Sharon Minus Likud Equals … What?

JERUSALEM – A reliable, pragmatic leader who is tough on Palestinian violence but willing to make calculated sacrifices for peace. A leader who does not trust the Palestinians, but understands that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank cannot continue in its current form. That is how Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will present himself to Israelis ahead of the upcoming election on March 28 next year. He will be hoping that the vote turns into a referendum on his second term in office, which has been dominated by the surprisingly speedy and popular withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. But as considered and as measured as Sharon will want to paint himself, there is no escaping the risks inherent in his decision this week to abandon his ruling Likud Party and set up a new political base.

Not that the former general is averse to risky exploits. In 1973, with Israel having been caught napping by the Egyptian army, which sped across the Suez Canal, Sharon led a bold counterattack, thrusting back across the canal and wresting the strategic initiative.

A decade later, in 1982, he masterminded Israel’s ill-fated plunge into Lebanon. In the 1990s, he engineered Israel’s settlement rush, only to begin undoing his handiwork three months ago with the evacuation of all the settlements in Gaza. Sharon’s latest gamble is no less daring. At the age of 77, with victory in the Likud leadership primaries and a third term in office beckoning, he has embarked on possibly his greatest political adventure in the twilight of his career. In the process, he has begun to re-sketch the Israeli political map, with its traditional dove-hawk political fissure. More than anything, Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud offers the clearest indication that the settlements he evacuated in Gaza are not the only ones he plans to dismantle.

The intoxicated smiles on the faces of his closest advisers earlier this week, just hours after the decision by their boss to bolt the Likud became public, were revealing: they had successfully persuaded 13 Likud lawmakers to break away with them, giving them the 14 (along with Sharon) they needed to ensure the new party receives campaign financing from the state. But, most significantly, they were free of the Likud "rebels" – the irate opponents of the Gaza pullout inside the ruling party – who for 18 months had made the prime minister’s life a misery. Sharon had calculated that even if he won the Likud leadership battle and a third term as prime minister, he would have remained saddled with a party brimming with opponents of any future plans he might have to evacuate settlements in the West Bank. The opinion polls were also attractive, predicting anywhere between 30 to 40 seats for a breakaway party under Sharon. In surveys published Friday, those numbers were holding firm, with the prime minister’s new Kadima (Forward) party being given up to 34 seats in the 120-seat parliament, the Labor Party at 26-28, and the Likud in meltdown at 13 seats (they have 40 in the current parliament.) If the polls are on Sharon’s side, history is not. Parties in Israel that have tried to snatch the middle ground have invariably failed.

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, broke away from the Labor Party in 1965 and formed his own list, convinced his founding-father status would be an electoral trump card. He ended up with just 10 seats.

In 1977, the Democratic Movement for Change, which hoped to play a centrist role, won 15 seats but quickly fell apart. And, in the most recent abortive endeavor to capture the elusive middle ground, several of Israel’s leading politicians and public figures joined to form the Center Party in the 1999 elections. After initial polls showed the party to be wildly popular, it garnered a paltry six seats. It no longer exists. Sharon, though, does enjoy advantages over his predecessors. In addition to his popularity, he may just succeed in tapping into what appears to be a seismic shift in Israeli politics.

Since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, right-wing, hawkish governments have predominated, but the public and the country’s leaders have lurched toward more left-wing, dovish positions. Sharon’s about-face in Gaza and the massive public support his plan received, is the most dramatic evidence of this shift. But if the Israeli public, in the wake of the second Intifada uprising, has begun to comprehend that continued occupation is unviable, it has also concluded that reaching a negotiated, end-of-conflict settlement with the Palestinians is not feasible for now. It is this sentiment that Sharon captured with his unilateralism in Gaza, and he will be hoping to tap into it again at the polls. Does this mean that Sharon is planning another unilateral withdrawal in the West Bank? He insists he is not. Speaking at a press conference earlier this week, where he fielded questions about the formation of his new party, he declared that the internationally backed "road map" was the way forward, and that there would not be a unilateral, Gaza-like pullback in the West Bank. But Sharon has never been enthusiastic about the road map, and unilateralism suits his view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It allows him to evade negotiations with the Palestinians during which he would face demands, on issues such as East Jerusalem and final borders, that he is not prepared to meet. With his Kadima Party, Sharon will try to capture the political center and depict the left-wing Labor and right-wing Likud as inhabitants of the unrealistic fringes of Israeli politics.

His departure from Likud has left it floundering. Less than a third of the party’s vaunted 3,000-strong Central Committee pitched Thursday night for the first gathering without Sharon. The glum looks on the faces of party leaders captured the wake-like atmosphere in the ruling party this week. The real threat to Sharon comes from the left, in the form of Amir Peretz, the Moroccan-born, firebrand trade-union leader who sensationally ousted Shimon Peres earlier this month in the Labor leadership primary.

Peretz’s election has rejuvenated a party that has been struggling to recover ever since the Camp David peace talks collapsed in July 2000 and the Intifada erupted just weeks later. His emphasis on social issues and his working class background could make him more attractive to traditional Likud voters than his Labor predecessors. Sharon’s plan of attack will be simple: paint Peretz as an old-style socialist on economic issues and as a reckless appeaser ready to make dangerous concessions to the Palestinians on the diplomatic front. Sharon’s bold gambit challenges the traditional Labour-Likud, left-right divide that has dominated Israeli politics for decades. His success in March will depend much on whether he has correctly deciphered the shifts in the Israeli political landscape that he believes have rendered these divisions anachronistic.