Thursday, December 08, 2005

# Posted 11:10 AM by Patrick Belton  

Israel’s party system is undergoing more upheaval. It was not enough to see Histadrut Union leader Amir Peretz defeat Labour’s elderly statesman, Shimon Peres, for party leadership, soon followed by Ariel Sharon’s resignation from Likud and the establishment of his new party, Kadima. In the last month, everything and its contrary happened. Consider this: Peres left Labour to join Sharon, with two other front bench Labourites, Dalia Itzik and Haim Ramon. Sharon brought over a considerable chunk of his loyalists from Likud – Zeev Boim, Roni Bar On, Ehud Olmert among others – plus Likud’s former rising star, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. In the last three days, more shocking news for the Likud: Tzachi Hanegbi, acting Likud chairman and party stalwart, defected to Sharon’s party. This is huge: leave aside the image stunt; leave aside the impact for party morale; leave aside the leadership vacuum on the eve of Likud’s primaries. Tzachi Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen, the founder of Tehiyah, the party that broke off from Likud in protest for the Camp David accords with Egypt. He himself was among the protesters who chained themselves up to buildings during the evacuation of Israel’s settlement of Yamit in Sinai, in the spring of 1982 (Sharon, then Defence Minister, is the person who ordered the evacuation and bulldozing of the settlement – he is not new to the business). That he joins a party whose platform advocates the drawing of boundaries way west of the Jordan River – thus throwing the Likud’s ideology to the dustbin of history – is truly significant. And if all this was not enough, 200 activists from the Likud yesterday showed up at a rally for Peretz – yes, Labour – announcing they were switching sides. This is not even an upheaval anymore. It’s a meltdown.

Not many have emphasised the importance of these political events. This is tantamount to nothing less than a major political realignment, the likes of which are rare. Polls show this trend. Initially, both Peretz and Sharon were faring well in the polls due to the excitement surrounding their surprise exploit. But now it is different. A month after their breakthroughs, a trend is emerging, which suggests an important change in the distribution of the vote. For over three decades, the main dividing line in Israeli politics was defined by the clash between the Peace Now vision and the Greater Israel vision. No more now. Sharon’s great political intuition was to see that the electorate moved to the centre, rejecting the ideological assumptions of both positions and opting instead for a centrist, middle of the road approach, that accepts territorial compromise, but mistrusts the Palestinian side’s intention and ability to do its share. In 2003, Sharon triumphed in the polls as head of Likud. He assumed that he could lead the Likud back to glory and power by turning it into a centrist party, the embodiment of this new pragmatic, unsentimental but realistic view of the Arab Israeli conflict. The Likud did not read the writing on the wall: its victory, clearly the result of the pragmatic image Sharon offered to the Israeli public, demanded an ideological adjustment by the party as well. Instead, the Likud put endless obstacles on the Prime minister’s path. Having failed to persuade the Likud to position itself in the centre, Sharon has now decided to leave the Likud to shipwreck. Pundits warned of the difficulty of putting together a new party. They also hailed Peretz’ arrival on the scene as a new start. But look at the polls: an Israel Radio poll, summarized today in the Jerusalem Post, shows that Kadima has broken the 40 seats threshold (what Sharon commanded as head of the Likud): if Netanyahu leads Likud, Sharon gets 41 mandates, if Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom or Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz leads Likud, Sharon jumps to 44. In the former scenario, Labour would drop to a meagre 21 seats. In the rosier pictures, Labour fails to rise above 28 seats. It is hardly the dawn of a new era for Israel’s left. Sharon’s party started with 32-34 seats in the polls taken immediately after his announcement. Today is flying high. And with all the hype that part of the Israeli media are making about the importance of socio-economic issues and how that helps Labour, the reliable Peace Index, due to be released later this week at the Tami Steinmetz Centre for Peace at Tel Aviv University, shows how 1) security will still be the dominant factor in influencing voters’ choice and 2) Sharon is still the preferred leader for most Israelis, faring better than all his adversaries put together.

Ultimately, the only results that count are the ones of election day. But the momentous events of the last few weeks show that a major earthquake has hit Israel’s party system. It is not just a play of personalities or even policies. A major electoral and political realignment is taking place.

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