An Israeli Rip Van Winkle who went to sleep in 1982--right after 400,000 Israelis gathered in Tel Aviv to protest then-Defense Minister Ariel Sharon's allowing his Lebanese Christian Phalangist allies to enter the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, where they massacred between 700 and several thousand Palestinians--would be astonished to wake up in January 2006 and discover an entirely different attitude toward "Arik, King of Israel."
He would be amazed to hear left-wing Meretz-Yahad Party chair Yossi Beilin--architect of the Oslo Accords and the recent Geneva Accord, which advocates a two-state solution based on the 1967 Green Line borders--declare that after the next elections his party would be ready to provide a safety net for Kadima, Sharon's new centrist party, to enable it to carry out further moves toward Israeli-Palestinian peace.
And now, suddenly, the Sharon era is over, even if the man is still alive.
Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start the Fire" could be the soundtrack for what's happening in Israel--a frantic series of events that have dramatically changed the political landscape. Last summer's disengagement of Israeli military forces from Gaza and the dismantling of twenty-one settlements there and four in the northern West Bank was followed by the surprising victory of Histadrut Trade Union leader Amir Peretz over Shimon Peres to become head of the Labor Party. While Peres had been a loyal (some would say docile) partner for Sharon's Likud in a national unity government, Peretz--the first Moroccan Jew to lead a major party, former mayor of the southern development town of Sderot and firm believer in the creation of a true social democratic alternative to the free-market policies of Likud Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--immediately took the Labor Party out of the government. Unlike Sharon, Peretz believes there is a Palestinian partner for negotiations, and he considers the settlement enterprise to be a tremendous drain on Israel's economy and society.
The loss of a Labor partner, coupled with constant attempts to undermine his authority by the anti-disengagement Likud "rebels" led by Netanyahu, triggered Sharon's decision to split the Likud--which he himself had initiated back in 1974--by forming Kadima to carve out Israel's "permanent borders" and a two-state solution, with or without Palestinian agreement.
And now, suddenly, Ehud Olmert is the acting Prime Minister, and everyone is trying to understand the implications for the upcoming March 28 elections.
Kadima ("Forward") was based on Sharon's tremendous popularity and reputation as a man of his word, someone who could act for both security and peace, the most experienced player in the field. Yet while Sharon had begun to assume the mythical (and also dangerous) proportions of a de Gaulle or a Perón in the eyes of the Israeli public, Kadima is not just a one-man show. It's a product of what is called the "Big Bang" theory, the idea that a realignment of the Israeli political map through the creation of a large centrist party would, in cooperation with the left, be able to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in accordance with the wishes of a consistent majority of Israeli public opinion.
At 60, Olmert is one of the most experienced politicians from the middle generation. The former Jerusalem mayor and current finance minister lacks Sharon's security credentials and charisma, but if the seasoned pragmatic (and opportunistic) politicians from both right and left who joined the new party unite behind him, Kadima may still be the dominant party after the elections. Olmert was also one of the first Likud politicians to enter into a dialogue with PLO figures, and he understands the need for a resolution of the conflict.
On the right, Netanyahu has taken over Likud, but he's caught in a bind. If he moves toward the center, he'll lose the militant forces who opposed the Gaza disengagement. If he remains on the hawkish right, he'll lose the pragmatic majority, many of whom are suffering from his economic policies.
On the left, Peretz may build a successful social democratic alternative in the long run, but he is now perceived as too inexperienced on the national stage to be "the leader" and also as someone with a tendency to be a one-man show. He has tried to rearrange the traditional agenda by focusing on socioeconomic rather than security issues, in response to the declining economic situation of most middle- and working-class Israelis and the growing gap between rich and poor. However, Israeli voters continue to rank peace and security as their number-one concern, and they expect that to be the leader's top priority as well. If Peretz is a quick learner, there is hope for a revived Labor Party in the future.
One way to understand current Israeli politics is to recall the "Group of 8" circle that set out to revolutionize the Labor Party in the early 1980s. Its ideologue was Yossi Beilin, and its wheeler-dealer and presumed prime ministerial candidate was Chaim Ramon, the man behind the Big Bang theory and now a prominent member of Kadima. Its key Mizrahi player was... Amir Peretz. All three are committed to promoting the peace process as a key to Israel's future.
Of course, the outcome of the Palestinian elections, scheduled for January 25, will have a major impact on the Israeli scene. A victory for Hamas would strengthen Netanyahu's hand. Part of Sharon's legacy is that he did everything possible to undermine and destroy the institutional infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority, to prove that "there is no one to talk to" and that unilateral moves are the only alternative. This, together with corruption, chaos and generational clashes, was the backdrop for Hamas's achievements in the Palestinian municipal elections.
But that's another (part of the) story.