Friday, December 02, 2005

# Posted 8:32 AM by Patrick Belton  

Will Ariel Sharon's new party, Kadima, become Israel's new centre party and win the upcoming Israeli elections? Or will it vanish into thin air, as many other 'solo' parties have indeed done in the recent and not-so-recent Israeli past?

Since his resignation from Likud, Ariel Sharon has enjoyed an easy ride in the polls. Two days ago, Sharon's latest acquisition (Israel's elderly statesman Shimon Peres) bode well for the Prime minister. The most recent poll, published by Ha'aretz on Friday 2 December, confirms that impression. Sharon's party skyrockets and gets 37 seats, while Likud nosedives to just 9. Labour stays steady at 26, and the rest is history. And in personal contests, Sharon comes out ahead of everyone else put together as the leader Israelis most trust for the position of Prime minister.

But elections were not on December 2, they are on March 28, 2006, and that is a long way away. So will Sharon win or will he become the latest casualty of Israel's political system?

Writing in the New Republic (subscription only) Yossi Klein Halevi, a Shalem Centre fellow in Jerusalem does not think so:

‘With Sharon's new party, Israel's centrist majority has finally found a political home. That majority, which emerged after the collapse of the Oslo process in 2000, rejected as utopian both the right's dream of "greater Israel" and the left's dream of "peace now." While centrists found a leader in Sharon, they still lacked a party. Instead, the political system was caught in a time warp. The Likud remained tied to the settlements project of the 1970s and 1980s, and Labor to its 1990s peace process with the Palestine Liberation Organization. National unity governments bringing together Likud and Labor have always been popular. Yet centrist parties have fared poorly, rarely lasting a single term in the Knesset. Absurdly, with 15 parties in the current Knesset, not one represents centrist Israelis--who, in principle, are prepared to make almost any concession that would end the conflict but who, in practice, doubt that any concession will win Israel peace.

With Kadima, centrists now have a party ready to unilaterally impose consensus borders that most Israelis would willingly defend, ending the demographic and moral dangers of occupation while extricating Israel from a negotiating process that lacks a trustworthy Palestinian partner. This election, then, is above all a referendum on the new Israeli center. Is that center a passing phase--a discontent rather than a worldview--as its critics from left and right insist? Or can it replace the politics of wishful thinking with a new sobriety that accepts the limits of Israel's reach in conquest and in peacemaking?’

YKH acknowledges the uncertainty. There are organizational obstacles: Sharon’s party does not have the infrastructure that established mass parties have to reach the public and sustain its appeal. The real challenge lays beyond the media hype and the novelty excitement of the past two weeks around Sharon’s new party. Then there is the challenge on domestic politics, with Labor’s new leader Amir Peretz calling for a new social compact and with Israelis very concerned about the economy, the income gap, and the rising cost of living and social services. Still, the Prime minister has seen an opening in Israeli politics: a fundamental realignment in the Israeli electorate, where the electorate is finally converging to the centre on the crucial issues of war, peace and security.

When Sharon won the 2003 elections it was clear that he embodied that centrist feeling, which Professor Tamar Hermann describes as tactical hawkish-ness but strategic dovish-ness. Likud re-conquered all its lost strongholds and then some more. It fared well in traditionally red, pink and green constituencies, defeating the left, or making inroads, even in traditional Labor towns and cities. And it managed to expand its base to a middle class, urban, educated and fairly secular electorate that had previously shunned Likud. Now, all those voters are rushing to Sharon’s new party because the Likud – by putting obstacle after obstacle on Sharon’s path in the last two years – proved to them that though Sharon may be a centrist leader, the Likud failed to become a centrist party.

That’s Sharon’s insight. So far, he has recruited an impressive team that reflects that mood. And his policies since coming to power in early 2001 speak for themselves.

But will he conquer?

Emanuele Ottolenghi
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