Sharon’s Gambit

Ariel Sharon has always been an unlikely peacemaker, but his latest daring move – leaving the party he helped found to pursue peace is a move that shows just how committed Sharon truly is to the peace process.

Sharon’s incredibly bold move was prompted by the realization that Sharon could not govern within the structure of Likud. His former Finance Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu has been sniping at him over the Gaza withdrawal plan, and other members of Likud were also drawing their knives to take him down.

At the same time, Sharon’s split is also a politically wise decision. As economist Anthony Downs notes, the distribution of the electorate in a democracy tends to follow a bell curve – the party that can best capture the center has the best chance of winning the elections. Israeli politics has largely been a content between Labour and Likud since Likud’s founding in 1973, with smaller third parties like the secular Shinui having a chance to make or break coalitions in the Knesset. Sharon’s new National Responsibility party is trying to stake out the middle ground in Israeli politics. With Likud being left to hardliners like Binyamin Netanyahu, and Labour embracing the self-described socialist Amir Peretz, Sharon’s new party has an opportunity to claim the political center as Shinui did a few years ago when they came within a few seats of Labour in the Knesset.

The problem with founding a new political party in Israel – or anywhere else – is getting the infrastructure of a party going. Fundraising and voter recognition don’t come overnight. Sharon has four months until the elections in which to start essentially from scratch. While Sharon has the advantage of being a sitting Prime Minister, he still faces a significant uphill battle in order to keep his new party from being subjected to the whims of Labour or Likud.

In order to be successful, Sharon has to be able to govern, and when Sharon faces fire from both the left and the right, the stability of a future National Responsibility coalition is completely up in the air. Netanyahu would be unlikely to want to cooperate with his new political enemy, and Peretz would likely demand an end to economic reforms critical towards keeping the battered Israeli economy afloat. One of Sharon’s goals is to reduce the influence of smaller parties on Israeli coalition governments – however, his split from Likud could just as well further Balkanize Israeli politics.

The Palestinian issue continues to hang over Israeli politics. There cannot be any kind of viable negotiated settlement until Palestinian terrorism subsides. When groups like Hamas can continue to call for the destruction of Israel, there simply isn’t a climate for peace in the region. Even Fatah has the al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, a terrorist group connected to the ruling party of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon’s plan may be the most pragmatic at the time, but if he can’t deliver something approaching a reasonable level of peace, the chances of his party surviving seem slim.

The biggest problem with third parties is that they’re almost always driven by individuals, not ideologies. When Arik Sharon retires from political life in Israel, who will take over the National Responsibility party? The only thing making Sharon’s gambit viable is his own political power and relatively strong poll numbers in Israel – absent that it seems likely that members of National Responsibility would fade back into Labour and Likud or even another third party like Shinui.

All in all, Sharon’s move is likely to work, at least in the short term. The Israeli people trust Sharon, he’s effectively remade himself as a peacemaker in the style of the late and beloved Yitzak Rabin. Sharon’s move will shake up Israeli politics for the short term, but it seems unlikely that it will have a truly lasting effect. What is clear is that Sharon is perfectly willing to take great political risk to safeguard not only his own political career, but what he sees as best for the state of Israel. As the old saying goes, fortune favors the bold, and in terms of Israeli politics, there’s no one bolder than Ariel Sharon.

2 thoughts on “Sharon’s Gambit

  1. Great Analyisis Jay, there remain several issues that this new shakeup will create.

    1) If Sharon’s party is shooting for the center how will it distance itself from Shinui. They share similar economic ideas, and Shinui has become increasingly hawkish on security. I would guess the National Responsibility would have to push it’s lack of hostility to religion. Many see Tommy Lapid and friends as being far too anti-clerical. Also Shinui is almost entirely an Ashkenazi middle class party, and Lapid has in the past made racist remarks about Serphardim and Mizrahim while campaigning against Shas. The National Responsibility Party will likely include some Sephardic members. It was the defection of poor Sephardic voters from Shas that helped Likud last time. Where wil they go now. Perhaps to Labour Party, which has the first Sephardic leader of a major Israeli party in history in Amir Peretz.

    2) What becomes of the russian vote. I am unaware what position Natan Sharansky will take on this. The far right russian Yisrael Beitenau Party has been growing. I’d look for a loose election pact between Likud, the National Union, and the modern orthodox National Religious Party. They don’t share exactly the same aims but all support the settlement movement. However I would hope in the future that there will be a party which represents Modern Orthodox interests first and settlement interests 2nd, Mafdal has failed entirely in that.

    3) Labour has a larger Arab voter base than it used to. It has grown significantly and this is positive since it means support for fringe parties such as Azmi Bishara’s Balad and the United Arab List. Israeli Arabs might be a catalyst for change of power in the next elections. Especially since Labour’s current leader is a Sephardic Jew. And while it’s not a big voter block I am really curious where the Druze vote goes. Ayoub Kara is staying in Likud, Majali Whbee is going to Sharon’s party, and Salah Tarif is becoming more important in Labour. Traditionally the Druze have backed the Israeli center-right, but now their vote might be fractured.

    I also loved how Ayoub Kara was quoting Jabotinsky in his attacks on Sharon. A Druze MK citing a revisionist zionist, he’s really an enigma in many ways, a right wing populist.

  2. Hi,

    (Off topic, sorry don’t mean to be rude, but this is your only contact I have been able to find.)

    Are you still maintaining BlogGTK? The last CVS entry was about 7 months ago it seems.

    I recently wrote a blogging application for a client (just a small hobby) and had some help from browsing the BloGTK source code on Sourceforge. I have had the opportunity to write my own ATOM library for (only that for now). It is by no means complete. However, I would like to donate it back to BloGTK.

    Are you interested? Have you got an email I can send it to (even if just to get a look, and to take/modify whatever you need)?

    Cheers. Please reply via email (the Sourceforge interface was too clunky/slow).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.