Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Wednesday, November 23, 2005
I haven't said anything about France.
I haven't said anything about Murtha.
If I don't say something about Sharon, I should probably shut down this blog.

Sharon's new party is currently polling as if it is going to win the next election. There would be more reason to doubt this if there were a plausible alternative party that could win. But I do not think Sharon's party will outlast his next premiership, if there is a next premiership.

Why do I say this? Well, Israel has a history of centrist parties that make a big splash and vanish without a trace. Moshe Dayan pulled a similar stunt decades ago, as did Yitzhak Mordechai in 1999. Why should this instance be different? Yes, in this case the sitting Prime Minister left to form a new party, and took much of the old party's leadership with him; that's very different. But Sharon is very old. Without him, what?

What does the new party stand for, other than a "responsible" stance with regard to the Palestinians (which, I suppose, should be interpreted as staging an orderly, fighting retreat to defensible borders, hopefully in the context of a diplomatic agreement but if not, not)? Does it have a coherent economic policy? A stance on religious questions? Views on governmental reform? Why did Sharon leave Likud - because of corruption in the central committee? We're talking about Sharon here, remember.

Historically, Labor was a socialist party, a pragmatic-nationalist party, and a secularist party. Over the last 15 years Labor drifted to the right on economic matters, becoming a "Third Way" party on these issues, and left on national and security issues, flirting with post-nationalism and appearing soft on terrorism. It consequently lost any chance of returning to majority, or even plurality, status in Israel. Amir Peretz appears to be taking the party back to the past - he's far to the left on economic matters compared with where Labor has recently been, and while he's historically been a dove he notably did not leave Labor to join Meretz when the option presented itself, and he's arguably not far at all from where the Israeli center is right now on security and national questions.

Likud, meanwhile, was historically a liberal party, an ideological-nationalist party, and a centrist party on religious questions - it had no religious agenda per se but was more congenial to religious Jews than Labor was. Sharon, though, has precious few economically liberal credentials (I'm using the word in the European sense) - in fact, Sharon knows virtually nothing about economics and cares less. Netanyahu was the authentic liberal. Sharon, as well, while always supremely hawkish and unilateralist, was never an ideological nationalist in the sense that he never believed in the "Land of Israel" ideology of Jabotinsky's heirs, of the Irgun, of Menachem Begin. Sharon has left behind in Likud the most committed economic liberals and all the committed ideological nationalists. How, precisely, does his new party differ, in any important way, from its opposition?

And let's not forget the other potential governing party in the Israeli center: Shinui, which is economically liberal, pragmatic-nationalist, and profoundly secularist - secularism is their religion. Tommy Lapid very nearly outpolled Labor in the last election, and if Israel is really turning inward now that the Gaza withdrawal is done, who's to say there aren't a lot of Ashkenazim and Russians who wouldn't prefer to vote for Sharon's presumptive coalition partner than for Sharon?

My point is: you now have three major parties with views on security and the national question that are not notably distinct - and these are the issues that have most profoundly divided Israel for a generation if not for longer. That's not tenable. Which is why I have a hard time picturing all three parties surviving for any length of time. And Sharon's new party has got to be counted the most vulnerable to collapse, because its appeal is primarily the trust that Israelis have in its founder - to lead the country on the most important questions, and not be hostage to ideology or narrow interest. That trust does not extend far beyond Sharon himself, if it extends at all. And Sharon is very old.

It will be interesting to see what happens on the fringes. On the Left, Meretz needs to come up with a compelling reason to exist. An economic leftist can vote for Peretz rather than Meretz; a secularist ideologue can vote for Lapid. It seems to me Meretz will have to distinguish itself on the question of dealing with the Palestinians or other "peace" issues - but it's not clear how much space there is to the left of the "consensus" on these questions. Meretz has historically been the source of "vanguard" ideas on the left that slowly propagate into the Labor "mainstream" - but until we know what is to become of Labor, it's hard to know whether that ecological niche is going to be available long-term.

On the Right, meanwhile, there are now three parties of stature who opposed the Gaza pullout: National Union, the National Religious Party, and what's left of Likud under Netanyahu. Likud has a very short time in which to prove that it is either something other than a clone of National Union or that it is capable of absorbing National Union. And then there's Shas, which had drifted very far to the Right on national and security questions but has recently tried to correct this. These three parties (apart from the NRP) will be jockeying for leadership of the right-wing opposition to the next government. (If Sharon loses the next election, his party will probably dissolve, and if he wins, he'll almost certainly govern in coalition with Shinui and without any of the parties to his Right.) I think it's unlikely, but it's not inconceivable that a strong and united bloc on the Right makes it impossible for *anyone* to form a government other than a grand "national unity" coalition such as just recently collapsed. Such coalitions are inherently unstable, and so a successful consolidation on the Right would further accentuate the proverbial instability of the Israeli political system.

That political system is in profound need of reform. The parties are corrupt, MKs and even Ministers have no loyalty or honor, the Supreme Court is lawless, and basic disagreements between Israelis about the fundamentals of their country's political system are magnified by that system rather than brought to some kind of reasonable compromise. This has got to change. I hate to say this, but Sharon's pet project - making the Prime Minister into something more like a President, relatively independent of the legislature - is probably a good idea, but only if the legislature itself is reformed so it can act as a reasonable counterweight to the Prime Minister and does not become even more factionalized and dysfunctional than it is now. And that is, unfortunately, profoundly unlikely.