Sharon is a militarist and a chauvinist, but he is not a messianic fundamentalist. Reading changes and fluctuations in the regional and international map, Sharon is convinced that Israel needs room for maneuver. For this, he is forced to move to the center. This dynamic was already at work in the background when the Labor Party chose its new leader. It was either move to the left and distinguish its image from that of Sharon, or see its voters desert it in droves. It was quite a week in Israeli politics.
Israel has lurched to the left. This kind of motion implies both suddenness and reversibility. Meanwhile, Israeli politics are in the process of realignment, with major groupings and figures moving to the left.Israeli politics were and are still steeped in colonialist logic. Movement to the left in our context means a growing understanding that the occupation of the Palestinian territories is not, in its present parameters, sustainable. Current evidence indicates that the shift is for real and is finding expression in a sea change in the prevalent discourse.
Sharon’s break with the settler right became inevitable after he came on board as a team player in Bush’s global anti-terrorist strategy. Bush’s vision of a Palestinian state (June 2002), though far from an authentic commitment to a viable sovereign entity, was an absolute necessity to prevent the total diplomatic isolation of the U.S.A. in the region. The military, diplomatic and domestic political debacle regarding events in Iraq makes it increasingly important for Bush to appear as a potential partner to consensual diplomatic action on the Israeli-Palestinian peace front.
As far back as April 2004, Sharon stated openly that the Gaza disengagement plan was designed to prevent pressure on the United States and Israel in the face of a virtual flood of two-state based peace initiatives. Sharon had to invent a pseudo peace process. He proved his loyalty to the team by presenting to Bush something that Bush and his administration could pass off as forward motion in the ‘peace process’. Working within unilateralist parameters he chose disengagement as a impressive act which did not involve serious negotiations with the Palestinians. No one except the settlers themselves believed that Israel could keep the Gaza project in a negotiated peace.
The settlers, basing themselves on theological categorical imperatives, (God told us to settle the land and keep it) could not play this game. Sharon had to choose between his former cronies in the art of expropriation and his links to Bush. It did not take him to long to decide. The disengagement break with the settlers meant a major split in his party. Sharon, it transpired, had more support in the public and among Likud voters, but the anti-disengagement forces had more strength in the party apparatus. Sharon, pressured to declare that the Gaza disengagement was the last and only Israeli concession, had to accept the shackles or split the Likud down the middle.
Sharon is in a position to know that Bush will need more ‘concessions’ of the unilaterlist kind. He trusts that his prominent standing on Bush’s team and his own skills and maneuverability will enable him to devise a series of policies which will feed the peace process with an infinite number of phases and stages. He is convinced that even if Israeli is forced into really serious bargaining with the Palestinians he, as the only person able to do so, will use his hard earned international credit to sabotage a deal or alternatively to minimize the damage. This is, in his eyes, a rather delicate operation, and he is probably right. He does not want to work on this kind of surgery with a gang of chauvinist annexationists telling him what he can and cannot do. However, despite his demand for flexibility, his basic goal remains unchanged. To save as much of the West Bank as possible for the Jewish state, to prevent an overall settlement based on the internationally recognized formula in all the two-stage initiatives: borders based on the 1967 lines, two capitals in Jerusalem and a serious international and local effort to basically ameliorate the situation of the Palestinian refugees. Sharon needs entrance to the Bush control room to prevent the only decisions that could give peace a chance.
Thus, Sharon drags serious chunks of the Israeli right to the center of the political arena. His former comrades in the Likud argue quite logically that had he intended to hew to their official line against any further concessions, he would not need to bid them farewell. Interestingly enough, even the post-Sharon Likud will not be easy pickings for Netanyahu and the settler political block. Many figures close to Sharon, like current Defense Minister, Mofaz, and Foreign Minister, Shalom, both of whom supported the disengagement, remained in the Likud out of personal and tactical considerations. Sharon rid himself of the Likud but the Likud is not yet rid of Sharon.
It is worth recalling that Sharon is still the most reliable Middle East player should Washington opt for an even more desperate path in its attempt to avoid the total collapse of its Iraqi adventure. New adventures do not seem overly attractive to Washington these days, but losers are always tempted to play one more hand (Syria? Iran?), before getting up from the table. Sharon, whether in the right or the center, will make certain that Israeli advice and services are available for any reckless scheme.
Sharon, the Candidate of the “Left”
It is a criminal offense against the very foundations of the concept of “Left”, but the media around here insist, for their own sweet needs and purposes, on calling the Labor Party in this country “Left.” By the time Sharon had inducted it into his government and pulled off the Gaza disengagement, the Labor party found itself facing a serious parliamentary election without a single issue that differentiated it and many of its mainstream supporters from Sharon. Polls held a month back showed that Sharon was the preferred candidate for prime minister among Labor Party voters (!). He also led all other candidates among members of the Labor Party elected bodies (!!). The strategy of national unity foisted on the Labor party by Shimon Peres had come full circle.
Amir Peretz, the Candidate of the Left
Somehow, enough voters in the Labor Party primary sensed that the unending liquidation sale had to end if the party was to survive. This sentiment was buttressed by some real clout, i.e., Peretz’s control of the Histadrut, the trade union organizations, which provided him with the strongest political machine of all the candidates. Peretz is impressive, he has a colorful background, he is unique in that he openly opposes the social polarization in the country and voices dove positions regarding the conflict with the Palestinians. But a sense of proportion is still valuable. He is not a revolutionary, and he does not represent a revolutionary movement. It is more than likely that Peretz will be hemmed in by the party’s ‘old guard’ and his media advisers.
But whatever his chances for electoral success or his personal ability to maintain his integrity in an environment dominated by backstabbing colleagues, Peretz has pushed the political establishment to the left by insisting on a clear connection between the fight for peace and fight against social repression. But it seems that, already, this early in the game, he is acting as if he was surprised by his own audacity. Peretz has already been pressured into modifying his super-dove image and issued some retrogressive declarations regarding the refugee issue, Jerusalem and expansion of settlements in the so-called settlement blocks.
Though, the thesis that Israeli politics have moved to the left is shared by all serious observers, questions do remain as to the depth of the trend and the reasons for it. It is too early for any definite answers, but there sufficient grounds for examining what may be some helpful hypotheses.
It is common knowledge that there are serious tensions in Washington and in the ruling circles in the United States. These tensions reflect different views and approaches to international realities. Analysts speak, on the basis of credible information about camps: Ideologues versus Realists or Hegemonists versus Globalists. Whatever the background for these tensions, the Iraq crisis is exacerbating them day by day and they must of necessity influence thinking regarding the “special relationship” with Israel and dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, the resilience of the ‘special relationship’ should not be dismissed easily. After all, Israel extends a vast array of open and secret services on behalf of U.S. political and military interests.
Even so, a series of mini-crises seems to have cast some dark shadows on the clear skies. The indictment of two top officers in the ‘AIPAC’ scandal is of no small significance. There is no reason to doubt the culpability of the AIPAC officials and their willing assistance to some Israeli info gathering operation. But this could have been considered a misunderstanding among friends. Friends do not put each other on trial and matters of such a nature have always found a solution with a slap on the offending wrists.
In the same period, the U.S. Defense Department, was forced to clarify to Israel that much of its business in Beijing is ‘monkey business.’ One wag explaned that the neo-cons hate China more than they love Israel. Israel tried to ‘explain’ but the Pentagon wasn’t buying explanations. Just to make sure that Jerusalem got the message, the Pentagon demanded, with straightforward brutality, the head of Israeli Defense Department Director-General Amos Yaron. Of course, Amos was only a clerk. But Amos, doesn’t work there anymore.
Paul Wolfowitz was a serious allay of Israel in top Pentagon quarters. Wolfowitz, a neo-con icon closer to Sharon than to the settlers, but many other neo-cons such as Richard Perle and Douglas Feith were on coziest of terms with the settlers. Wolfowitz, the architect of the war in Iraq, got kicked upstairs and was given – what a nice consolation prize – the directorship of the World Bank. As part of a very strange gambit, James Wolfenson, whom Wolfowitz replaced at the World Bank, surfaced in the area as the special representative of the Quartet responsible for the implementation of the Road Map. Wolfenson could not have been appointed without Washington’s backing, but he is certainly not the run of the mill Bush appointment. His presence seems to be that of fair-minded, very shrewd and independent operator.
Condelleza Rice, busy positioning herself against Rumsfield, ‘happened’ to be in the region when Wofenson’s efforts to conclude an agreement on the vital Gaza border crossings were being shot down due to some classic Israeli obstructionism. Rice, getting her feet wet in the local conflict, succeeded in forging a settlement (at least for now). Israeli diplomacy, it should be appreciated, has a distinct distaste for high profile, high level U.S. diplomatic proximity and prefers very much to have Washington receive and rely exclusively on Israeli reports and interpretation.
While it would be wrong to conclude that there is a structural shift in U.S.-Israeli relations, it would be equally wrong for any serious observer to ignore many indications that there is a growing sensitivity in Washington to the price it pays for indiscriminate total deference to its local partner. Iraq means volatility all over the place. Sharon’s gambit expresses a sophisticated understanding of the importance and possible danger of different trends in Washington, and the need to respond to these tendencies creatively.
Palestine Still in the Picture
Sharon would like, as far as possible, to ignore the existence of the Palestinian partner. The Israeli mantra demanding the ‘dismantling of the terrorist infrastructures’ as a precondition for serious negotiations rings increasingly hollow, after Abu Mazen has brokered an internal Palestinian agreement which has had unprecedented success in reducing violence and tensions. Sharon, fearing enhanced prestige which the Palestinian Authority and Abu Mazen might earn from a successful electoral process, builds on the inability of the Authority to impose its discipline and would like to see Palestinian society descend into chaos. The critical weaknesses of the Palestinian Authority are no secret. Many, saddened and discouraged by this state of affairs, are all too willing to accuse the Palestinian leadership of collaboration with Sharon. Sharon knows better. He uses every conceivable strategy to avoid serious negotiations. With all its dangerous shortcomings, the Palestinian Authority still symbolizes the fact that without the Palestinians there will be no peace in the region. It can still seriously improve its local and international prestige and such an improvement would be an important contribution to the hopes for peace.