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The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
October 2005

The Rebirth of the Israeli Center

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are engaged in what Israeli commentators are calling a political fight to the death for the leadership of the Likud.

On September 26, the 3,000-member Likud Central Committee will decide whether to hold early primaries for the party’s leadership. Netanyahu (and anti-disengagement "rebel" leader Uzi Landau) want the primaries in November, to capitalize on extreme right-wing anger at Sharon for disengaging from Gaza. Sharon prefers primaries in May, hoping time (and positive results in Gaza) will temper the extremists’ sentiments.

According to Leslie Susser, Sharon considers the Central Committee vote to be "a vote of confidence in him." And the Central Committee -- which is far more hard-line and right-wing than the general Likud electorate, to say nothing of the rest of the country -- appears to be leaning toward Netanyahu’s position on early primaries, if only by a small margin. Approximately 500 members are extreme right-wingers (many are supporter of Moshe Feiglin’s "Jewish Leadership" faction, which advocates "voluntary transfer" of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs), and are sure to vote for early primaries. Sharon is facing an uphill battle convincing the rest of the committee to wait until May.

This raises the possibility that within three months, Sharon -- the man who put the party together nearly 35 years ago -- could be deposed as head of the Likud.

Reshaping the Political Landscape

An upheaval in the Likud would almost surely cause the fragile national unity government -- built on and held together by support for Gaza disengagement and little else -- to disintegrate in time for elections as early as February or March.

What these elections would look like is tricky to predict.

Sharon could triumph in the Likud primaries and lead the party to victory in the general election. Few people, with the exception of the far right, are excited about Netanyahu’s candidacy – in fact, polls show that a Netanyahu-led Likud would win only 31 seats in a general election to a resurgent Labor Party’s 27. A victory in the primaries is obviously Sharon’s preference and explains his recent rhetorical shift to the right, aimed to appeal to Likud voters. In the past few weeks he has talked at length about his plans to "strengthen" Israel’s hold on the large settlement blocs, and he has backed up his talk by approving construction of the security barrier in its controversial route around Maale Adumim. Polls show that with Sharon as its candidate for Prime Minister Likud would maintain its 40 Knesset seats.

But if the rank and file Likud members reject Sharon, he would become a lame-duck prime minister, and one without a party. In this case, there is a good chance that he would leave the Likud rather than fall in behind Netanyahu or Landau. He might form his own center-right party, taking his allies from Likud, like Ehud Olmert, with him. Netanyahu or Landau would be left with a smaller, more extreme right- Likud. Running as a center-right candidate, Sharon would likely fare well at the polls: some surveys show Sharon taking 27 Knesset seats to Netanyahu’s 19. Israelis refer to this scenario – a split in the Likud - as the "little bang:" a revolution in rightwing politics, but not a change that would affect the greater Israeli political culture.

That leaves the possibility of the much-hyped "big bang." In this scenario, Sharon would leave the Likud and make common cause with Tommy Lapid of Shinui and Shimon Peres of Labor, forming a dominant centrist party, one that would need very little outside support to form a governing coalition. The moderate left and the moderate right – which represents most of the country – would proceed with a mandate unparalleled since the time of Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.

Moving Toward the Middle

The next government will likely have to make some of the most important decisions in Israel’s history. These decisions will determine the future of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the country’s borders, and its relations with the Palestinians (and perhaps even with the United States).

The polls reveal that most Israelis find themselves drawn to the political center, and not just on security issues. They are, for example, theoretically sympathetic to Netanyahu’s neo-liberal economic reforms, but uncomfortable with actual cuts in social services, the growing unemployment and poverty, and the ever-increasing disparity in wealth between the rich and the poor (the largest gap in the industrialized world). The same ambivalence aptly describes attitudes toward the peace process: most Israelis support the idea of a two-state solution and seek a territorial compromise, but, after the violence and terror of the second Intifada, have a hard time trusting the Palestinians and are wary of negotiations. That is why Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal was so popular, and why Israelis support further settlement evacuations in the West Bank.

It is not the public at large but the Likud Central Committee that will determine the country’s immediate political future. Some on the right are willing to commit political suicide for the chance to punish Sharon. Others see disengagement as a positive initiative that improved Israel’s strategic and political position, and believe that the Prime Minister should be rewarded, not shoved aside. And even some who virulently oppose withdrawal are not ready for elections in which they could possibly lose.

For now, it’s too close to call. But, like Sharon and his disengagement from Gaza, the next Israeli government will have to move to the middle if it wants to survive, let alone achieve some sort of accommodation with the Palestinians.

(Reprinted with permission from the Israel Policy Forum.)

David Dreilinger