Letter from Jerusalem: Likud vs. Likud
Forget campaigning against the opposing political party: In Israel, infighting within the Likud camp and a crisis of identity in Labor are shaping the political landscape.
The best indication of how Israel was transformed by the civil war that did not happen may be the speech that was not given. For further understanding, toss in a few polls that were barely noticed. Be careful using this information to make predictions: Sometimes a sure thing isn’t so sure. You may have forgotten about the civil war. Don’t be embarrassed; it’s hard enough to keep track of the news that did take place.
It was supposed to be set off by the disengagement from Gaza in August. Before the pullout, Israelis were treated to plenty of forecasts—or threats—of sister fighting brother at the Katif Bloc settlements on the Gaza sands, possibly even using firearms. Networks and newspapers from around the world sent reinforcements to cover weeks of struggle.
Instead, the pullout took a week. There were casualties: Four West Bank Palestinians and four Israeli Arabs killed in attacks by Jewish terrorists, apparently intended to set off Arab violence that would foil withdrawal. But that conflagration didn’t occur, either. Though the word “trauma” dominated domestic television coverage of the evacuation, it turned out that Israel could evacuate settlements without society unraveling. Indeed, public respect for the police and Army increased, as footage of men and women in uniform calmly absorbing insults showed in everyone’s living room.
The pullout did, however, rearrange Israeli and Palestinian politics. In Israel, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon now represents a redefined center, between a weakened right and left. The crucial political fight is within Sharon’s ruling Likud. The Labor Party is increasingly irrelevant, at risk of becoming schoolbook trivia, akin to the forgotten Whigs in United States politics.
To understand, start with the speech that wasn’t given. It was written by, or at least for, Ariel Sharon, and the text was distributed before he stood to address the Likud’s central committee in late September. In it, he defined “the real Likud” as “centrist” and “liberal-nationalist”—which, in Israel’s European-based lexicon, means free-market and moderately tough on foreign policy. The party’s historic accomplishments under mythic founder Menahem Begin, Sharon said, included peace with Egypt and “the painful decision to evacuate and raze the Jewish settlements in Sinai.”
Sharon promised allegiance to the international “road map” for peace, while placing the onus on the Palestinian Authority to carry out reforms and disarm terror groups before peace talks could begin. But when they did, he said, “It’s clear not everything will stay in our hands… It’s impossible to maintain a Jewish and democratic state and also rule all parts of the land of Israel.”
Ostensibly, the speech was intended to rally the party’s raucous activists to his side. The central committee was about to vote on moving up the party primary from spring 2006 to autumn 2005. Benjamin Netanyahu, who quit as finance minister a week before the pullout, was pushing the change, with the support of what could be called the party’s Old Believers. Netanyahu hoped to replace Sharon as party leader; the Old Believers wanted to punish Sharon for straying from the Likud’s creed of the Whole Land of Israel. Sharon appeared certain to lose the vote—and was widely expected to leave the Likud, taking ministers and Knesset members with him.
The speech, therefore, can better be read as the charter of Sharon’s expected new party. It captures his transformation. A decade ago Sharon was giving fire-breathing speeches against then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s concessions. Now he is using the classic argument of opponents of the Whole Land: that Israel must cede land to maintain a Jewish majority. Between the lines is another thesis of Sharon’s strategy—that the Palestinian Authority won’t stop terror and isn’t a peace partner. Therefore, Israel will act unilaterally, as it has by leaving Gaza and by building the security fence in the West Bank, a de facto demarcation of the land that Sharon intends to keep.
The speech must be read, not heard, because when Sharon got to the podium, the sound system failed, apparently sabotaged. A few minutes later, he stormed out of the hall. The next day, the central committee voted—and to everyone’s shock, the rebel proposal fell, perhaps because of disgust with the “night of the microphones.”
Sharon’s victory left the prime minister in a strange trap: He lost his casus belli for leaving the Likud. Yet the party remains divided against itself. “Today there are two Likuds—one that is no different from the Labor Party and one the old Likud,” says Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, who counts himself in the latter camp and is clearly bitter. In his view, a formal divorce is inevitable. The alternative would be for Sharon to run, and rule again, at the head of a party that largely rejects his policies.
Ironically, the same bitterness bends the voice of veteran Laborite Moshe Shahal as he gives a similar analysis. “Part of Labor’s policy—the demographic problem and the need to reach a diplomatic solution—is being carried out by a Likud-led government,” says Shahal, retired from the Knesset but still an influential party insider. Making Labor’s situation worse is that its last prime minister, Ehud Barak, explained his “non-success”—Shahal’s delicate term—at the Camp David summit of 2000 by arguing that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. That leaves only the option of unilateral Israeli actions, which is exactly what Sharon is carrying out.
In fact, most Labor politicians seek to keep less West Bank land than Sharon does. But the distinctions are too subtle to turn into slogans. One poll, published in the daily Ha’aretz in mid-October, showed that virtually half of registered Labor members believe that if Sharon starts a new party, Labor should run with him. No wonder newspapers generally covered Labor’s own primary for party leader, scheduled for November, on inside pages.
What remains to Sharon’s left is the small Meretz-Yahad Party, which advocates negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. The left seeks a two-state solution based roughly on the pre-1967 borders and points to the Geneva Accord, an unofficial model for peace worked out by Israelis and Palestinians.
To Sharon’s right are several small parties and his opponents in the Likud. But even an Old Believer like Rivlin acknowledges that after the Oslo Accords, the right’s historic platform of keeping the Whole Land of Israel is, well, history.
“We have to reassess,” Rivlin says. He would set tougher conditions than Sharon for giving up land, concede less and reject evacuating settlements. It’s a disagreement on how much territory to sell, for what payoff.
For the moment, then, the Likud’s sole political challenger is itself. With national elections scheduled for November 2006, the big question is whether the party’s two wings stay together or run separately.
And for now, public opinion favors a centrist ticket. September’s Peace Index poll found that 57 percent of Israelis would support evacuating more settlements. Seventy percent favored negotiations with the Palestinian Authority—though at least half that number expected talks to fail. The ambivalent middle is Sharon’s expected constituency.
The strongest influence on Israelis’ views may be what the Palestinians do next. Rocket barrages from Gaza and continued terror attacks will help the right, while renewed quiet will indicate that the disengagement worked and create backing for a follow-up.
So how did the pullout affect Palestinian views? A post-disengagement survey of Gaza and West Bank residents by top Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki found that 84 percent see the withdrawal as a “victory for armed resistance.” Shikaki says he expected that result—but not the survey’s second conclusion. Over three-fourths of respondents favored continuing the ceasefire with Israel, and their top concerns for the future were what Shikaki termed “economic reconstruction and state-building”: dealing with problems such as poverty and unemployment; and creating a working, independent polity. Disengagement, he says, “has changed the public’s order of priorities.”
Whether that mood lasts, he stresses, depends on what happens next. If Israel withdraws from more territory, if military checkpoints are removed, if economic conditions improve, Shikaki says, there will be more support for collecting arms from Palestinian factions and moderate groups will benefit in upcoming Palestinian elections. If settlements grow, the opposite will happen. Israel, he says, has even more impact on Palestinian politics than the other way around.
Sharon’s dilemma is this: To prove his centrist path works, to satisfy Israelis’ desire for quiet, it seems he will also have to meet some of the Palestinians’ hopes. The political momentum set off by his initial decision on disengagement, therefore, could pull him even further from his original base on the right, closer to the center.
Or maybe not. As the Yiddish saying goes, a mentsh tracht und Gott lacht, “a person plans and God laughs.” A battle may never happen, a big speech may never be given. The disengagement’s clearest lesson is to expect mostly the unexpected.