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.