The Daily Star – 30 March 2006
The low margin of victory aside, Kadima’s success in the Israeli election on Tuesday is far from the political and ideological upheaval most analysts were predicting. The most notable event was the humiliation of Likud, Ariel Sharon’s old party and the one he hoped to sabotage by setting up Kadima shortly before he himself was felled by a stroke. Likud’s fortunes foundered after most of its supporters, following in Sharon’s footsteps, deserted either to Kadima or to the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu. Given the record low turnout, and the challenges posed by the Palestinians’ recent backing of a Hamas government, the scale of the Likud failure was all the more shocking. Apparently even some of the settlers abandoned it.
On learning of his defeat, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu told supporters that the party would “not bend to the winds of fashion.” If so, he was writing certainly his own political obituary and possibly that of his party too. For if there was any lesson to be learned on Tuesday, it was that what Israelis expect from the many parties they voted into the next Knesset is that they blow precisely with those winds.
In Israeli politics, where coalition governments are a fact of life, the parties are often judged not only in terms of their platforms but in terms of with whom they will work. Kadima’s victory assured, some voters may have wanted to guide its hand in office by choosing its most likely partners. Other Israelis, it seems, chose not to vote at all. Those parties that backed Kadima’s program in relation to the Palestinians most enthusiastically prospered: from Labor under Amir Peretz to Yisrael Beiteinu. Those that demurred, notably Likud, paid the price.
Kadima’s policy comes in various guises: “disengagement,” “unilateral separation” and “convergence.” In plain speaking, however, they all mean expanded Israeli borders that will enclose swaths of Palestinian land in the West Bank while appearing to give the Palestinians a state. Not a state of the kind that could ever challenge Israel’s control over their lives but one that may win the approval of the international community and ensure the Palestinians are held responsible if they reject the new order.
Even Ehud Olmert, the colorless technocrat who inherited Sharon’s mantle, could not quite tarnish the alchemy bestowed on the new party by its commitment to “unilateral separation.” But what makes this policy compelling, both to voters and to most of the other parties?
Kadima, far from seeking the realignment of the Zionist natural order, as is commonly supposed, has ensured its effective consolidation. The new “center” party has triumphed not because it broke with the left and right, but because it incorporated them. Observers have often pointed out that although Sharon was identified with the right – he even founded Likud – his political roots lay in the leftist Zionist traditions of the Labor Party. It is therefore unsurprising that Sharon’s final legacy was a party that fused those two competing traditions in relation to Israel’s core obsession: how to manage its conflict with the Palestinians’ over their dispossession.
In fact, Labor and Likud have never been far apart in their view of the goals of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians: both hoped to find a way to ensure Israel’s continuing grip on the land of “Greater Israel.” What separated them was how to achieve it.
In the tradition of Vladimir Jabotinsky, most in Likud believe the Palestinians can never be made willing accomplices to their dispossession. Because they will always struggle for their freedom, the Palestinians must be ruthlessly subjugated or expelled. Which of these two courses to follow has been the paralyzing dilemma faced by Likud ever since.
Labor, on the other hand, has tried various ploys to win a degree of Palestinian acceptance of the Israeli occupation, whether it was the corrupt, limited “self-government” of the Palestinian Authority established by Oslo, or Shimon Peres’ attempts to set up Israeli-run industrial parks close to the Green Line – Israel’s post-1948 war border – in the hope that Palestinian workers’ obeisance might be bought on the cheap. But during the second intifada Israelis came to understand not only that Oslo had failed but that Sharon’s attempts at reinvasion and direct reoccupation were leading the country nowhere either.
With the Labor and Likud approaches discredited, Sharon changed tack. In creating Kadima, he found a way to transcend the differences of left and right. He created, in his own words, an “Israeli consensus.” Like Likud, Kadima admits that the Palestinians will never surrender their dreams of nationhood, but like Labor it believes a strategy can be devised in which the Palestinians are made powerless to resist Israeli diktats. Kadima squares the circle through a policy that maintains Likud’s insistence on “unilateralism” while not forgoing Labor’s pretence of “separation.”
The question now is what coalition Olmert will bring together to carry through final, limited withdrawals from the West Bank. Unusually for an Israeli prime minister, he may find himself spoilt for choice. With the exception of Likud and the settlers’ National Religious Party, the sizeable parties look ready to jump into bed with him. Labor, the Sephardic religious party Shas, the new Pensioners’ Party and the peace camp of Meretz may try to push him leftward on social and economic policy, but will not oppose the central planks of the separation program. The rabidly anti-Arab Yisrael Beiteinu, under Avigdor Lieberman, will seek a harder line on separation, more to Israel’s advantage, but the indications are that it will not stand in his way either.
In fact, with the ideological glue of Kadima at the center of the coalition, even ideological enemies like Meretz and Yisrael Beiteinu have said they would happily sit together in government. In Olmert’s words, Israel has finally been born as a “united people, a people without camps.”
The only people who won’t be partners in the next stage of Israeli policy are the country’s 1 million Arab citizens. None was placed in a realistic slot on Kadima’s list, and it is a certainty that none of the Arab parties will be invited into the coalition. The consensus Sharon wanted and Olmert has delivered is an all-Jewish affair. With a Kadima government up and running in the coming days and weeks, it will be Israeli unilateralism as usual. And a real peace will be nowhere on the agenda.