A political earthquake shook Israel yesterday when the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, announced his intention of leaving the Likud party, forming a new one and calling for new elections. Although everybody was talking about this move for months, when it happened, a shockwave rocked the country.
I was one of those who believed that Sharon was about to go his own way, as a close look at the pattern of his behaviour over almost six decades gives more than a clue. In 1948, when he was left wounded in the battlefield of Latroun, Sharon vowed never again to remain helpless. His motto has always been to gain the initiative and shock the adversary. That is why I was convinced that he would not stay for much longer in his Likud party, and allow Benjamin Netanyahu and the other right-wing rejectionists to paralyse him forever.
Not that Sharon has always thought about the long-term consequences of his actions. His invasion of Lebanon in 1982, aimed at creating a new order in that fractionalised, war-torn country, led only to a conundrum which implicated Israel for years, and gave rise to Hizbullah. So too his recent move is tactical rather than strategic. I don't believe that he has a clear, long-range political plan. All that matters for him right now is that he regain his freedom of action and put his opponents in disarray.
But whatever his motives, Sharon's bold move opens new political horizons in Israel and, consequently, in the Middle East. His recent disengagement from the Gaza Strip - another "gain the initiative" move - left the world applauding but at the same time wondering whether the pullout was meant only to strengthen Israel's grip over the West Bank, or, conversely, to open the road to even bolder moves in the future.
I, for one, believed that Sharon was thinking about evacuating more settlements in the future. I came to that conclusion as a result of my previous work with the former prime ministers, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres. Prime ministers - Sharon included - know as well as anybody else that soon enough, between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea, there will be more Arabs than Jews. In order to remain both Jewish and democratic, Israel has to pull back from areas heavily populated by Palestinians.
These considerations led me, two months ago, to write that if Sharon formed a new party "on election day - I can't believe I'm saying this - I might even be voting for him myself". I don't regret writing that; but in the meantime, there has been a new development in the Israeli political arena. Amir Peretz, the combatant head of the unions, won the leadership of Labour, a party, long-declared dead and buried. Suddenly, social issues are dominating the public discourse.
The Labour party, according to the polls, is back in business again, and for the first time for many years, Israelis will be able to vote for a party that has a chance to form a government according to their social inclination. If they prefer a capitalist, light-Thatcherist economy, they can vote for Sharon's new party (which, by the way, might assume the name National Responsibility); if, on the other hand, they prefer "capitalism with a human face", or light-socialism, they can vote Labour.
The still better news is that both parties will pursue peace. There are differences, certainly, with Sharon citing the stalled Road Map and Peretz invoking the old Oslo Process. Furthermore, Sharon, true to the "non-partner" policy, prefers unilateral moves, while Peretz believes that Israel needs to sit down and talk with the Palestinians, whether we like them or not.
These differences, however, will be easily bridged. According to the polls, the two parties together might win more than 60 seats in the 120-member Knesset. If Sharon's party has the most seats, he will be coerced by his senior coalition partner to resume talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President. He will do it begrudgingly and cautiously, but reciprocity from the Palestinians and some American coaching will ease the way. If, on the other hand, Labour wins, then Peretz will resume talks with the Palestinians right away, with Sharon, as defence minister, making noises of reservation.
All in all, this political shake-up brings hope to this region. It means that the Israelis have pushed their radicals from all sides to the periphery, allowing themselves to better address their social and security issues. The onus would then be doubly laid on the Palestinians to do the same in their camp.
The writer is the director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute. From 1992-1996, he was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governmentsReuse content