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Wednesday, November 30, 2005
Country Before Party

Prime Minister Arik Sharon, known for his legendary gambles as a general, left his a political party he found, the Likud, to make a new one, Kadima (forward).

But's that not the real news. Former Prime Minister and vice premier Shimon Peres has left the Labor Party, a party he's served as head of and prime minister of at least three times, to join Sharon's party.

This might not necessarily be a good a thing for Israeli politics and the peace process for four reasons.

One, there has been a Washington consensus around the Israeli question since Sharon formed a coalition unity Labor-Likud government. There are generally three splits in the political elite on who to support in Israel. (It is a virtually unanimously held opinion, outside the CIA and State Department, that American support for Israel should go unchallenged.) Hardliners in America prefer Netanyahu, who had a portfolio in the government until trying to challenge Ariel Sharon for power. The hardliners, however, remained appeased due to the formidable Likud presence in the Sharon government. Centrist Republicans and Democrats prefer Peres, the Olso peace process, and the Labor party. As long as they were in the coalition government, there was no reason to criticize the actions of the government. Finally, there were the realists, who supported the Sharon disengagement plan and the Road Map.

UPI offers that the breaking of this consensus will rock Washington.
By abandoning the Likud party that he helped to found 32 years ago and forming a new third party, Kadima, in the center of Israel politics, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has broken the consensus that held American politicians of both parties, from President George W. Bush to Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., loyal to the Sharon government. Even if they had qualms about Sharon, Democrats like Clinton were reassured by the presence of veteran Labor Party leader Shimon Peres in the governing coalition alongside Sharon.

But the Israeli coalition has broken, and along with it breaks the American consensus that has dismayed America's Arab friends, given al-Qaida such a strong propaganda weapon, and condemned the Palestinians to irrelevance or to intifada.

With three distinct parties now emerging in Israel, Israel's American friends are torn three ways. The dwindling band of neo-conservatives in and around the Bush administration, some of whom worked for former Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu, first came together in 1998 behind a strategy that urged Netanyahu to abandon the Oslo peace process. So long as Netanyahu and Sharon worked together within Likud, even as obvious rivals, America's neo-cons and the Bush administration could back them.

And so long as Peres was prepared to join with Sharon in the governing coalition that achieved the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, the mainstream Democrats were prepared to go along. Indeed, Clinton made a point of endorsing Sharon's security fence (which the Palestinians many others call "the wall") in her visit to Israel three weeks ago, and repeated Sharon's argument that it was now up to the Palestinians to stop terrorism.

All this is now ended. The Bush administration is itself split over whether it should support Netanyahu, who may not even be able to rule the rump of Likud that remains after Sharon's departure, or to back Sharon's new party. The neo-cons who still dominate Middle East policy inside the National Security Council in the White House retain their devotion to Netanyahu, but the State Department suspects that Netanyahu might be squeezed our as Likud leader by the former Army chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, and Sharon's new party might be the one to back. And the Democrats like Clinton now have a further choice, with Israeli's Labor party under the dynamic new leadership of Amir Peretz.

The point for American Democrats who support Israel, like Clinton, is that they now have political options that allow them to reassure their Jewish voters -- very important for Senator Clinton in New York -- while not necessarily having to support Sharon's hard-line views on the West Bank settlements. This also applies to the Europeans, whose foreign ministers have just been presented with a report from their diplomats in Israel that is highly critical of the Sharon government's barrier and his settlement policies, which the report says is intended to cut off Arab East Jerusalem from any real contact with the Palestinian West Bank.

The EU nations, whose troops are deployed in the region for the first time, monitoring the Gaza-Egypt crossing point, are becoming increasingly important in regional policymaking and in regional economics as Israel's leading trading partner. But concerns about their own Muslims in Europe are pushing the EU countries toward a much more active role in the Middle East and to much closer economic and political ties with the Arab governments around the Mediterranean.

So the era in which the Bush administration and Sharon between them decided the fate of Israel and Palestine is drawing to an end. The Bush administration is already starting to split over which Israeli faction to support, and the Democrats and the Europeans now have room to seize the initiative and promote a very different kind of peace process under very new conditions.

When the Labor party withdrew from the government after Amir Peretz became head of Labor, there was a real potential that the Israeli electorate and American elites would rethink our relationship to the failed pursuit of peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict. The UPI believes that Sharon's move will allow the EU to exercise greater flexibility. Shimon Peres' move to join Kadima and support Sharon changes all that.

Two, Peres' support not only complicates a renewed debate over the peace process within Israeli and American politics, it is also draws the upper middle class (generally Ashkenazim Jews), who would likely support Peres, against the poorer Sephardi Jews who usually vote for Likud but to whom Peretz is appealing for new voters in the Labor party. As the UPI details, Peretz is using his Sephardic credentials to bring those voters to him: "Peretz is a Sephardi Jew from a North African background, and thus able to appeal to that crucial voting block of Sephardi Jews, many of them working class, who have been critical to Likud's support. And by stressing social spending, jobs and wages, Peretz is trying to change the terms of Israel's political discourse away from security (where Sharon is so powerful) to economics (where Sharon and Netanyahu are very vulnerable)." If two problematic cleavages in Israel--the ethnic rivalries of the Ashkenazim, the Sephardi, and the Russian Jews as well as the class rivalries of the semi-socialist Israeli state--codify and crystallize into party affiliation, the Israeli political sphere could become even more fractured than it already is.

Three, Peres' departure takes those upper middle class votes from from the Labor party, which has increasingly started its outreach to Arab-Israelis. The extent to which Labor becomes a repository of rage against an Ashkenazim-dominated state is the extent to which Israeli discourse is going to take a dramatic turn, for the worst.

Four, and finally, Peres and Sharon's decision represent a consensus within the founding generation about their mistrust about the motives and abilities of the younger Israeli leaders.
The two men [Sharon and Peres] are both part of Israel's "founding generation" and they've been good friends for decades. Both Peres, who is 82, and Sharon, who is 77, have little faith in the new generation of Israeli leaders. They believe together they can secure some kind of agreement with Palestinians over the establishment of two states.

QUESTION: But isn't Peres' vision radically different from Sharon's?

RAZ: Yes and no. Peres would prefer that Israel withdrew from all the territory it occupied during the 1967 war. Sharon prefers to hold onto the major Israeli settlement blocs inside the West Bank -- accounting for about 12 percent of the land. Ultimately, both men share the broad goal of securing permanent borders for both Israel and the future Palestinian state.

QUESTION: Does Peres' support help Sharon?

RAZ: Yes. Primarily with upper-middle class voters who may be reluctant to vote for Sharon but trust Peres' judgment. Sharon can expect a boost from Peres' decision to back his continued premiership.

This is all to say: Peres is Sharon's blessing--and problem right now. Even though Peres suggested that he was putting country before party, many, on the left and right, have interpreted this as just another political move to guarantee his continued power.