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elections 2006

In the Footsteps of Sharon


N departing from power, Ariel Sharon leaves behind a new Israeli consensus and a new centrist political party, Kadima (Forward), which will continue to engage the public trust even without him. If his political heir, Ehud Olmert, avoids making grave mistakes, he is likely to be Israel’s next prime minister.

Although Sharon left no written political testament, he accepted the notion of a Palestinian state, minus large tracts of the West Bank (the settlement blocs and extensive areas near Jerusalem). The resulting “statelet” would consist of northern and southern cantons, connected at Jerusalem by underground tunnels. As for Gaza, he did his utmost to nudge it toward Egypt. No Palestinian leader could ever agree to such a scheme, Sharon knew, and so he planned to carry it out unilaterally.

During his last term in office, Sharon completed three significant steps:

First, he reached agreement with US President George W. Bush. For the first time, an American president approved in writing the notion that Israel could retain, as a result of final-status negotiations, the settlement blocs. Bush recognized them as accomplished facts. He also foreclosed the Palestinian right of return: he wrote that the refugees could come back to Palestine once it exists – but not to Israel.

Second, Sharon carried out the disengagement from Gaza, dismantling all the settlements there and four in the northern West Bank. Most of the public supported the move. Here his personality played a major role. Only “Arik,” father of the settlements, was in a position to tear down what he had built. Shimon Peres could never have done it. And certainly not Bibi Netanyahu.

Sharon’s third significant step was to disengage from the Likud. Others, in years past, had gone this road before him: notably, the founders of the short-lived Center Party in 1999. Sharon’s secession, in contrast, was well-prepared. He drew along senior leaders from both the Likud (Tzahi Hanegbi, Meir Shitreet) and Labor (Peres, Haim Ramon and Dalia Itzik). Sharon incarnated a consensus of the Israeli secular middle class, as well as military and financial circles. These groups were fed up with the Likud, which had degenerated into a mafia.

Sharon’s secession left the Likud dependent on alliances with, first, the wheeler-dealers and, second, the extreme right wing, made up of the settlers and other anti-disengagement activists. The party’s remaining leaders – Netanyahu, Sylvan Shalom and Limor Livnat – are reaping the bitter fruit of their attempts to undermine Sharon. They have no alternative political program to that of Kadima. Furthermore, many Likudniks feel that the group of anti-disengagement “rebels” gambled irresponsibly with their party’s fate by alienating Sharon, their big vote-getter. Most of these rebels have little political experience or weight. If the Likud fails at the polls on March 28 as expected, its No. 2 candidate, Sylvan Shalom, will demand that the current party leader, Netanyahu – who provoked the schism – should pay the price.

While Sharon was still in the Likud, he was clearly the favorite to win the next election. The question was whether, given his party’s internal division, he would then be able to accomplish anything. Amid the confusion, two Likud leaders provided him with solid support: Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. They followed him to Kadima, and he rewarded them in turn.

Olmert’s Comeback

Olmert was one of the Likud’s so-called “princes,” an expression used for the scions of Beitar (the party founded by the right-wing’s guiding spirit, Vladimir Jabotinsky). After 20 years in the Knesset, in 1993 he campaigned against the long-standing mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and won.

In 1996 Netanyahu became PM, but he did not ask Olmert to join his government – an omission that caused lasting estrangement between the two. They worked together, nonetheless, in asserting Israeli control over occupied East Jerusalem. On the night after the Day of Atonement, Olmert had himself filmed with a sledgehammer, breaking an opening from the Western Wall tunnel into the Old City’s Via Dolorosa. This act of self-assertion provoked disturbances that left at least 61 Palestinians dead, as well as 16 Israeli soldiers.

In other respects too, Olmert proved a hawkish mayor. He advanced the building of the infamous settlement, Har Homa, which cut the Arab villages (“neighborhoods”) of East Jerusalem away from Bethlehem. He succeeded in shutting down Orient House, which had functioned as the Palestinian Authority’s Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Unlike Kollek, he did spend money in Arab East Jerusalem – but only to improve the tourist facilities. He worked hard to advance the various organizations which aim to “judaize” the Old City and Silwan. (See Meir Margalit’s article in this issue.)

In 2003, Olmert gave up the mayoralty in order to head Sharon’s campaign. Yet he did not fare well in the Likud primaries, winding up No. 32 on the list. Despite this, the victorious Sharon bypassed the party institutions. Unwilling to rely on the Likud frontrunners, he appointed Olmert as Minister of Trade and Deputy PM.

What is likely to happen now? Much depends on Olmert’s management skills. The timing suits him well. Unlike Netanyahu, whose decisions are ever affected by the bug of ambition, Olmert has a laidback shrewdness deriving from long political experience. It was he, we should add, who first floated the idea of disengagement from Gaza in a now famous interview with Yediot Aharonot in 2003, where he stressed the demographic threat. Some claim it was he who persuaded Sharon on the matter. In either event, the closeness between the two grew apace, and Sharon marked Olmert as heir. The other members of Kadima have joined hands around him in order to prevent yet another political shake-up, and Olmert is emerging, in the media too, as the bearer of the Sharon consensus. He is also close with the military. By comparison, both Netanyahu and Amir Peretz of Labor are viewed by the public as extremists of the right and left respectively, unfit for the highest office.

Olmert does not enjoy the special standing that Sharon had as father of the settlements, and this lack will make it difficult for him to carry out further disengagements. Much depends on the number of mandates Kadima wins and the coalition he forms. He can depend, however, on three things. 1) There is the precedent of the successful disengagement. 2) The separation barrier, part of Sharon’s legacy, is intended to determine the future border – and a broad consensus supports it. 3) As Sharon’s heir, he can count on the support of Bush, whose term expires in 2008.

In addition, Olmert has certain distinct advantages over Sharon:

1) Sharon’s image is blemished by the memory of the methods he used in the early 1970’s to fight guerillas in Gaza. In 1982, under his responsibility, massacres occurred in Sabra and Shatila – two names that will always be linked with his own. Olmert is free of such stains. What is more, he has no historical commitment to the settlers, who regard Sharon as the Great Betrayer.

2) Olmert isn’t up to his neck in corruption scandals, as is Sharon.

3) Olmert’s position toward the Palestinians is somewhat more pragmatic than Sharon’s, who could not look them in the eyes. He may turn out to be more flexible toward PA President, Abu Mazen. Under him, Kadima will not remain the party of one man, but rather a political force that will play an important role in the foreseeable future.

Having said all that, however, we must remember that Israel’s stability, as it moves toward elections, is only skin-deep. Because the PA is so volatile, the flames on both sides may rise again at any moment. As long as the Israeli consensus is for unilateralism, the Palestinian response will also be unilateral. The test of Ehud Olmert, or of any Israeli leader who wants to achieve real peace, will lie in the ability to advance an agenda that can command a consensus on both sides. "end"

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