I have just returned from a week-long trip to Israel and Palestine during which I met with many Israeli and Palestinian officials, intellectuals, and ordinary people. This article is the second in a series of articles written with the hope of shedding some new light on many conflicting issues at a time when revolutionary changes are sweeping the political landscape in both societies.
With the creation of a new political entity, the Kadima Party under the leadership of Prime Minister Sharon, Israel may have just entered a revolutionary political era that will transform the country’s political landscape as far as the eye can see. Kadima, it is hoped, will answer the longing of an overwhelming majority of Israelis for an agreement that will bring lasting peace. Kadima distinguishes itself from all previous centrist parties in two critical ways: It has Sharon’s strong leadership and tested capability as well as a clear political platform. It is entirely possible that the political earthquake produced by its creation may eventually lead to an accord with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.
Kadima is the product of Israelis finally coming to terms with the harsh demographic reality that Likud and many other right-of-center parties have long denied. Likud, as an amalgam of revisionist Zionist parties, has clung to its principle ideology of greater Israel and failed to recognize the shift of demographic balance in favor of the Palestinians, which makes any continued occupation simply unsustainable. Largely because of this shift, the momentum for a one-state solution is intensifying, with many Palestinians beginning to see it as their only way to regain all of Palestine by democratic means, a Palestine that would inevitably be governed by a Palestinian majority. As Asher Susser, the Director of the Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, pointed out to me during my recent trip to Israel, “The Palestinians do not have the same sense of urgency; they realize Israel is vulnerable and they see the numbers.” After his re-election in 2003, Sharon as well finally concluded Israel was running out of time and that concrete steps must be taken to preserve the democratic and Jewish nature of Israel through sustainable Jewish majority. His decision to withdraw from Gaza was the first step in this process, and the insurmountable difficulties he encountered with the extreme faction in his own party forced him to the painful conclusion that Likud, as it was constituted, stood for paralysis; as such, it could no longer be a vehicle to serve the larger interest of the nation. “Staying in the Likud,” Sharon saw, “means wasting time on political struggle, rather than acting on behalf of the state.” Yet, while the Gaza withdrawal brought out as perhaps never before Sharon’s differences from Likud, his ability to pull out Israeli forces and settlers from Gaza against all possible odds demonstrated his incredible political resiliency and unsurpassed ability to lead with confidence and conviction, qualities which made him and continue to make him the most popular leader in Israel.
The other existing parties offered no real alternatives. The Labor party, which recognized the demographic reality in the early 1990s, failed to muster public consensus and the confidence to lead the country with peace and security. Although a majority of Israelis viewed former Prime Minister Peres as a man dedicated to peace, they also feared he might compromise on national security and so never fully trusted him. Former Prime Minister Barak’s inability to secure an accord, even though he made sweeping, if not dangerously foolhardy concessions, further undermined Labor’s position with the public. A growing number of Israelis blamed him for mishandling the Camp David negotiations in the summer of 2000. The failure at Camp David led to the tragic eruption of the second Intifadah and effectively relegated the Labor party to political oblivion. Today, the newly elected Labor party Chairman Amir Peretz is more focused on socioeconomic issues and lacks experience on national security matters. Thus, the general disillusionment with the Israeli center-left and the diminishing prospects for reaching a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians shifted many Israelis to the right, with Sharon the main beneficiary of this movement.
Meanwhile, Shinui, the center party, led by Yossef ‘Tommy’ Lapid, was projecting itself as the party that could unify most Israelis under the banner of peace with security. But Shinui lacked a clear agenda and a tested leadership. The party focused more on its domestic agenda, battling Israeli religious parties and their influence, without coming up with any real and effective strategy or plan to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With 15 seats in the Parliament, Shinui has failed to attract wide public support for its political agenda which has seemed unfocused and without direction. As a result, its actions both inside and outside the government have been inconsequential in effect: this, again, has benefited Sharon.
Finally, Israel’s internal political developments and alignments have always been influenced by the Palestinians’ conduct, especially violence against Israel. The Palestinian insistence on negotiating an end-game, such as final borders and the future of Jerusalem and the refugees, before dealing with interim issues vital to Israel’s security forced Sharon to take unilateral actions designed to disengage physically from the Palestinians. The unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the building of the fence, and future pullouts from settlements in the West Bank are all designed to create the factual reality of two states. While the Palestinians sometimes reject, at other times accept, and at still other times simply acquiesce to the Israeli actions in these areas, they are also witnessing the creation of their state without making any concessions, which seems to suit their current leadership.
It is this confluence of events and circumstances that created a political atmosphere extremely ripe for the emergence of a new center party. No one besides Sharon is capable of doing what Sharon can do or what he will be able to do. On repeated occasions, Sharon stressed his commitment to proceed with the Road Map while at the same time zealously protecting Israel’s security. A mediocre leader cannot take the steps necessary in the West Bank that Sharon can. In addition, since national security is of critical importance, Sharon is also developing a national defense strategy consistent with the new reality while insisting that Israel by itself determine its own security needs. Notwithstanding the difficulties in cooperating economically with the Palestinians in a hostile atmosphere, Sharon is fully cognizant of the need to do so which he sees as crucial to mitigate violent tendencies. Sharon is aware of the big picture. As his spokesperson and advisor Ra’anan Gissin explained to me last week: “We cannot disengage and lock the territories in and talk about economic development and prosperity. We know that the Palestinian territory must have open borders with Egypt and Jordan. We found a solution to the Gaza crossing with Egypt and will find a solution to the crossing with Jordan in due course.” This, of course leaves, as Asher Susser remarked to me, “three sticking issues that Israel cannot resolve unilaterally: final borders, Jerusalem, and the refugees.”
For the Palestinian community, the creation of Kadima with Sharon at its helm, offers the most promise for a lasting solution to their conflict with Israel. To that end, it would behoove the Palestinian Authority (PA) to cooperate with Israel, for example, in helping to further withdrawal of settlements from the West Bank. This must also translate into “making every effort to focus on economic development, without which no peace can be sustained” as Uri Savir, former Director General of Israel’s foreign ministry and now the President of Peres Center for Peace, pointed out to me. Moreover, because the Israeli public and politicians react so strongly to Palestinian behavior; any increase in violence would only strengthen the extreme right under the leadership of Natanyahu or others whose ideological bent will prevent them from making any meaningful territorial concessions. Containing if not ending violence must be on the top of the PA agenda. In the same vein, the PA must begin to change the tone of their public utterances about the right of return in particular, knowing full well that Israel simply cannot accept this and remain a Jewish state–the goal that forms the core of Sharon’s center party. Thus, their leaders must begin to disabuse the Palestinian people of the validity of the idea of return and focus instead on resettlement and compensation.
The national elections in Israel scheduled for March 28 will put many questions to rest. At this point, Sharon seems destined to win by a substantial margin; some polls suggest his new party might gain 45 or even more parliament seats. Regardless of the election’s outcome, one reality will remain unchanged: Israel’s political landscape will never be the same, and the overdue and by now overstated and overused notion of a two-state solution with security will have become the national goal, if for no other reason but for self-preservation.