Then came the big-bang idea. It was the brainchild of Labor MK Haim Ramon1: Sharon would team up with Labor’s Shimon Peres and Shinui’s Yosef Lapid to form either a new party or a new alignment. These three wise old men, the magi of Israeli politics, would draw most of their colleagues with them. A huge center would arise with the national consensus behind it. To the extremists on both ends, the outcome would spell “finis.” That was to be the big bang.
Shinui is now dead. The other major parties lick their wounds. No new universe has been created, but the kaleidoscope has turned and there is a new political map.
In the autumn of 2005, things did seem to be converging toward the big bang. Sharon had just made history by disengaging from Gaza, and it looked like he could get away with anything. America and Europe fawned at his feet. The public revered him. The rebels in his party, led by Binyamin Netanyahu, cowered like Satan and the fallen angels. On November 20, Sharon seceded from the Likud and founded a new party, Kadima. He established it in his image – without apparatus, rank-and-file, or clarity of purpose, but with a long list of friends, including many in Labor and Shinui.
Then the pipe-dream began to evaporate.
In the 2003 elections, on the strength of Lapid’s popularity, Shinui had risen to 15 mandates (making it the third biggest party in the 120-seat Knesset). Despite this power, however, it failed to deliver on its promises to the secular middle class. In the 2006 primaries, the rank-and-file rebelled, and Lapid resigned. The remnant then looked on as voters deserted to shiny new Kadima. Shinui failed, in the end, to cross the threshold into the 17th Knesset.
As for Labor, rather than settle squarely in the center, it replaced Shimon Peres with Histadrut head Amir Peretz, a self-proclaimed Social Democrat. Instead of following the big-bang scenario, Peretz pulled Labor out of Sharon’s government, proclaiming his candidacy for the premiership. The Labor bigwigs, Peres, Ramon, and Dalia Itzik shuffled over to Kadima, but other Laborites did not follow. Stressing the “social agenda,” Labor under Amir Peretz wound up with 19 mandates, three less than in 2003.
It was then Kadima’s turn to quake. Sharon had a massive stroke on January 4, 2006, and Ehud Olmert took the reins. Despite the Hamas electoral victory later that month (which some thought would shift Israelis rightward), Kadima held strong at first; the opinion polls predicted 38 mandates. In the end it wound up with a mere 29, not enough to lead the country to stability in its two major problem areas: poverty and the Palestinian conflict.
Olmert wanted the elections to serve as a national referendum supporting his plan for a unilateral withdrawal from parts of the West Bank. This would enable him to fulfill his ambition of unilaterally establishing Israel’s final borders.
He did not get the result he had hoped for. Excepting Kadima, no party, right or left, likes the idea of withdrawal without a treaty. It is highly questionable whether a Sharonless Kadima can lead. The party was tailored to Sharon. Its magnetism depended on the public’s faith in him as the powerful and benevolent grandpa who would take all responsibility off its shoulders, seeing to everything. He had become a colossus, “above politics.”
Sharon’s disappearance had three major effects on the election, as analyzed by Aluf Benn in Haaretz on April 6. (1) The turnout was extremely low by Israeli standards (63%). (2) Many disaffected youth, in protest against the petty politicians, cast ballots for the Pensioners Party, which for the first time in its history crossed the threshold (with a goodly 7 mandates). (3) The Knesset was sliced up into a congeries of medium-sized parties. “The issues that stood to be decided,” wrote Benn, “namely, the removal of settlers from the West Bank, a change in social priorities, and a change of leadership, were of crucial importance for the country’s future. But its citizens preferred to go to the beach, justifying this by their disgust with the ‘politicians.’”
F THE STRATEGIC goal of the big bang was merely to shatter the Likud’s right wing, then indeed we may proclaim it a success. The Likud had skyrocketed to power in 1977 with 43 mandates. The lower classes formed its chief electoral base. It had lost ground under Netanyahu, but in 2003, Sharon had restored its fortunes, bringing in 38 mandates. Then the party proceeded to cut the limbs it sat on. First, Netanyahu as Finance Minister, with Sharon’s support, decided to save the economy by cutting welfare funds to the party’s own electoral base. Second, when Sharon went to disengage, the Likud tripped over its ideology; a group of its Knesset members rebelled against the big vote-getter, spurring his secession. The Likud has 12 mandates in the 17th Knesset.
By ditching the Likud, the public showed how fed up it is with the “dream of Greater Israel.” Israelis are no longer willing to pay for the settlements. Does this mean, though, that they’ve shifted toward peace? Here again we turn to Benn: “In recent years it has become fashionable to claim that the Israeli public is ‘moving leftward,’ today supporting political ideas that were once the legacy of the Left, such as the Palestinian state. But that is only a partial picture, mistaken and misleading. The truth is, the public is making a pincer-like movement: its positions concerning the border move leftward, from “not an inch” to the line of the wall, while its positions concerning perpetual conflict, and the chances of ending it, move to the right. Israelis have adopted the pessimistic worldview of the Right along with the Left’s call for withdrawal from the Territories.” (HaaretzFebruary 1, 2006)
Beside the collapse of the old Right, a new Right has arisen under Avigdor Lieberman, a bullish, ambitious figure. His Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel Our Home) won 11 mandates. Lieberman touts a blunt, club-swinging, Russian-style approach and a racist anti-Arab agenda. That isn’t sufficient reason, apparently, for Olmert to exclude him from his coalition. He wants Lieberman in, both to offset the power of the Labor Party and to provide a pretext for hedging, if necessary, on his program of withdrawal from the West Bank.
The election results indicate a lack of trust in the political system, but they also portray a society that continues to shirk responsibility. Israel faces unprecedented social gaps and a regional political conflict that increases daily in cruelty and complexity. Given the cult of Sharon, few are ready to admit that he is largely responsible both for the poverty in Israel and for the rise of Hamas on the other side of his wall. Five years of war to annihilate Hamas, including the assassination of its front-line leadership, only helped lift it to power.
Sharon’s arrogant blindness to the Palestinians has also infected Olmert, who recently cut off all relationships between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It is doubtful whether his “Convergence (read “Unilateral Disengagement”) Plan” is feasible, but this latest device testifies to the endless Israeli search for escape mechanisms. The inescapable reality is this: there will be no peace until a Palestinian state has sovereignty over all the Palestinian land occupied in 1967.