Israel's Dangerous Crossroads
In December, on the eve of the primaries for the upcoming Knesset elections, polls predicted that the Likud Party would get forty-one seats out of 120 and, together with the far right and Orthodox religious parties, would have a clear seventy-seat majority. Ariel Sharon was a shoo-in for a second term as prime minister, and was in a position to more or less dictate policy.
But as election day drew near, the Likud declined dramatically, to around thirty seats in the polls, and Ma'ariv, the most right-wing of the three major dailies, wrote that Sharon is in the "Battle of His Life." What happened? "Not peace and security," continued Ma'ariv, "not the question of a Palestinian state, not unemployment, not the rapidly deteriorating economic situation--it is the honesty of the Prime Minister that is on the line."
When Sharon was elected prime minister in February 2001, the country was four months into the second intifada, its economy was shrinking rapidly and there was no end in sight. The spin was that after an impulsive, scandal-plagued military and political career, Sharon had been transformed into a grandfatherly elder statesman who would responsibly provide security, peace and a rejuvenated economy to the children of Israel.
Sharon has not delivered on any of his promises. During the past two years, more than 700 Israelis have been killed, with more than 4,000 wounded (the corresponding figures for Palestinians is about 1,800 killed and more than 20,000 wounded); unemployment has gone from a low of 6 percent in 1996, during the heart of the peace process, to close to 11 percent at the end of 2002; people stare at the rare tourists as if they were exotic aliens from Mars; and investors are steering clear of the entire Middle East. There is no political vision on the horizon and still no end in sight.
Instead of providing a clear alternative to Sharon's inability to provide answers, the Labor Party spent the past two years compromising itself by participating in a paralyzing national-unity government that totally discredited the party leader, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, who was defense minister, and Shimon Peres (foreign minister) as viable alternatives. This paved the way for Haifa Mayor Amram Mitzna to challenge Ben-Eliezer for the party leadership. Ben-Eliezer in turn pulled Labor out of the government and forced new elections to shore up his position on the left in the upcoming party race; but he lost out to Mitzna, who became Labor's candidate for national leadership.
A former general, Mitzna does not mince words. Apparently unable or unwilling to play the usual politician's game of blurring his positions to satisfy the broadest public possible, he says there is no military solution to the conflict and that peace is the key to economic recovery. Echoing Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, Mitzna calls for a reorganization of national priorities, wants to transfer funds from the settlements to the social and economic infrastructure within the State of Israel proper and calls on the settlers to come home. Posing a clear alternative to Sharon's refusal to resume negotiations, he proposes a return to Rabin's dual approach of confronting terror while simultaneously carrying out negotiations with any authorized Palestinian representative, including Palestinian Authority (PA) head Yasir Arafat, declared persona non grata by both Sharon and President Bush. If those talks fail, he promises a unilateral withdrawal from all of Gaza and from the majority of the West Bank (a policy paper suggests 63 percent of the territory), the establishment of a temporary physical barrier to reduce terrorism (which Sharon opposes because it suggests borders) and removal of settlements on the other side of the barrier until the time is ripe to negotiate a permanent political settlement.
Until recently, the fact that the majority of Israelis support almost all of Mitzna's declared positions made no dent in Sharon's popularity, or the presumed outcome of the elections. Then came the Likud primaries and revelations that some candidates gained their positions through bribery, and were even associated with criminal elements. When the liberal daily Ha'aretz broke the story that Sharon and his sons were implicated in a campaign finance scandal, the prime minister himself was tainted. Suddenly, Mr. Teflon, to whom nothing had stuck during the past two years, was converted from "Grandfather" to "Godfather."