The Israeli Election: Sharon as the Status Quo


Recent Israeli opinion polls consistently allocate 62 – 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset to a coalition of the governing Likud, the far right and the religious parties in the forthcoming elections at the end of January Any potential governing group must attain a minimum blocking majority of sixty-one seats in order to secure the basis for forming a wider and viable administration. The Centre, including Russian immigrants and devout secularists, oscillate around 19-20 seats while the Left (Labour, Meretz and Israeli Arabs) collectively hover around forty mandates. Likud will almost certainly be the biggest party having attracted more Sephardi voters who previously supported their own  ethnic party Moreover, disillusioned Labour adherents who have lost faith in the Oslo process, as well as members of the National Religious Party may well drift towards the Right. Likud will make the first attempt at establishing a new administration probably by seeking the assistance of Centre Parties such as Yisrael B’Aliyah, the party of former Soviet refusenik and dissident Natan Shcharansky.

Sharon: Between Right and Centre

Likud therefore first has to make some soothing noises to attract the Israeli Centre before the election to win votes, but also to initiate the post-election process of wooing other parties as partners in government. Hence Sharon’s public preference for a unity government with Labour. Significantly, Sharon did not present any structured peace plan during the entire period of his Premiership. He has also stated that there can be no military solution to the conflict. At the beginning of December, he announced his support for a demilitarised Palestinian state, comprising 42 per cent of the West Bank and squeezed between two security zones. Although this plan was attacked by Netanyahu and the far right, Sharon’s views were little more than a rehash of long held views which now render the term ‘Palestinian state’ somewhat meaningless.

Yet Sharon has been forced to be more forthcoming on the issue of peace plans because opinion polls have not endorsed his views on future political arrangements, even while they overwhelmingly support his policies of military incursions into the West Bank, In December, 58 per cent were in favour of a two state solution — a figure which reflects similar polls during the course of the Intifada. The same percentage of Israelis were in favour of the evacuation of Jewish settlements in Gaza, a policy which Sharon has in the past equated with evacuating Tel Aviv. Sharon may favour the settlers on the West Bank, but clearly this is not the view of the people of Israel.

On the other hand, he has attempted to stop any haemorrhage to the far Right. He distanced himself from the explicit outline of the solution of two states side by side, as voiced by Israel’s UN Ambassador. Similarly, the Bush Road Map that envisages a Palestinian state and an end to the settlement drive seems to have been placed in abeyance until after the election is over — despite pressure from the Europeans. The recent appointment of Eliot Abrams by the Bush Administration underscores this very point: a neo-conservative ideologue with responsibility for the Israel-Palestine portfolio in the Quartet formulation of the Road Map, Abrams is a veteran of the Iran Contra affair and has espoused a pro-Likud viewpoint in the past. Sharon’s election-time approach to the Road Map calls for a deceleration of the evolution of a Palestinian state, no settlement freeze and no external observers. All this may change after the election, but at present Sharon seems to be happy tending the graveyard where the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan and the Zinni recommendations all lie buried.

One of Sharon’s first acts in March 2001 was to confine the election system that had operated on the three previous occasions to the dustbin of history. This allowed for two votes — one for Prime Minister, one for the party. This system produced three Prime Ministers (Netanyahu, Barak and Sharon) in less than five years and was widely blamed for a plethora of Defence Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Finance Ministers. The system produced a revolving door syndrome where long serving civil servants and diplomats were never quite sure how long the latest incumbent would remain in office or how quickly they themselves would have to undergo a volte-face to accommodate the new prevailing political wisdom. The greatest instability was reflected in the mandates of the big parties. Under this system, voters enjoyed having two bites of the electoral cherry so that small parties were over-represented and large parties were fragmented. Thus in the last Knesset, Likud took nineteen seats out of 120, closely followed by the religious Sephardi party, Shas, with seventeen. With the system of one vote for a party back in place, predictions now suggest forty seats for Likud and only six for Shas. Sharon’s insistence on a return to a modified version of the old system means that governments will be less dependent on the whims of the smaller parties and there will be fewer threats to bring down governments.

One year before his election, the polls put Sharon 25 per cent behind Barak. Likud was $15 million in the red after the 1999 election. The next election was scheduled for November 20#6 when Sharon would be seventy-six. Sharon was thus perceived as a caretaker leader of the Likud after the debacle of the Netanyahu years — he was yesterday’s man. Politically invisible up until the outbreak of the Intifada, the initiative of some Palestinians to embark on armed struggle against Israel provided him with a window of opportunity.

Sharon was elected because Israeli citizens were frightened by the outbreak of violence and proliferation of suicide bombing. Violence produces a state of siege in Israel and a huge shift to the Right. Indeed, the first Intifada secured the election of Shamir in 1988 and the bus bombings propelled Netanyahu into the Prime Minister’s office, overturning a 30 per cent lead by his challenger Shimon Peres in 1996. Arafat’s prevarication over the Clinton Plan — 97 per cent of the land within contiguous borders, the division of Jerusalem, $30-35 billion to secure the redeployment of Israeli troops, evacuation of settlements, a just solution for the Palestinian refugees — and his studied nonchalance in permitting the Intifada to rage, all contributed to Sharon’s election as Prime Minister. Indeed, in the art of vaulting often-unelectable candidates of the Right into power, Arafat seems to have emerged as a past master. He has become adept in facilitating the most untenable of situations and undermining the Israeli peace camp — the only people who can help to deliver a real Palestinian state. With the election of first Shamir, then Netanyahu and finally Sharon, lightening has struck three times in the same place in just over a decade.

New Leadership in the Labour Party Amram Mitzna, the dovish mayor of Haifa, deposed ‘Fuad’ Ben Eliezer in elections for the leadership of the Labour Party. Although he offers a clear alternative to Sharon’s policies, it is unlikely that he will triumph at the polls. He has stated that he would evacuate Gaza immediately and if year-long negotiations did not bear fruit would then withdraw to security lines. He has also fiercely condemned Sharon for continuing to fund the settlements despite a huge economic crisis with bankrupt businesses and double figure unemployment. As opinion polls demonstrate, all of this strikes a chord with the Israeli electorate, yet their dominant fear is continuing Palestinian violence in a context where everyday occurrences such as taking a bus or having a coffee in a restaurant might prove fatal. It is a fear which takes precedence over political arguments about the future — and it is this fear which will see Sharon returned to power This is recognised by the Palestinian Authority which has been trying to persuade Hamas not to carry out suicide bombings in Israel during the election period. The pragmatic view taken by Palestinian negotiators is that atrocities conducted against civilians will simply undermine Mitzna and increase Sharon’s majority.

Mitzna’s other problem is that Labour Party members would prefer to see him move towards the Right. This reflects the vote in the Labour primaries where the dovish wing produced a poor showing. Key left-wingers such as Yossi Beilin, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, and Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, have now defected to the left of centre Meretz party Although they were belatedly integrated into the Meretz list, it is unlikely at this late stage that they vvill be elected to the Knesset. Mitzna has reservations about joining a unity government under Sharon while there is no pledge to evacuate even one settlement. Yet bereft of natural allies now in Meretz, if Mitzna loses badly Ben-Eliezer could effectively force a return to the status quo ante with Labour once more in the cabinet.

Sharon: Ideology or Pragmatism?

Another reason why Sharon may cuddle up to the Centre or even attract the Right  wing of Labour under Ben-Eliezer is that he is no Likud ideologue such as Menachem Begin. Sharon – unlike Begin, Sharnir or Netanyahu – has not emerged from Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement. He was actually a member of Mapai, the forerunner of the Labour Party, until the 1950s. His mentors were David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan who personified the right wing of the Labour movement that emphasised retaliation and pre-emptive strikes. This was in contrast to the more liberal conciliatory approach of Ben-Gurion’s successor and rival, Moshe Sharett. Part of Ben-Gurion’s group decided to remain within the Labour Party on pragmatic grounds while others formed the State List, which was amongst the component parties of the Likud. Sharon’s first task on emerging from the army was to solidify a coalescence of the Right in establishing the Likud in 1973. Unlike other maximalist ideologies that have been fashioned according to the British Mandate borders or those stipulated in the Book of Genesis, Sharon’s consistent advocacy of settlement on the West Bank is based on security During the 1970s, he commented: ‘If we want a strong independent state we must give up settling just on the coastal strip  and move elsewhere. Otherwise Israel would consist of a mass of concrete from Ashkelon to Nehariya – all within the range of Arab guns and having to rely on friendly powers for protection’.

Ben-Gurion and Dayan, although on Labour’s Right, projected pragmatic rather than ideological viewpoints. Like Peres, Sharon comes from this tradition and the perceived coalition with the Labour Right both in the last government and in a possible future one should be understood in this context. Of course, whether Sharon will abandon remarkably consistent views held for almost forty years regarding settlements and not negotiating under violence is another matter. But as a solitary figure in his mid-seventies, with few friends and looking to the history books, he may well contemplate going with the mainstream centre than continuing to be a fellow traveller with the dogmatic Right.

RUSI Newsbrief January 2003

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