The resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the ruling Likud party in Israel has set off reverberations not only within Israel but at the regional level as well. Many Israelis and Palestinians, both politicians and scholars, believe that Sharon’s decision to leave the Likud has brought about a political earthquake that could realign not just the political configuration within Israel but also have a significant effect on the peace process. His decision to leave the party ensued following intense opposition from fellow Likud members over the unilateral disengagement plan, which he had originally conceived. The plan witnessed the evacuation of over 8,000 Israelis from 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip and hundreds more from four settlements in North West Bank in mid-August, leaving the Gaza Strip under the limited authority of the Palestinians for the first time since 1948. In addition, the decision of the new Labour leader Amir Peretz to withdraw his party from the National Unity government also acted as a catalyst, thus hastening the next parliamentary election to March 2006.
The domestic political turbulence in Israel, coupled with suicide bombings, violence, and pandemonium within the Palestinian political arena, has left the peace process, or what is left of it, in shambles. The result of the next Parliamentary elections should, however, provide an indication as to the contours of any future peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Thus, Sharon’s political manoeuvring calls for a deeper understanding of Israeli politics, leaders and trends as well as a relook at some of his past actions. He was responsible for the establishment of the settlements, was a co-founder of the right-wing Likud party, was the mastermind behind Lebanon’s invasion, and was also held indirectly responsible for Christian militiamen massacring Palestinians in two refugee camps. However, by tempering his extremist policies in the past few years, he has tried to cater to national as well as international interests, thus validating the contention that the reasons for disengagement go beyond merely security concerns. Sharon’s domestic compulsions include demographic concerns about the emergence of an Arab majority within Israel, which would undermine the very essence of the Jewish state. In addition to this was the high cost of sustaining the settlers and maintaining the military presence in Gaza.
As expected by Sharon and his supporters, the security situation has not been very stable after the August disengagement. September saw increased hostilities between Hamas and the Israeli Defence Forces, confirming the fears and reservations of those sceptical of the plan’s success. These reservations eventually culminated in intra-Likud dissent and to Benjamin Netanyahu challenging Sharon’s leadership of the party. Though Sharon emerged the winner in this contest, continued opposition eventually forced him to leave the party and form a new one of his own.
The name of this nascent party, Kadima (forward), itself suggests that Sharon has defined its objectives very differently from those of the Likud. His centrist party aims to move away from the original Likud right wing extremist thinking, which includes blocking any further future withdrawals. And though Sharon himself has reiterated that there will be no further withdrawals, there is a sense that there could be some form of territorial compromise in the future in the process of striving for his goal to “lay the foundation” towards the “final borders of the state.”
Sharon’s decision to quit the Likud could also be interpreted as sending a signal that he has transformed himself from an extremist to a moderate politician. In other words, he quit the party because its policies and beliefs were constraining his ability to work towards a peace process as envisaged by him, through which he wishes to emerge as the leader who at last defined Israel’s borders. Additionally, Sharon was unhappy about leading a party that was ridden by dissent and constant struggle. His continued stay in the Likud would have made him a hostage to the policies of either the Left or the Right.
A public opinion poll conducted subsequent to his resignation by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz suggested that Kadima would win about 37 seats and the Likud Party reduced to a mere nine seats in the next parliament. This highlights the shift in Israeli public opinion: from considering the idea of a Palestinian state as a taboo initially, to understanding the risks and dilemmas involved in occupying Palestinian territories, and finally accepting the ‘two-state’ option. Israelis believe that Sharon is one leader who could forge a deal with the Palestinians without at the same time compromising on Israel’s security.
However, Sharon’s political agenda of territorial compensation does not imply that a future peace agreement will involve Palestinians and their interests. The ongoing construction of the fence, building of new houses in settlements like Maale Adumim (in West Bank), and the E1 corridor connecting this settlement to East Jerusalem and eventually encircling it, controlling Gaza's borders, coastline, and airspace and retaining the right to re-enter the Palestinian territory anytime at will clearly highlights the unilateral character and maximalist nature of Sharon’s political agenda. By sidelining core issues like borders, the status of Jerusalem, right of return, settlements, etc., which are the main bone of contention, Sharon’s purpose seems to be, to place the peace process in “formaldehyde.” Even the latest effort in peacemaking i.e. the Road Map has been consigned to oblivion by incessant violence and the exclusion of core issues from the negotiations.
But Sharon faces a difficult path to tread upon, as some of the challenges he faces include garnering enough support from other parties to form a coalition government led by Kadima, while at the same time attempting to change the trend of Centrist parties not performing too well in Israeli politics. In addition, he has to deal with his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas along with the ever-looming threat of Islamic fundamentalist groups like Hamas and their decision to enter the political fray. As an Israeli political commentator has stated, Sharon will have to “successfully use the Palestinian Authority’s inability to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist organizations and the rising political power of Hamas to resist pressure that may develop for a rapid and unsatisfactorily deal.”
These challenges have definitely been made a little easier by the support offered by Shimon Peres, the grand old man of Israeli politics and the former Labour leader, who joined Sharon and is backing him in his political endeavours. Thus, the next parliamentary elections will see three parties contesting i.e. the Likud, the Labour and the Kadima, in which the Labour party under Amir Peretz will stress on socio-economic issues, the Likud on an equal trade-off deal of land for peace with the Palestinians, and Kadima on preserving the Jewish majority within a democratic Israel. Here it would be pertinent to note that the difference between the Likud and Kadima is not over ideology but about the manner in which Israel’s security concerns have to be addressed; in effect, they advocate similar goals but through different means.
On the Palestinian side, Sharon’s resignation was perceived, in the words of the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, as “a volcano erupting.” But for the Palestinian man on the street, it matters less at this point of time whether the Likud or the Labour rules. What is more important is the time frame for, and the nature of, a future Palestinian state. The recent suicide bombings by the Islamic Jihad only reaffirms the fact that the peace process will continue to witness violence even as political negotiations carry on simultaneously.
The disengagement, Sharon’s decision to resign, formation of Kadima, Likud’s projected bleak future simply revisits the debate over politics continuing to dominate security and will have an adverse effect in the region. If Sharon were re-elected as the Prime Minister then one would witness the continuation of his policies. If the Labour comes to power under Peretz then security concerns would take a backseat to socio-economic issues. And Netanyahu as Prime Minister would definitely rule out any territorial compensation in the West Bank and adopt more stringent means towards the Palestinians. However, the result of the elections in March 2006 cannot be accurately predicted despite Sharon’s prevailing popularity, since three months are a long time for opinions, perceptions and leaders to change in Israel. One can only hope that the ongoing violence and political turmoil does not portend more tumultuous times ahead for the Israelis as well as Palestinians.