Sharon’s resignation from Likud Signals Breakup of Israel’s Traditional Parties

Israel’s creaking, turgid political system is breaking up and on the move. The decades-old Likud and Labor parties which have dominated all the national governments are crumbling. Furthermore, the “right’ and “left” epithets, always imprecise and simplistic, are losing any significance.
Ariel Sharon’s breakaway from Likud, an alliance of parties he himself forged 32 years ago, is the latest symptom of the disintegration. It started when he set out on a journey away from the nationalist, pro-settlement platform he espoused for his elections in 2001 and 2003. He progressively bucked his hawkish party twice – first to advocate a Palestinian state, second to execute Israel’s pullout from the Gaza Strip.
Sharon’s new Party of National Responsibility is engaged in a mighty tug-o’-war with Likud over ministers, Knesset ministers and members of party institutions, who are being pulled two ways.
The first meeting of his new list, attended by 12 MKs, he promised to follow the Middle East road map, wage a relentless war on terror and refrain from further disengagements.
The prime minister is now paying the price for being too slow to appreciate that his parting of the ways with Likud was inevitable. He tarried too long in the belief that he could whip the rebels into line by threatening them with the loss of power. Even the challenge raised in the summer by former prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not shake his confidence. It took a mighty shove by the new, fiery Labor leader, Amir Peretz, who the day after his election two weeks ago pulled Labor out of its coalition with Likud and drove towards a quick new election, for the penny to drop.
The result is ironic. A hungry, next-generation leader now heads the veteran, sluggish Labor, while the veteran Likud prime minister has belatedly founded a new party.
Both have left casualties in the field. The most notable is the defeated Labor chairman, vice premier Shimon Peres, who was left clutching a resignation letter he was forced to sign. Likud though left with a complete electoral machine still faces the battle for consensus on a leader able to win an election.
Because Sharon took his time to read the map, the partisan fragmentation is so advanced that the size of the following he ends up with by polling day is impossible to determine.
Peretz swooped like a whirlwind on this advantage. In the last two weeks he used Sharon’s inaction to dictate the national agenda and build up a following by wooing constituencies Sharon intended targeting.
For the moment, Sharon believes he can count on 11-12 Knesset members to join him and four or five ministers, led by finance minister Ehud Olmert and justice minister Tzipi Livni. These numbers are constantly changing.
Peretz leads Labor’s 22-member faction and is picking away at becalmed Change and left-wing Meretz. Sharon’s gamble is greatest as no centrist party has ever picked up more than crumbs in Israel’s electoral history.
Union leader Peretz is busy disproving allegations of super-dove and old-fashioned left-wing socialist brought against him for his fiery rhetoric. His lack of government experience and higher education, may count against him in some circles, especially the large ex-Russian electorate. But his comparative youth, 54, and the appearance of a fresh face are very much in his favor – especially in the middle-class urban areas.
The reinvented Sharon offers experience, a peace platform and a compassionate recovery program for the growing number of poor. He is also trying to tempt the reluctant Labor vice premier Shimon Peres, a dove associated with the 1993 Oslo accords, to cross the floor and join his new list, with at least one more Labor MK – not least for the campaign funding they would bring with them.
But the new Labor leader is still a step ahead He laid out his platform at the Labor central committee meeting which Sunday, Nov. 20, ratified the party’s walkout from the Sharon government. He declared in his high, rasping voice, that he is a peacenik but also committed to a united Jerusalem and opposed to the Palestinians demand for the return of 1948 refugees. He will seek accords for a durable peace that guarantee the interests of both parties. National security is a basic value, he said, and he will wage an uncompromising war on terror as enemy number one of peace. “The worst peace is preferable to the best war,” he declared.
Both Sharon and Peretz face an uphill battle to win the Russian, religious and nationalist votes which will veer naturally towards Likud.
For the moment, three main parties are forming up to face the voter in a likely March 2006 election – headed by Sharon, Peretz and Netanyahu. All the elements of this scenario are far from fixed. The dance towards election day has only just begun.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email