).

Sharon's earthquake was precipitated by Peretz's earthquake. Peretz announced he would pull the Labor party out of the unity coalition as he had promised. This forced new elections, because the government no longer had a majority. However, Sharon's earthquake was the result of cracks in the Likud that began with the disengagement plan.

Politically, Sharon's move appears to make no sense. As head of the Likud, polls gave him 37 to 38 mandates in the next Knesset, versus perhaps 28 mandates for Labor headed by Peretz. The election of Peretz sent the Likud into a panic. Likud leaders, including the formerly rebellious faction, had just met and sworn unity and undying fealty to Sharon. Sharon's new "National Responsibility" party might draw off 20 mandates from the Likud in the best case. However, Sharon understood that any new government he would could form would be a rerun of the present impossible situation, with a new twist. The traditional right wing would continue to militate against rational policies in dealing with the Palestinians. Now however, there would be little chance of forming a coalition with Labor under Peretz.

Sharon is gambling that he will also attract a significant number of Labor voters, with a centrist political policy that calls for disengagement and development projects within Israel, especially a somewhat grandiose and overambitious program for development of the Negev.

The earthquake is not over. It began with the upset of Sharon's disengagement program, which in fact should not have been a surprise to anyone. Sharon's fundamental position, which animated the disengagement, was outlined in a Ha'aretz article by Aluf Benn of January 16, 2001:

Sharon...proposes a long-term interim arrangement in which a Palestinian state would be established in all the areas that are currently under full or partial Palestinian control (areas A and B), which constitute some 42 percent of the West Bank.

The separation line proposed by Sharon would leave Israel with control over area C, as a bargaining chip, a wide security zone in the east (16-20 kilometers in the Jordan Valley and 10 kilometers in the Judean Desert) and a more narrow buffer zone in the west, on the slopes of the Samarian and Judean
mountains along the Green Line.

The proposed borders will change, and will probably follow the security fence. The Palestinians have announced repeatedly that they will not form a state under these conditions, but that is of little interest to Sharon and to most Israelis. Like Americans in Iraq, Israelis just want to cut our losses, end the fiasco and get back to business. The Palestinians will do what they please.

The disengagement, and the political changes are both the result of the same process. Until 2000, Israeli politics were dominated by three ideologies. The Greater Israel people, the security people ("bitchonistim") and the doves. The Land of Israel people advocated annexation of territories and settlement in all of Israel. The security people advocated continuing the occupation because they did not believe peace with Palestinians was possible and because of the supposed strategic value of the settlements. The doves advocated a negotiated peace. The coalition of Land of Israel and the security people together formed a majority that ensured there was no evacuation of settlements during the entire Oslo process.

This situation changed in the light of the failed peace negotiations and the Intifada. On the one hand, it became evident that the settlements had negative security value, that the occupation was causing rapid delegitimization of Israel in the international community, and that Palestinian proliferation posed a demographic threat to Israel as a Jewish homeland. The coalition that supported continued occupation and settlement collapsed, and it was only a matter of time before this change would result in a split of the Likud, into the security people or "bitchonistim" headed by Sharon, and the Land of Israel people, who will ally themselves with the NRP and Benny Eilon's National Union party.

On the other hand, Israeli doves understood that at present, Palestinians will not give up the right of return of refugees and Palestinians are unable or unwilling to form a stable government and society that can control terror groups and "deliver" on any peace deal. The election of Amir Peretz represents a return to inward-looking politics of social justice, with a difference. In his kick-off speech, Peretz explicitly turned to the Arabs of Israel. Peretz's election also represents a reaction to the "feed the rich and rob the poor" economics that was practiced by the Likud, with the tacit approval of Shimon Peres and other Labor ministers. Peretz's complaints are not all demagoguery. Statistics show that the top 10% of Israelis increased their income by 3%, while the bottom 10% lost 1% of their income. On the one hand, breadlines and soup kitchens are doing a flourishing business. On the other hand, conspicuous consumption and luxury spending reach new heights every day. A recent radio interview featured a lady who offered "vinotherapy" - massages with wines, at Holmes Place fitness centers. Broad allusions by the interviewer to the decadence of Roman emperors failed to register with the effusive representative.

Sharon's move is risky. "Third parties" have not had great success. David Ben-Gurion's Rafi party deserted him very rapidly, and his Reshima Mamlachtit managed to get only four mandates, even though Ben-Gurion had more personal prestige than Sharon. "Centrist" parties has been the great illusion of Israeli politics. Both the "Democratic Party for Change" and the "Center" party began with great support in the polls, and fizzled fairly rapidly. Tommy Lapid's Shinui party seems headed for the same fate. However, Sharon may have some surprises up his sleeve. Needless to say, he made his decision after some very thorough deep polling.

Sharon's party might well exist for only one election. It is hard to believe that the 77 year old Sharon will run for another term, and it is equally hard to see a young leadership emerging in this party that could fill Sharon's boots.

Significant and ominous perhaps was the non-appearance of Shimon Peres at the Labor party meeting celebrating the victory of Amir Peretz. Peres's absence is like the dog that didn't bark in the night. The defection of Peres and a few other Labor party leaders, who, like Sharon, are "bichonistim" would perhaps create a new and perhaps more stable centrist party that would dominate Israeli politics. MK Haim Ramon has already announced his resignation from the Labor party, and there are rumors that Labor minister Dalia Itzik may follow.

Sharon declared today that the foreign policy of his new party will be based on fighting terror and following the roadmap. Taken literally, that means Sharon would need to dismantle the illegal outposts and freeze most or all new constructions in the settlements. That is unlikely. The government has just announced construction of new housing units in Ma'aleh Edumim. Sharon also repeated, as he has often said, that there would be no further unilateral disengagement. His aides say however, that he is planning new and far reaching foreign policy initiatives:

If Sharon had no intention of going beyond the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, aides say, he would have stayed in the Likud "and be on the safe side."

The prime minister's decision to leave the party testifies to a significant about-face in his ideology, which is likely to include favoring the evacuation of most or all isolated settlements in the West Bank, Sharon's aides said.

It would not, in any case, be wise to be a bear on Ariel Sharon. Sharon's history shows that very often when Ariel Sharon goes for a ride on a tiger, they come back from the ride with the tiger inside and the smile on the face of Sharon.

Ami Isseroff

Late updates
Sharon's new party is now named "Kadima" (forward). This name is not official either.

Early polls show Sharon's party getting 30 mandates and forming the next government. The Likud (no leader named) is given 15, Labor 26.

Text of Sharon's Resignation announcement

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Replies: 5 comments

sharon was, is and always will e a wilyold fox. was a terrorist asit was necessary for the creation of Israel and a right winger as and when necessary and not as needed he becomes a centrist as this is the only way his aim goals and policies can be fullfilled.
there are not permenant situations in politics but rather interests as the famous saying goes

Posted by moiz esufally @ 11/22/2005 01:25 PM CST

Dear Moiz,
Sharon was a member of the Haganah and grew up in Labor Zionist movement. It is very doubtful whether one could call him a "terrorist." Because he was not a Herut member, his allegiance to "Greater Israel" was always less steadfast than that of Begin followers.

Ami Isseroff

Posted by Ami Isseroff @ 11/22/2005 02:06 PM CST

Although I didn't understand the basis for breaking away at first, it now actually makes tons of political sense.

Sharon has been fighting his own party since 2003, and particularly since he proposed disengagement. He had an early loss with the internal Likud referendum, but was able to manage to get the plan passed in the Knesset, as well as get the budget passed.

These were incredibly close votes involving alot of arm twisting. At one point, Sharon was having to rely on the opposition Arab parties to pass votes. At another point, Sharon's fate rested on whether the head of the Ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism would agree to support the budget. Think about it, this guy is trying to run a country, and it all hangs on whether he can get the endorsement of some octogenerian unworldly cleric.

Most recently, Sharon had to beat back a challenge from Bibi Netenyahu for early elections. He pulled off the victory, AGAIN. At that point it looked like he would be safe until the end of his term.

Then Peretz pulls off the upset in the Labor party and pulls Labor from the government. Although I agree with the author that Likud probably would have nominated Sharon, his Knesset list would haev been filled with hardliners or loyalists to his opponents.

So in hindsight, it makes perfect sense. Sharon has decided that he wants to be the one to finalize Israel's borders and end the conflict. He just can't do that when close to half of his party is constantly trying to undermine him.

This will be a very interesting time for political junkies, to be sure.

Posted by Joshua @ 11/23/2005 05:28 PM CST

Sounds like to me Ariel Sharon is wanting the Palestinians to accept a deal that gives them autonomy and nothing more. More of the same from Sharon.

Posted by Butros Dahu @ 11/24/2005 09:14 PM CST

Finally, Sharon has become the statesman that Israel deserves. With the poverty level reaching to 25% of the population, is it any wonder that labor should be increasing. Sharon has the ability to secure Israel's borders and give the working class citizens a life.

Posted by Helene @ 11/26/2005 11:28 PM CST

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